Steelrising Review – A World, Not A City
The term ‘eurojank’ is often used to lovingly describe the work of French developer Spiders, whose previous title Greedfall showed just how hard some of these smaller European devs can punch above the weight of their lower budgets and smaller staff in comparison to larger studios putting out similar titles. Tracing their lineage through a variety of dark fantasy action-RPGs Steelrising seems the next logical conclusion in their oeuvre given how much the work of From Software has shaped the state of action-RPGs over the last decade. Rather than lift from Dark Souls, however, Spiders instead crib from 2015’s masterpiece Bloodborne, eschewing the Lovecraftian elements for a tale of corruption and technology gone mad set against a backdrop of the French Revolution in 1789.
As King Louis XIV unleashes hordes of maniacal automatons on his populace, his wife Marie Antoinette frets from a country estate where she is held captive, isolated to a single room as clockwork guards roam the hallways and grounds. Her last resort is to activate Aegis, an automaton designed to entertain the members of the court, now repurposed as a bodyguard sent by Marie Antoinette to stop her husband’s reign of terror. Players experienced with the ‘Soulsborne’ genre will be instantly familiar with the combat system and level design implemented by Spiders in Steelrising, with a few thematic adjustments. To explain away the idea that an automaton could run out of stamina during battle, Aegis generates heat when attacking, dodging or jumping and needs to cool down, a circular mechanism in her back visibly going from red to white-hot the more her ‘stamina’ bar empties. Players can time a button press to rapidly cool Aegis down during the overheating process, but it has a knock-on effect of applying Freeze damage which becomes a considered choice against particular enemies. Reaching back into their nations past, Spiders takes real and reimagined historical figures to forge an alternate history of the French Revolution to engaging effect as Aegis seeks to uncover the reasons behind King Louis’ descent into tyranny.
Steelrising‘s emphasis on offence ties in neatly with the in-world justification of Aegis’ acrobatic fighting style which draws on her original function as an automated dancer. In gameplay terms, this pushes players to repeatedly attack enemies, engendering a weakened state during which a more powerful blow can be delivered. A wide variety of both close and ranged weapons, alongside straightforward fire/electric/frost status effects, give combat-focused players a lot to explore. While I settled on one of the earlier weapons, hurriedly upgrading my dual-wielding twin swords and a Frost pistol, it seems quite reasonable to pivot to others given the relatively low cost of upgrading and the abundance of early upgrade materials. With around 40 weapons strewn across the entire game, Spiders ensure that even after 20 hours of gameplay it’s not too late to try a different approach or swap out to a Fire based weapon in a Frost-enemy-infested area. Tight controls and clear animations ensure that engaging with enemies doesn’t ever feel like a chore and deaths don’t feel unfair. Aesthetically, Steelrising features a blend of both impressive and serviceable visual elements which become more fantastical the further players make it through the game as the design leans towards a less realistic colour palette in favour of a moodier atmosphere towards the latter half of Aegis’ journey. In practice, it comes across as the developer using their resources wisely and directing them where it matters most in the game.
The picturesque outskirts and winding streets of Paris and its surrounds are uniformly ablaze, each expansive level presenting as a blood-soaked maze full of corpses and hastily erected barriers, replete with secrets and shortcuts as pathways snake around and loop back on themselves, a convenient barrier usually opening up to join the last area of a level back with the first. Rather than limit Aegis to the ground floor of Paris, her jump function serves to not only expand combat options but also ramp up the verticality of the level design in Steelrising, with many early areas teasing ‘just out of reach’ locations ripe for revisiting later using enhanced equipment and abilities, including a grappling hook and an air dash.
This increased emphasis on exploration and returning to earlier locations seems designed to offset what I would consider an overall lower difficulty level than most other Soulsborne-style games; when compared to other entries in the genre, I found the encounter design in Steelrising a bit uneven and certain elements like surprise attacks from hidden enemies distinctly lacking polish. This could be a major issue in a genre that often relies on pulse-pounding combat challenges to keep players engaged. Instead, with Steelrising, Spiders have firmly planted a flag in favour of accessibility in a number of ways. While there is a ‘Standard’ difficulty which was used for this review, players also have the option of customising their level of challenge by adjusting the amount of damage they take from enemies, how fast their stamina regenerates and whether XP is lost upon death.
This option to customise various factors in the overall difficulty level means that many who had previously taken umbrage with the genre due to such design decisions will find Steelrising far more accessible than many of its peers. Furthermore, the level design and increased verticality therein ensures there is something to hold interest outside of simply defeating enemies. What isn’t as present is the more mysterious story and lore elements that have come to define FromSoft’s titles, as Steelrising takes a traditional approach to communicating its plot, which remains both compelling and easily absorbed despite some non-linear delivery. This will really come down to personal preference, but I found it a refreshing change of pace to not stop every few minutes to pore over item descriptions.
As a self-confessed ‘Soulsborne’ aficionado, Steelrising has certainly captured my attention in a year that also saw the release of the staggeringly brilliant Elden Ring. The latter’s open-world approach certainly isn’t to everybody’s taste, however, and the tighter focus of Steelrising’s intertwined areas and emphasis on verticality in levels strikes a different tone which I very much enjoyed. As far as technical aspects go, Performance mode on the PlayStation 5 is rock-solid, and in my opinion a necessity in an action-focused title where I would personally never trade resolution or visual effects for frame-rate.
There is certainly some admiration on my part for Spiders’ pluck, as Double-A development seems to be going the way of the buffalo and there is a kind of pleasure derived from watching a smaller developer grow and improve over each subsequent title they release. While I hesitate to use the phrase ‘hidden gem’ before a game has even launched, I will say that Steelrising is a pleasant surprise, an engaging riff on a genre that increasingly feels to have run its course even as it gets reinvented by its originator. While this may seem a trite statement when compared to the bombastic praise which often accompanies a game’s launch (and wouldn’t see me quoted on a box), Steelrising is a game I have thoroughly enjoyed playing and hope to see more of from Spiders in the future.
Steelrising was reviewed on a PS5 thanks to a code kindly provided by Power Up PR.