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Steelrising (XS)

By Lee Mehr 11th Oct 2022 | 5,722 views 

Spiders' middle-market Soulslike harnesses plenty of soul and style, but several rusty gears impair its greater potential.

In a year when Elden Ring immediately captured so much attention, a middle-market developer releasing another Soulslike seems like a foolhardy move.  I'll be open and admit my own confusion with Spiders when its previous work, GreedFall, seemed like a great compilation of previous efforts to build upon.  Diverting resources towards a functionally different ethos not only draws immediate comparisons to From Software’s work but also the other clones standing alongside them.  How much you respect Steelrising for shouldering such a daunting challenge will likely influence how you assess its overall execution.

Set in an alternate version of The French Revolution, King Louis XVI rules with an iron fist thanks to his newfound robot army.  His barbaric tyranny won't even allow regular citizens to leave their homes without risking life and limb.  You assume the role of Aegis, a female robot bodyguard for Queen Marie Antoinette.  Being the only independently-thinking Automat who can also fight back, she's tasked with finding the royal children and ultimately stopping the mad king's despotic reign.

After deciding on her paltry cosmetic choices, you'll quickly be acquainted with this sub-genre's patented rules: every action aside from light jogging costs stamina, an empty stamina bar means you can't swing nor dodge, checkpoints have to be physically 'ignited,' using one resets all enemies in the world (save for bosses and sub-bosses), all Anima Essence (game's currency) is lost upon death but you have one chance to retrieve it from where you died, and so on and so forth.  If you're at all familiar with this template then you understand its intent to maximize punishment from direct hits, train you to elude attacks within a semi-second window (invincibility frames), and patiently manage stamina during openings.

The template is familiar, but the setting has a unique "clockpunk" flavor.  Its lacking technical prowess (while being 9th-gen only) doesn't distract from its atmosphere either.  Few places or people of Paris were spared from King Louis' wrath.  Once-bustling streets are now cut off by massive piles of rubble, and scores of bodies lay dead for each automat successfully defeated; in fact, outside of The Revolution's biggest players (La Fayette, Robespierre, etc.), the only other survivors you'll find are just voices bunkered within various buildings, sometimes pleading for you to spare them.

Although Aegis doesn't look like any other robot, you can forgive those civilians after seeing the variety of mechanical monstrosities laying waste to everyone else.  Whether they're a band of cougars or rotund goliaths armed with boiling pots, they all keep within a distinct clockwork aesthetic and sound design.  You can't help but breathe a sigh of relief when you don't hear any metallic footsteps and firing pistons nearby.  This design also compliments their telegraphed attacks, like their gears need a half-second to wind up before making a calculated strike.  Naturally, the grandest examples come from the previously-mentioned bosses (dubbed "Titans") secluded in their dens; for what they oftentimes lack in sheer difficulty they make up for in visual design and creativity.

Out of all the striking looks here, Aegis shines brightest.  Being originally designed as a dancer, her animations balance between robotic precision and well-oiled gracefulness.  Instead of clumsily carrying her weapons in a knapsack, they spring out and retract back into her legs or forearms.  Consumables are plucked out from the middle of her spinal column.  Whatever Colonial outfit she's wearing – be it French maid or Parisian upper-class – every style reveals just enough of her intricate functions underneath.  You can spot little details like her main battery glowing red-hot the longer she keeps running or her shoulder blades slightly opening and closing.  It's one of Spiders' best visual treats to date and among my favorite main character designs in recent memory.

That level of detail doesn't extend to the game proper, sadly. 

To its credit, one of its most advertised features can be discovered before the first cut scene: Assist Mode.  Any player can now tweak settings like speed of stamina regeneration, whether you lose Essence after dying, and more at the sacrifice of specific achievements/trophies.  Given how standard difficulty isn't very tough, it's hard to gauge how many will need these training wheels; that said, I can understand the trade-off for approachability’s sake.

