Aegis dances beautifully around the clockwork troops of King Louis XVI, delivering devastating blows with such precision that their gear jams, rendering them immobile and opening them up for a deadly finishing strike. . I press the attack, quickly turn to another tin soldier and start an incredible flurry of slashes before Aegis heats up and I completely time him out so he can barely take a beat. Missed. I eliminate the second opponent, and a third, until all that is left is a scrap. When SteelRising works, it’s a gorgeous, rhythmic action-RPG I could happily spend hours on. The problem is that it barely works, and combat is its only redeeming feature. It’s a broken clock, and it’s time to battle only twice a day.
TheGAMER today’s video
SteelRising is set during the French Revolution, only to have loads of mechanical monstrosities roam the streets of Paris. This is the revolution that overthrew the monarchy, with Marie Antoinette and let them eat the cake line, not the June Uprising at Les Miserables that everyone thinks is the French Revolution. The French rebelled a lot, so it’s okay to be confused. I was confused during the game too. Not because of the setting, I was confused as to what my actual mission is.
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Aegis is one of the king’s clockwork soldiers, only he is different. She can speak, has some semblance of free will, and works for the queen. It’s a strange feeling that for an emperor, a barely sensitive slave, is the very height of symbolic disparity, and the game does little to question it despite the overthrow of his monarchy. I spent two minutes with his king and one of his servants before he left to stop the king and find out what had happened to his son. Why are he and the king not on the same side? I don’t have the faintest.
This typifies my thoughts during all of the game’s cutscenes and side quests. I had no idea what I was doing there, and I honestly didn’t care. The script isn’t Steelrizing’s strong point. Nor are there cut scenes for that matter. Repeated audiovisual bugs saw Aegis vibrate on the spot and cut several lines of dialogue in half, only the latter half spoken. This was a problem when passing NPCs trapped in buildings, talking to each other in real-time as well as during pre-rendered moments.
Normally bugs like this didn’t bother me, but overall the game was filled with so many minor annoyances that they cut down on my playing time. I was stuck for hours when a compass marker wouldn’t update and the level gave me no way of knowing where to go. This happened twice, during two different missions. There was a lot of texture pop on the notes, oddly little text—despite maxing out the subtitle size, it doesn’t change any other text—and item names haven’t been visible for ages when I picked them up. If I missed a jump, I too often got stuck in the terrain and had to leave the game to reset the Aegis.
As I said, the combat is the only redeeming feature of the game, and it’s excellent. Blocking, counter-attacking and critical hits all ring out with a satisfying clash of steel on steel, and the game looks at its best during a skirmish. The weapons are pretty balanced, but it’s a single-player experience, so who cares if there’s a set of steel fans that fire with knives that kill anything at a distance? It’s fun, they’re cool, and there’s a wide variety of weapons that fit any play style, so you can use something else if you don’t want to feel overpowered. I opted for the Falcion and the saber, dual-tailed swords that shoot out from the arms of Aegis in a display that is as elegant as it is lethal. This weapon works best with a Bloodborne-style approach to combat, always on attack and bypassing incoming blows to get a few more hits before repeating the process.
The cooling system used to regain stamina is SteelRising’s only successful iteration of the standard spirits-like formula, and it’s fantastic. Once your stamina drops, wait for a second, and then you initiate a system flush that cools the Aegis’ gears. Hit it too early and you’ll have to wait longer to try again, hit it too late and you don’t get much stamina back. Always, you’ll do yourself some freeze damage and risk getting stuck in place, especially if you’re fighting enemies that already have elemental attacks. This keeps the battle tense and ensures that it is a dance with frequent tempo changes rather than a one-sided slug-fest. It’s a mechanic I quickly fell in love with because it adds an element of skill to your stamina management, beyond just putting on the right gear and assigning points to the right stats.
That’s the only unique thing about this game. Old-school-mechanical-bloodborne-like not even a bar anymore, with P’s lying around the corner. The setting of 18th-century Paris has been done before, and is enhanced by Assassin’s Creed Unity. I know it’s not fair to compare Ubisoft’s triple-A offering with Spyder’s double-A capability, but it’s competition, and life isn’t always fair. It’s a stripped-down, semi-open world variation on the formula and it still doesn’t hold up to the landing.
There is no intrigue for Paris like there is for Yharnam. Even with the clockwork chaos scattered across the streets, it’s still just Paris, only memoryless. Most people would think that taking people out of Paris would improve the city, but that makes it dull. The characters I met during the game didn’t help bring life to it either. They’re all middle-aged white men in wigs that I could barely tell apart. Except for the singular black character who is on a mission to free slaves in France and its colonies. It’s a subplot that’s handled in a quirky, clever way and feels really tokenizing.
It doesn’t help how much time I have to spend with these guys if I want to do all of Steelrising’s side quests. Remember my mission to find the queen’s son? I’ve made a real change to it but it lasts way too long. There are a dozen or so sides that all feel never ending.
I feel the same way about every aspect of the game. The levels aren’t so much intertwined as they are tough gauntlets, at least for the first half of the game’s time. The levels opened up a lot once I gathered all the traversal tools, but that was after a dozen or so hours of play. Before, you could go forward or backward, meaning each level felt like a marathon circuit, rather than a maze to be explored.
In the end, the boss fights. The first mini-bosses really helped me in combat. It was a beautiful sharing of hits, blocks, counters and staggers. Neither boss took me more than two attempts, but I’ve never had to grind so I couldn’t be overleveled, and I’m not exactly a pro gamer, so I don’t know why everything was so easy. Boss designs are good, but they can all be beaten in the same way. I didn’t have to change my weapons or play style and I could yell at them until they fell. Hardly the machinations of the Mechanical Titans keep them going. Fights look good, I’ll give them that, but they’re all genre and have no essence.
I want to like SteelRising, I really do, but it won’t let me. Every aspect of the game feels like an obstacle to something I enjoyed: the combat. Even got boring. The characters are bland, the story is monotonous, the setting derivative, and the finished product too short and bloated to really enjoy. It required a few more turns of the key to cover the distance and stay on smoothly.
A review copy of SteelRising was provided by the publisher.
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