‘Steelrising’ review: les fleurs du meh

Spiders’ best game yet dampens absorbing art design and combat with a host of annoyances

Steelrising is Spiders’ latest action RPG, taking the tried-and-tested soulslike formula and bringing it to life with the trappings of the French Revolution and killer steampunk robots. You could argue that it gets the most important thing right. Combat – that is, the act of hitting an enemy with a thing and then getting out of the way of its counterattack – feels and looks great here. It’s just everything surrounding it that’s the issue.

Even while the occasionally gorgeous but muddled environments run into each other like cheap oil paint, the focal point – Aegis and whatever twisted automatons she’s fighting – burns brightly and vividly. There’s something incredibly satisfying in the way Aegis’ design fits with the souls-like formula, venting steam to regain stamina, or slicing and dancing with clunky grace – an imperfect facsimile of human movement. The pace and aggression of souls-like combat is always dictated by its lethality and availability of healing items, and while Aegis does have the move-set to negate or avoid damage entirely, there’s enough leeway here to be a little sloppy, a little reckless, and thus a little more relentless and fluid when pressing your attack.

Just as Bloodborne pressed FromSoft’s combat rhythms as close to Devil May Cry-style whirring, stylish character action as they’d go without breaking the fundamentals, Steelrising finds its fancy footing in a looser, more permissive space between genres. There’s no health regain system to invite bloodthirsty assaults, but visible stagger metres and long combos inspire the sort of stylish heroics that would get you killed in the genre’s stricter, more measured offerings.

Steelrising. Credit: Spiders.
Steelrising. Credit: Spiders.

So, aside from style, how else does Steelrising shake up the soulslike formula? A timed stamina regen system allows Aegis to refill her entire bar with good timing – at the risk of taking a massive hit of frost, one of the four elemental statuses. So, regain stamina too sloppily, and you’ll become immobile while you shake off the ice. It’s an engaging twist that would have me praising the stamina system if it wasn’t for the constant annoyance of having it tick down outside of combat, during regular exploration. Being told that you have to stop and wait to explore, because you’re out of a resource that only has relevance while in combat, is never fun. It’s a baffling decision that forces stop-and-start navigation of large maps, while adding nothing positive.

The other main twist to combat is ‘Alchemical capsules’, which you can think of as somewhat akin to Bloodborne’s quicksilver bullets. They work as ammo for pistols and special moves baked into melee weapon’s movesets, and they also fuel other special abilities Aegis will pick up along the way. The pistols, especially, are incredibly fun and gorgeously flashy, and add real depth to combat. The way ammo is handled – much like health items, see below – is a missed opportunity, though. Alchemical capsules are an infinitely stockable consumable, either dropped from enemies or bought from save point shops, adding more bloat to a system that could have felt tighter and less bothersome if they’d just auto-replenished in a set amount at each checkpoint. As it is, it encourages you to waste time to give yourself an advantage in combat. Using the player’s own threshold for boredom as a mechanic is always a terrible choice.

Steelrising. Credit: Spiders.
Steelrising. Credit: Spiders.

On its surface, the included optional assist mode is a brilliant addition. At any time, you can pop into the menu and tweak damage, stamina regen, and related modifiers. I’m sure some will take issue with these options just existing, and to those people I say this: If, tomorrow, the world were to suddenly terraform into a natural paradise, there would still not be enough touchable grass on the planet to cure what is wrong with you. It’s a great compromise, and I hope it’ll get some people in the genre that would have otherwise avoided it. But I will say that one advantage of a single, set difficulty mode is that it puts impetus on the designers to balance each encounter in a sensible way. And since Steelrising also gives you the option to grind for effectively unlimited healing items – something I thought we’d collectively decided was a bad idea back in Demon’s Souls – I fear some of the encounter design may have ended up a bit sloppy as a result.

