STAFF REVIEW of Steelrising (Xbox Series X)

Wednesday, September 7, 2022.
by Adam Dileva

Steelrising Box art Developer Spiders may not produce massive AAA titles, but they have a distinct style and I’m always going to be excited for their releases. Ever since 2019’s GreedFall, which I absolutely loved, I've been eagerly awaiting their next release. Well, that time has come, as their latest title, Steelrising, is now here. I’ll admit, when I first saw the trailer for Steelrising I was quite impressed with its unique premise and setting, especially since it was coming from one of my favorite developers, but then I became a little more cautious and apprehensive once I realized it was going to be a Soulsborne, a genre I generally don’t enjoy due to its difficulty. Now if you’re like me and tend to shy away from Soulslike titles, don’t worry, as developers have given some options to make it much more approachable for those that don’t want to be forced into a difficult challenge, but more on that shortly.

Steelrising may draw many similarities to others in the genre due to its combat and mechanics, but it certainly has a unique backdrop and setting that I thoroughly enjoyed start to finish. Set during the French Revolution, you’ll explore iconic locales such as Saint Cloud, Luxembourg and Bastille Versailles among other cities. While this setting isn’t utilized often in gaming, what really makes Steelrising stand out is its alternative take on historic events, as it has a mixture of Steampunk, Teslapunk and Clockpunk subgenres as well.

Paris 1789, this alternative take on the historic French Revolution tells a story about King Louis XVI and how he’s gone mad after commanding a legion of mechanical robots called Automatons. Exemplary engineer Vaucanson was the one who designed and created these Automatons, but not initially for these destructive reasons, as the city of Paris is now burning and crumbling. Citizens are revolting, but they are no match for these Automatons, and as a result are being slaughtered if they are found. Following the King’s orders, there seems to be no one or anything able to stop this destruction and massacre. Who can possibly stop this tyrant King? That’s where you, Aegis, comes in.

Changing the course of factual history, Queen Marie-Antoinette is introduced to her new bodyguard, Aegis, an Automaton that resembles a nimble and royal mannequin, but one that is able to speak and have reason, self-aware and intelligent. Originally designed as a dancer, Aegis only follows Antoinette’s orders and has a surpassingly amount of combat capability given that she was designated as her bodyguard. Unable to leave the palace, Antoinette tasks Aegis with heading to the docks to sail for Paris so that she can search for her missing children and to find your creator, Vaucanson, as it seems he might be the only one that will be able to stop the Automatons since he was their designer.

Along Aegis’ journey you’ll meet other historical figures such as Robespierre and Lafayette, amongst others. You’ll have quite a challenging journey as you try to stop the Mad King, as every Automaton along the way will be trying to destroy you. The French Revolution backdrop combined with the clockpunk setting melds together absolutely perfectly, creating an alternative history that was a treat to explore.

More than simply a sentient robot narrative, Aegis has more about her that you’ll learn along the way. You’ll help save and recover people that stood up to the King, finding more about what happened and learning each step of the way where you’re next target or person of interest will be. That’s oversimplifying though, as you’re going to have to battle numerous enemies around almost every corner, which is where the Soulslike gameplay comes in. You’ll customize your Aegis at the beginning, choosing the basics like her wig, ‘skin’ color and material like what type of metal parts of her are made out of before you leave the Palace for the capital city.

Before I get into the core gameplay and mechanics, I needed to dedicate a section for the developer’s conscious decision to make Steelrising approachable for anyone that wants to play it and see it to its conclusion, regardless of their skill. I’ll admit, I generally don’t enjoy Souls games simply because of their high difficulty, as I don’t have the patience to die over and over to finally progress. To me that’s not fun, but I totally understand why they are also so popular because of these reasons as well. I usually become discouraged because of the genre’s difficulty, so I was elated to see that Spiders made a way for players like myself that wanted to enjoy the game without any of the frustration should I choose. While I’m completely aware this is a polarizing topic where you’re supposed to ‘Git Gud’, but with the inclusion of an Assist Mode, Steelrising truly is a game for all players, hardcore to completely casual.

