Steelrising blends Bloodborne with 1789 France for a great Souls-like experience that welcomes both newcomers and seasoned vets alike. The Finger Guns Review:
Hidetaka Miyazaki must be sat somewhere in an ivory tower, lauding over the hundreds of Souls-like titles that have attempted to replicate the genre-defining mechanics he spearheaded way back when. How many game directors can claim to have (almost) single-handedly spawned an entire genre of titles from trying to get players thinking more during their play time? Not many, I’d assume.
If you’re like me and consider Bloodborne to be the pinnacle of these titles, you’ve been positively spoilt this month. You’ve already had Thymesia, for which you can read Greg’s glowing review. Now, you’ve been further bestowed with Steelrising, a fresh effort from developer Spiders aiming to bring the 3rd-person action to revolutionary France.
It’s always a tough foundry to navigate when imitating such an established and adored franchise, while also offering enough that separates your own title from the spate of other games trying to do the same. The potential for public perception to be a guillotine on years of effort is ever-present, but if you can pull it off, it can lead to some truly special experiences.
With that in mind, can Steelrising cement itself within the gluttony of Souls-likes or does it succumb to its melting point? Viva La Revolution, it’s time to mechanise and delve into the streets of Paris.
Paris From Aegis Ago
1789 is the backdrop from which Steelrising is set. Paris is your gloomy, destroyed and steampunked location to explore. The French Revolution has been and was subsequently quashed, with King Louis XVI having stamped down hard on the common folk to eradicate dissent to his rule. You awake as an Automat named Aegis, a loyal dancer-turned-bodyguard for the estranged Queen. The King has gone rogue, submitting swathes of Paris to an iron fisted (literally) rule using an army of Automat machines to destroy any who oppose him.
On orders from the Queen, Aegis must find members of the revolutionaries and attempt to overcome the odds to save various important figures and restore order to this ravaged city. Surprisingly for a Souls based title, Steelrising’s story has an obvious and very interesting hook from the off. There’s less of the vague and incomprehensible hinting of say, Dark Souls 1, and there’s a lot more cutscene exposition to guide your path. It was a refreshing change being able to actually follow and understand why Aegis is travelling to these places and killing various machines, instead of relying on a 3-hour deep dive video post-completion.
Moreover, Aegis, even as an Automat, develops a deeper personality throughout the run of the story. The revolutionaries you assist have their own motivations, backstories and histories which are explored through side-quests and you’ll reach the end unsure of who’s genuine and who’s out for personal gain. A couple of themes are slightly heavy-handed, such as the way racism is depicted, but the story as a whole makes sense and has enough layers that I was actively considering my actions and wondering who to side with.
Completing side missions and making a handful of key choices will affect your final ending which have some big ramifications for the future of France. I liked the way side content directly ties into these story beats, making them a narratively meaningful addition. Aside from some odd facial animations and a strange decision to have characters speak in English for 85% of the dialogue, only to add a random phrase spoken in French for no discernible reason, I really enjoyed the story. If you’ve found yourself lost and aimless in a traditional Souls narrative, you’ll feel more at ease and at home in 1789 Paris.
This Lille City Looks Nice
As you can hopefully tell, I appreciated Steelrising’s story a considerable amount. However, that belies the real star of the show: Paris itself. From the Palais du Luxembourg to the Louvre and the Bastille and beyond, Steelrising’s recreation of revolutionary France is fantastic. The architecture has had an abundance of detail poured in, from the interiors having little details like books strewn around or broken down carriages littering the glistening courtyards, there’s a certain je ne sais quoi that oozes throughout the level design.
Given that Automats now control the streets, you won’t run into many breathing humanoids, but that doesn’t mean they’re not around. Much akin to Bloodborne, you’ll speak to an abundance of NPCs through windows or doors. Sometimes they’ll be hostile (given that you’re an Automat too and they just watched Automats rip people apart) and sometimes they’ll be friendly. You can choose to help some of them or the conversation goes nowhere at all. The little interactions you have flesh out the world and help it develop a sense of context. They’ll even occasionally drop hints for what you’ll face in the next boss fight which is handy.