An "approachable Soulslike" is woven into Steelrising's cogs and gears.  While the interconnected world continually grows in size and complexity, it's not important to remember landmarks due to an objective tracker (Compass) in your inventory.  Thanks to generous Aegis and weapon upgrade systems, you could be permanently content with a few starting weapons.  Aegis has a built-in system to replenish stamina: wait for a cooldown meter when you hit zero, time it as quickly as possible, and immediately replenish that chunk; relying on this will net you a frost debuff, or temporarily freeze you in place, but the trade-off is worth it.  Even the surprise attacks – paradoxically – rely on the safest playbook.

I wouldn't have major qualms with an also-ran Soulslike if done incredibly well either.  Getting lost in a world, every enemy squad putting up a decent fight, unlocking shortcuts, and expanding traversal options is a meditative routine.  But then issues of polish come up.  Fundamental annoyances like an inconsistent targeting system or the camera dizzyingly pirouetting between enemies occur too often to ignore.  The areas I'd dread the most were confined spaces against multiple enemies; fortunately, they're quite limited.

Beyond those important flaws, it's lacking in a couple of other areas.  For starters, abilities as simple as blocking or elemental charges are locked behind specific weapons.  Shield bash behind Aegis' heavy-hitters makes sense, but the other arbitrary limits inspired me to stick with ye 'olde reliables instead of testing every option.  As much as I love the challenge and visual design of an early boss, the wonky hit registration against their shield was aggravating.  A successful dodge and side hit would oftentimes register as a successful block for them.  It may not seem like much, but that inconsistent visual language would also get in the way when fighting other shielded minions too.

While some complaints can be itemized as Eurojank that's endemic for this studio, it goes beyond that when compared to something like GreedFall.  Sure, clipping through geometry and funny AI moments are bound to happen, but by the third time you're booted back to the main menu something has to give – especially since some checkpoints are spaced far apart.  I didn't lose a tremendous amount of progress, but the overall uptick in technical errors made me wish Spiders spent a couple of extra months in the QA phase.

There are sizable contentions to make with Steelrising's design and its better elements are often... fine enough.  The visual/audio design is serviceable, exploration with a full move set is enjoyable, the night-time segments are admittedly entrancing, James Hannigan's expansive soundtrack adds a nice layer to this atmosphere, and the foundation can still click.  I can’t forget those euphoric moments of landing a final blow with a mere eyelash of health and stamina left.  But those positives get a bit flimsier as repetition sets in and you're hoping to cruise past regular enemies to reach the next story beat.

Adjectives like "approachable" and "fine" map onto the story too.  Eschewing the intentional opaqueness typical in Soulslikes for a succinct A-to-B storyline compliments Spiders' intentions.  On the way to thwarting the king, you're saving a rouge's gallery of notable French figures exploring topics relevant for 1789.  Each one has a unique side-quest that expands the lore and several of which affect the ending.  Similar to GreedFall, the more complicated side-quests bring out the most in the level design and environmental storytelling.

It's no Great Shakes either, mind you.  Several plot revelations are telegraphed months in advance before the story decides to come right out and announce them.  There are also a couple of gaping plot holes that are never sufficiently addressed either.  Bottom line: if you can paper over adequate voice acting, lackluster presentation (with odd bugs like translucent wigs), quirky instances of macaronic "Franglish" sprinkled in the dialogue, and those earlier-stated critiques, then this revolution will keep your attention.

When considering its more modest goals, Steelrising should be treated as a well-intentioned stopgap between larger meals.  Yet, after fairly weighing that context and Spiders' stature, I’m still thinking about what could've been improved and expanded.  There's also been a rising tide of comparative titles – both in value proposition and awful names – within the Soulslike clade that might do more for you; however, its bundled strengths of strong art direction, atmosphere, and subtle design tweaks are at least worth a specifically-qualified recommendation.

Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.

VGChartz Verdict


This review is based on a digital copy of Steelrising for the XS, provided by the publisher.

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