This comes across most jarringly in the ever-divisive shitmob ganks. I’m not sure I fully agree with the oft-repeated truism that soulslike combat only works one-on-one. Elden Ring, for example, introduced a lot of fun crowd control options. Thing is, crowd control abilities in Steelrising are few and far between, turning fights against multiple opponents into goofy dodge-fests. Perhaps this is where the game intends me to use all those grenades I’ve been stockpiling, but if you design an encounter specifically to be solved with consumables, you’re courting disaster when a certain type of player (I.E me) is hoarding those consumables, terrified to use them, in a state of constant inertia. The ganking annoyance is lessened somewhat with a few ranged options, but feel overall awkward and unsuited to Aegis’ moveset.

Steelrising. Credit: Spiders.
Steelrising. Credit: Spiders.

And yet, I don’t think I’d have a real issue with these encounters if they didn’t ultimately feel like an artificial solution for a lack of enemy variety. Now, what’s here is great. A mechanical menagerie of whirring, stomping, slicing contraptions that verge just on the edge of horror. Just as with Aegis, the way these enemies move fits both their design and the fundamentals of soulslike combat – all clunky, telegraphed violence. Their animations even solve that age old issue of immersion breaking tracking attacks, by having realistic movesets for protecting their backs and sides. There’s just not enough of them. By the time I’d hit the halfway mark, I felt like I’d seen everything the game had to offer, save a few visually interesting but underwhelming boss fights.

As Aegis progresses, she’ll soon gain two key traversal upgrades that open up Paris’ wide, interconnected levels. A mid-air dash jump, and a grappling hook. Unlike in say, a well designed metroidvania, no hint is ever given that you’ll find these items, which resulted in considerable time wasted looking for routes to get to objective markers the game didn’t bother to inform me were currently unreachable. Fool me once. Once acquired they do allow for some impressively vertical level design, stuffed with suitably Souls-ian shortcuts, but Steelrising’s environments are rarely visually distinct enough to let you mentally map these areas. What I’m saying is, I got lost a lot. And not in a fun, thematic, twisting streets way. More like, I’m five years old in the supermarket and I can’t find my mum and I want to cry because this is bollocks way.

The story remains reasonably compelling, mainly by virtue of being set during an interesting time period, and also having killer automatons. Spiders’ dialogue tree RPG roots make themselves known with a fair bit more enthusiasm than they probably should, and while it’s admirable to flesh out a winding political backstory, the action rhythms don’t compliment stopping to read the long letters scattered about the place. More successful are allusions to the romantic poetry-adjacent Frankenstein alongside the French Revolutionary setting that the romantics found so much inspiration in. As far as delivery goes, the game makes the hilarious choice to have characters speak entirely in English, sometimes with cockney accents, and then throw in the odd bit of French. It is every bit as entertainingly jarring as you’d expect when Robespierre says some shit like “‘ello love, fancy using that flamethrower attachment to cook me an Omelet Du Fromage?”, or whatever. He doesn’t say this, but he should.

Aegis’ voice performance, however, is excellent. A plus, since she constantly exposits to herself about her next objective. But the way she speaks is like some uncanny AI trained on ASMR videos – unnervingly soft spoken, always 99 per cent human. Her personal story – or what small part it plays in a mostly political narrative – is a highlight, too. It adds some much needed heart to what, otherwise, can feel like an overly artificial construct.

Steelrising launches on September 8 for PC, PS5 and Xbox Series X|S.

The Verdict

It’s hard to fault the stylish, moment-to-moment combat in this confident souls-like. Unfortunately, most of what surrounds it – from the muddied level design to a host of frustrating quality-of-life choices – dampens the experience.

Pros

  • Each automaton you fight is stylish, creepy, and visually inventive
  • Aegis’ moveset is varied, fluid, and impactful
  • The inherent halting clunkiness of the soulslike formula is utilised to great thematic and visual effect

Cons

  • Lacking enemy variety and mob fights feel uninspired and poorly balanced
  • Level design is occasionally beautiful, more often muddied and baffling – an attempt to mimic Souls interconnectedness gone wrong
  • A host of small quality of life decisions add up to something genuinely frustrating
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