Playing on my PC, I had to sacrifice some frames in order to get it run as beautifully as it deserved, but the trade-off was worth it to see the flow of gorgeous flames and the immaculate details of the handful of levels. Animations are on the whole smooth with a sense of style, particularly playing off Aegis’ dancing roots as she flows into a flurry of assaults. In cutscenes however, I found some of the facial work a bit off and idle animations were quite wooden, but this pales when you consider the awesome effects and enemy design.
Provided you have the specs to actually be able to run this beast, you’ll be treated to a visual spectacle, but it will put some pressure on your machine. On low and medium settings I could hit 40-60fps, but I actually found it lost a lot of the appeal by not seeing Paris in all of its glory. It’s rare I’ll want to sacrifice frames for fidelity, but I think Steelrising just about makes it worth it.
Let’s get down to the real business here: can Steelrising match the Souls-like formula in terms of gameplay? Well, the answer is… mostly yes and kind of no. Before I explain that contradiction, it’s important to know I’ve played a lot of Souls titles and imitators, which will heavily influence your experience with Steelrising.
The basics are all present and accounted for. 3rd-person action combat with stamina to manage, light and heavy attacks, a special attack, dodging, counters, limited health restores, spread out checkpoints and losing currency upon death with one chance to recover it. All checked, all present. Enemies hit relatively hard and you’ll engage in a variety of one-on-one fights, gank squads and boss fights.
Levels are large with multiple winding paths that loop back in on themselves. Fret not however, as your path when starting out in each of the locations is relatively linear. A compass will indicate your general direction you need to travel, with other alleys or entry points leading to dead ends, usually littered with consumable items to pick up or collectibles to find. One of the best parts of Steelrising is the number of shortcuts you can unlock via gates, with an impressive lot of work to make these recreations of Paris locales feel like meaningful and well-thought out areas to play, not just explore.
It’s very reminiscent of Bloodborne with its hub areas and numerous shortcuts that link back together to a checkpoint, rather than Dark Souls’ big world with interconnected areas. There are areas that you’ll return to later once you acquire abilities to knock through certain walls or grapple up to otherwise unreachable points. It lends a slight tint of Metroidvania to it, with the benefit that locked-off areas are usually tied to side-quests, so you won’t have to aimlessly ramble around looking for them again.
Combat On Automat-ic
Eventually, you’re going to come across other machines which are less positively inclined to revolutionaries than you. In other words, it’s time for some robot wars, but with slightly more advanced technology.
There’s a wide variety of weapons available to choose from, whether nimble blades that are weak but deal a lot of damage fast, to hulking mallets that slam the pain upon beings that feel none. I started out attempting to be a tank, but quickly found the agile, mobile style much more effective. Combat feels initially a bit off as you come to terms with what appears to be a slower combat pace. Enemy Automats are on the whole slower than typical foes but they can hit hard and have longer hit animations that can outlast your dodge I-frames.
At first, I was a bit put off. It felt slightly clunky and unwieldy, but then it clicked after about an hour and I never looked back. There’s a decent variety of enemies that have varieties of attacks to consider, including tried-and-tested dog mobs that always, always, mess you up, but their animations are easy to read and their AI does become a bit predictable, particularly when you realise they have a few seconds window after any attack of doing nothing.
Which leads to an interesting issue. As a relatively seasoned Souls player, I was able to quickly suss out these caveats and I largely breezed through Steelrising, dying a total of 5 times, 3 of which were from falling in water and 1 of them from clipping underneath the map in a boss fight. By the end I had 99+ slow healing items (think gems from Dark Souls 2) and an abundance of resistance vials, throwable grenades and other things. If you’re new to Souls, it’s likely a decent entry point as it feels far less punishing or unforgiving as they typically can be, but if you’ve played a few you’ll quickly work out the exploitable opportunities for easy wins.
A case in point is the elemental system. You can both inflict and be afflicted with frost, fulmination (electricity), fire or petrification (think stagger) via weapons or throwables. Different enemies are both resistant and vulnerable to different types and will sometimes have weapons that will hamper you with these afflictions. It should create a nice balance of counter-play, prepping for an encounter and switching on the fly. However, the frost pistol you unlock early in the game is so OP it actually destroys the balance entirely.