More than simply having Easy, Medium and Hard difficulties, you are instead able to balance the game to whatever your preferred liking is across a number of different settings. The settings you can toggle are Reduce Damage (0% to 100%), XP lost upon death (Yes / No), Improve Stamina Regeneration (0% to 300%), Activate Easy Cooling (Yes / No). These adjustable settings allow you to play however you want. Want to be invincible to learn the game in the beginning? Go ahead. Want to not lose all your currency when you die? Sure thing. These can be toggled on/off or adjusted whenever you like, so as you become more comfortable with its mechanics and gameplay, you can turn down the sliders to make it more of a challenge should you want to. Not knowing there was an Assist Mode included, I was initially worried I’d not be able to see Steelrising to its conclusion, but thankfully because of the developer’s commitment to inclusivity, I was indeed able.

Yes, my first playthrough was having many of the assists on, slowly turning them down as I become more comfortable and confident, and now I’m working on my next playthrough with no Assists. Some might scoff at adding these assists, but it made me going from being apprehensive about the game because of its perceived difficulty and genre, to being able to enjoy its story and narrative without having to spend hours becoming frustrated. I also believe they’ve found a great middle ground, as turning Assist Mode on disables any achievement earnings, which I believe is fair compromise.

After creating Aegis the way you want her to look from the limited options, you then choose one of four classes. These give you different starting stats and weapons, suited for different styles of play. Bodyguard is your heavy weapon user that is strong but slow, Soldier does more physical damage but less resilient, Dancer uses two metal fans that can combine to be a shield as you move around and attack very quickly, and lastly the Alchemist that specializes in chemical weapons that ignite, freeze or electrocute enemies with ease.

Aegis will explore numerous settings and areas, and while the level design is generally linear, there is of course some minor branching paths that will house many secrets, enemies and more. You can’t really go a ‘wrong’ way but there are many dead ends that somewhat funnel you down the correct path. There’s no map though to navigate, so you’ll need to be aware of where you’ve previously been. You’ll come across many locked doors and paths, but once you explore and find a way around, you can then unlock said doors and thus opening more shortcut paths for the future when you come back later with new abilities. Each level and area is quite large and the interconnectivity is done quite well, even if there’s not too much verticality to its design.

As you reach specific story parts and beat specific bosses, you’ll earn new abilities that allow you to traverse to new areas in a number of different ways. First you’ll unlock a mid-air dash, allowing you to cross larger gaps and get over certain fences that block your path. Your next upgrade allows Aegis to power kick through weak points on specific walls, usually hiding your next path or a secret. Lastly you’ll get a grapple hook that can be used to traverse on specific attach points, very reminiscent of Sekiro’s gameplay. Even better, all of these traversal abilities can also be used in combat for specific situations as well.

To say that Steelrising takes heavy inspiration from other Souls games is putting it mildly. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it feels like a cheap copy like others sometimes feel, but if you’ve ever played a Soulslike before, you’re going to know what to expect for its core mechanics. You have a health and stamina bar that needs to be managed, though your endurance bar is more attached to your overheating since you’re a robot after all. Deplete this meter and you’ll be unable to act for a short period, though thankfully you’re able to vent your heat. This is done with a clever ‘active reload’ mechanic, where if you hit the button at the right time, you’ll get your endurance back much quicker. Instead of bonfires to rest and level up at, you search and find Vestals. Here you’ll spend your hard earned Anima Essence (essentially your souls) on leveling up, upgrading Aegis or purchasing new weapons and armor. Like other Souls games, using Vestals will also reset enemy placements but also refill your health.

Being an Automat, Aegis can be upgraded in numerous ways. You can spent you Anima Essence on improving your specific attributes, leveling you up every time you do so, but you’ll also have four separate different module slots that you can place different upgrades into. Some of these will improve your health, maybe give you more damage when low on health, add more armor and a handful of different options. Each of these slots start at tier 1, able to be upgraded to tiers 2 and 3 for much more powerful improvements if you can gather enough special keys to do so.

