Review – Steelrising
Spiders is a studio I deeply respect. Even though they are known for two games, both of them were really interesting in different ways. The Technomancer was a low-budget attempt at making a Mass Effect clone, and it was extremely janky and unpolished. Still, you played as a freaking thunder wizard from Mars, and that alone made it more enjoyable than it had any right to be. Then came GreedFall, a game I still consider one of the best RPGs of the previous generation, with a great setting, story, and gameplay. It was a game that made me look forward to anything else Spiders would come up with later down the line. That game would end up being Steelrising.
After two games inspired by Bioware’s previous outings, Steelrising is Spiders’ attempt at making a soulslike. That alone was a bit worrysome, for the sole reason of us currently living in a post-Elden Ring world. I knew I had to dial back my expectations after experiencing a game that pretty much felt like the ultimate, “you don’t need any other title in the same style” game in the genre. But Spiders always knows how to intrigue players with unique premises. The Technomancer was about space wizards. GreedFall was all about the Age of Discovery with fairies and monsters. Steelrising is no different.
If anything, you will want to play this game for its premise. It’s about the French Revolution, with characters like Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, Cagliostro, and all of your favorite names you have to memorize in 9th grade. But with robots. Yep, robots. The game takes place in an alternate reality where Louis XVI, when threatened by the sans-culottes and other revolutionaries, decided to counter attack them by unleashing an army of half-steampunk, half-alchemic robots, which results in the destruction of Paris as we know it. You play as one of these robots, Aegis, who is Marie Antoinette’s personal bodyguard, modified with the ability to talk and the ability to think. When the Queen asks you to seek out and find Louis XVI’s whereabouts, your story begins.
Creating a unique world is Spiders’ forte, and Steelrising‘s world is their best so far. It’s amazing how they have managed to achieve this mesh of 18th century cyberpunk storytelling, Fullmetal Alchemist-esque elements, and alternate retellings of historical events in a quasi Assassin’s Creed way, all while maintaining the Souls tradition of improving the world’s lore with item descriptions. There are lots of cutscenes and additional documents to unveil, however, making the world even more believable, despite how bonkers it is. You will want to play the damn thing to the very end for that reason alone, despite the jank that is expected from a AA game like this.
The gameplay is a department where Steelrising shines… until it doesn’t. It’s full of great ideas, namely a ton of varied weapons that completely differ from one another in terms of how they can be used against enemies. For instance, I favored a build comprised of a pair of steel fans that could be used as a parriable shield, as well as a long-range whip which could be lit on fire, dealing elemental damage against other long-ranged enemies, and boy, are there plenty. I also really liked how the game tied Aegis’ stamina bar to an overheating mechanic sorts, given how she’s a robot, and how you can increase your cooldown with specific buffs. You can create tons of different builds, incentivizing replayability.
The problem lies in the game’s execution. None of them are complete deal-breakers, but the sheer amount of small inconveniences and questionable design choices weigh the game down a lot. For starters, the combat is a bit sluggish. Maybe we are just too used to the sheer fluidity of some bigger-budgeted soulslikes, but the slower pace of Steelrising‘s combat is noticeable, especially considering how nimble Aegis is OUTSIDE of combat.
The biggest issue I had with it was its progression system. Just like Dark Souls and its brethren, you collect an experience-esque macguffin in order to level up. In this case, you collect “anima” (which is Latin for “soul”, subtly enough). So far, so good, right? Well, the problem lies on the ridiculous amount of anima needed to level up once. Steelrising‘s progression is just unfair, which is ironic coming from a game boasting about its accessibility options and really easy-going first bosses. You need way too much anima to level up, and not enough enemies are scattered throughout a level in order for you to constantly grind. You need to respawn them over and over and over again, which eventually becomes a nuisance.
That nuisance is elevated by the bizarre difficulty spikes you’ll face every now and then. Even though, once again, Steelrising boasts about being fair for newcomers (and well, it is, in a way), it likes to shove some bizarrely spongy enemies at you from out of nowhere. It wants you to grind like crazy, forcing you to remain in any given area of the game for much longer than anticipated just so you can farm enough XP in order to level up a few times. Or you can just spend that money on a ton of grenades and kill bosses with relative ease. It’s not fun, but hey, it’s doable.
A good presentation is always a tricky subject in a AA game. There’s always that fine balance between a decent performance and visuals that look better than what you usually get from the indie space. For instance, GreedFall had great art design, but some cheap animations and the occasional framerate hiccup. That said, Spiders’ previous games were designed with the PS4 and Xbox One in mind. Steelrising is a PS5 and Xbox Series S/X exclusive; their publisher did not force the team to make compromised last-gen ports as well. That sounds excellent, and it is, but don’t expect this game to look and feel like what we want from PS5 titles from now on.
Steelrising is a pretty game. I love its world design, I love its lighting effects. I even enjoyed some of its “clunkier” animations, as they are made up by the fact that you are controlling an 18th century robot. Eventually I resorted to playing it in performance mode, resulting in a sublime 60fps, at all times. It does take advantage of a beefier hardware in order to brute force it to a really stable state, but that doesn’t mean it LOOKS like a PS5 game at all. We’ve seen better titles on the PS4 alone, although I have to commend Spiders for coming up with some sharp designs and performance with such a small team. I just didn’t like some of the enemy designs… everyone is a god damn robot, and it does get tiresome after a while.
I only have a few nitpicks regarding Steelrising‘s sound design, but before I dive into what I think Spiders should have done with it, let me clarify that I really enjoyed the soundtrack (especially during boss battles) and its voice acting. There are lots of dialogue scenes, and for the most part, everyone does a good job.
With that said, I have a gripe with it. A ton of lines in Steelrising feature a dumb cliché of shoving in some random French words alongside its standard English (as in, British English) voice acting. It feels cartoonish at times. After playing games like Ghost of Tsushima, a Western-made game, in Japanese, I do agree that the original language of a game’s setting improves its immersion a lot. That’s why I think Steelrising would have been a lot more immersive and interesting if there was an option to play it with French voice acting, instead of dealing with a handful of cockney blokes uttering a “sacre bleu” every now and then.
It’s a bit janky and it has some questionable design choices, but Steelrising is yet another pretty good effort from Spiders, solidifying the small French studio as one of the most interesting developers in the industry nowadays. Its absolutely unique premise, mixing the freaking French Revolution with robots and Dark Souls, is the main reason you’ll want to play it. Even though it has some progression and level design issues, as well as a bit of AA jank, it’s still well worth your time. Just remember to dial down on your soulslike expectations in a post-Elden Ring world.
A superb-looking and well-animated game if it were a PS4 title. It’s still pretty and impressive for PS5 standards, but we’ve seen a lot better so far.
I really enjoyed the varied gameplay styles the game offers, and the combat does click once you get a hold of it, but I had issues with Steelrising‘s overall responsiveness, camera, and progression system.
The soundtrack is really good, and so is the voice acting, but I think the game would have been a lot more immersive with a French VA option. It would have been better than dealing with British actors shoving some random French words in their dialogue sections.
Steelrising‘s absolutely unique premise is the main reason you’ll want to play it. Even though it has some progression and level design issues, as well as a bit of AA jank, it’s still worth your time. Just remember to dial down on your soulslike expectations in a post-Elden Ring world.
Final Verdict: 7.5
Steelrising is available now on PS5, Xbox Series S/X, and PC.
Reviewed on PS5.
A copy of Steelrising was provided by the publisher.