When I fought the second boss, I could freeze him with 3-4 hits of the pistol, completely immobilising them and allowing me to get a load of free hits in. Charges for ranged attacks recharge so quickly that I could then refreeze them and rinse repeat this process 4 times till it was dead. This strategy works for about 70% of enemies in the game and after that boss fight I purposely restricted myself to not using it as much as possible as it otherwise breaks the game’s challenge. In some ways, the increased accessibility and options for emerging victorious are nice, but it did make completing Steelrising slightly less fulfilling than other Souls games. The combat is fun enough to hold up through the course of the game, but some further balancing would make it infinitely more rewarding.
The petrification or stagger mechanic lends the most from Bloodborne’s inspiration. Attack enemies enough in quick succession and you’ll quickly stagger them for a critical hit. Normally, you’d exhaust your stamina in that process exposing you to danger, but Steelrising has a nice wrinkle to this. When your stamina fully depletes, you can hit an action button to instantly recharge it, but it’ll inflict a significant chunk of frost elemental. Use it in too quick succession or against a frost enemy and you’ll quickly find yourself immobilised and exposed. Equally, should you miss the timing you’ll be stuck without stamina for another few seconds.
To this end, you’ll want to level up at your statue checkpoints to improve your stats. Weapons scale with certain attributes (which is a lot easier to navigate in this game) and you can improve your preferred death-dealing tools using essence and materials found in the world. Aegis can equip a variety of outfits and armours to synergise with your preferred playstyle too, so there’s plenty of room for experimentation and diversification. The attire looks pretty cool too, which is always a bonus.
By the end, my Aegis was a whirlwind of slicing attacks, staggering even the biggest foes and crushing the opposition with ease. I would have liked to see a little more variety in enemy move sets to off-set some of the autopilot that can kick in, but their creepy design with their jerky movements and twitchy animations does make up for some of that too. There’s a lot of care that’s gone into making Steelrising a more accessible and easy to navigate affair, but it also suffers from abusable systems later Souls games have perfected (like Margit hanging in the air for 59 years before actually smashing your head in).
A Lighter Grade Of Steel
In truth, I enjoyed Steelrising a hell of a lot. It has its issues and on balance it was probably a little too easy. For newcomers, I imagine the experience will be much more fulfilling. If you’re still a bit worried by the challenging nature of these games, there’s also an Assist mode which allows you to tweak the experience to make it more straightforward, which is great.
I spent 17 hours traversing this gorgeous vision of revolutionary, steampunk Paris and I enjoyed every moment of it. Around hour 9-10 you’ll unlock a host of side content that’ll expand the story and characters, while the core gameplay remains engaging enough to keep you hooked to the end. Unlike the disappointing Dark Souls 2 which prided itself on killing the player as many times as possible, regardless of the merit of those deaths, Steelrising is a much more restrained title, more interested in providing a fun experience than just celebrating “You Died”.
Does it have flaws? Yes, without doubt. In fact, it’ll make you appreciate why Miyazaki and co. have gone to such lengths to add elements like hit delays, continuous combos and more aggressive fights in something like Elden Ring, as you’ll see what happens when the player gets a little too comfortable with the combat systems that came before. Yet, despite the lack of substantial challenge, I just loved exploring Paris, figuring out Mirabeau’s or La Fayette’s motives and carving through an army of hostile machines.
Like Assassin’s Creed Unity, the best of Steelrising is probably its French inspiration and the world in which it takes place. Also akin to that 2014 title, its gameplay systems may go slightly underappreciated. Either way, more games should be based in France, good thing we have A Plague Tale: Requiem to keep up those lofty expectations soon.
Steelrising is a more accessible Souls-like which has plenty to appease rookies and veterans of the genre. A stunning visualisation of revolutionary Paris and a more direct story make for an engaging romp and while the combat has some balancing issues, it has the variety to remain interesting through its runtime. A Souls game with delicious French flavour, you’ll want to hear these people singing the song of angry Automats.
Steelrising is launching on PC via Steam (review platform), PS5 and Xbox Series X|S consoles on September 8th, 2022.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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