At these vestals you’re also able to upgrade your weapons, not only requiring your precious Anima Essence but also a number of different materials as well, some of which you’ll need to do some exploring or beat some nasty enemies to collect them from. Instead of an Estus Flask you instead have a Burette which can also be improved to heal more health or have more doses. Aegis will also find a collection of different armor and clothing along the way, each looking quite distinct and unique from one another and having different attribute improvements. You’ll be able to mix and match hats, chest, legs and boot slots for Aegis, making her look quite intriguing, royal and fancy depending on your choice.

What is a Soulslike without its challenging and unique combat though? Steelrising is no different, having Aegis fight against a seemingly endless army of Automatons. Much like Sekiro and Bloodborne, Steelrising rewards you for fighting more aggressive, though of course you’ll need to be able to dodge, parry and block if you want to survive. Each enemy has different attack patterns that you must learn to counter and avoid if you want Aegis to survive, with bosses, called Titans, testing your skill and patience.

There are 8 different categories of weapons with more than 40 different choices, ranging from Fans, Chains, Claws, Maces, Halberds, Dual Swords, Tonfas and Wheels. Each weapon also has its own special move that could be a block, parry, counterattack, ranged attack, ice infusion and more. The weapons all feel so unique and change the gameplay quite drastically, so it’s definitely worth experimenting with. I initially started my Dancer off with the fans, eventually switching up to some claws for the fast combat attacks.

When it comes to combat, you have light, heavy and charged attacks, as well as the special move for your weapon. You also equip two weapons of choice, allowing you to quickly swap on the fly between them based on your situation. For example, I used my range weapons to try and freeze my enemies before they got to me, then switching to my claws for a barrage of quick attacks before I dodge back out and gather my composure. If you don’t run, you’re also able to sneak up behind unsuspecting Automatons for a massive attack.

Enemy design is done quite well as it’s very steampunk inspired and range from quick fodder to hulking Titan bosses. While the enemy types are somewhat limited and repeated throughout Aegis' journey, it at least makes sense given the narrative and robot army setting. Early on you’ll fight one enemy at a time, but in the later stages you can expect to battle against a few simultaneously which is where you’ll need to rely on your combat prowess to be successful. There is a camera lock which works well for the most part, but can get a little finicky in the more chaotic fights when you need to swap from target to target while locked on.

Steelrising has some amazing and gorgeous vistas when you take a moment to stop Aegis from battle and exploration and simply take in the sights. The landscape of France is quite a sight to behold even though its burning, destroyed and there’s a massacre happening. The lighting and shadows has improved leaps and bounds from their last game and each area had its own style and tone of scenery. It’s obvious that the developers took a lot of time to study the era, as the whole experience feels just as I would imagine the French Revolution would for that time period, but with robots. Human characters on the other hand aren’t as equally impressive, having stiff animations and a lack of emotion even in the most dramatic cutscenes. That said, the voice acting across the board was absolutely fantastic, especially Aegis, sounding robotic given her creation, but with some soul and humanistic nature. The soundtrack is fitting, adding a tone that suits the backdrop and setting, and weapons sound impactful and distinct, especially when you hear weapons clanging off of the Automatons.

For how much I enjoyed Steelrising for its approachability and gorgeous backdrop, there were some issues along the way. Even on an Xbox Series X, there were some massive framerate issues in certain sections, not often, but enough to make note of. Oddly enough, this even happened during some cutscenes, but given that I was playing through weeks before the official launch without the day 1 patch, I’m going to assume this will only improve now that it’s released.

Steelrising is easily Spider’s most ambitious work and I can’t applaud them enough for the unique setting and backdrop, even if the core mechanics are what we’ve experienced dozens of times before. There is of course a steep learning curve in the beginning, but anyone with ample Souls experience should feel right at home. Thankfully you don’t have to ‘Git Gud’ to enjoy Steelrising to completion even as a casual fan, as long as you don’t mind disabling achievements.

**Steelrising was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 8.2 / 10
Gameplay: 8.5 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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