You know that souls-like game that offers a pretty decent take on the genre, but also has something concrete holding it back? Sorry, did you think I was referring to Lords of the Fallen, or perhaps Mortal Shell? Or perhaps you thought I was referring to The Surge, Ashen, Vampyr, or Remnant: From The Ashes, or even Thymesia, released earlier this month. No, in this case I meant Steelrising, an action RPG themed after the French Revolution which is packed with creepy robots, emotionally unstable aristocrats in powdered wigs, and death screens that tell you you’re dead. The unfathomable and bizarre setting is a delight, but the simplistic combat and underwhelming boss fights do the rest. That means that in the long list of recent accommodating soulslikes with a lot of rough edges, Steelrising is… well, one more.
set in a strange alternative history version of the French Revolution in which Louis XVI has crushed his would-be usurpers using monstrous robots, you play as Aegis, a stoic dancing robot turned lone warrior who has to face the king’s mechanical army. Everything about the setting is unbelievably weird in the best way: all the robots have a design inspired by the old-school machines of the time, you spend a lot of time with real French revolutionaries like Lafayette and Robespierre, and Maria herself Antoinette is your boss and the main one in charge of the missions, which never stops being super strange (but I like it). The roughly 15-hour campaign tells a fairly predictable “take down the king” story in which you’ll have to scrap increasingly dangerous metal machinations, but the quirky setting and characters help make that journey for the most part nice.
The voice performances of the historical figures are enhanced by a good script and for the interesting secondary missions that will allow you to gather a group of renegades to help you fight against the king. For example, a charismatic revolutionary will ask you to help him in his fight to end slavery, and a side quest later on allows you to steal the king’s treasure and decide which of two opposing political causes you want to support with those funds, with dialog options to choose from. Some of these decisions affect the outcome of the story in major ways, which was a welcome surprise in a genre that often relies heavily on cryptic environmental storytelling. Also, Steelrising isn’t afraid to touch on some interesting philosophical and political topics., like dictatorships, the aftermath of bloody insurrections, and some surprising endgame story developments that I won’t reveal here. Destroying robots is fun and all, but I liked to take a break from the action to discuss politics with my fellow Frenchmen from time to time.
In between those moments, Steelrising continues to focus on the tried and true recipe of fighting your way through areas full of deadly enemies in the hope of reaching the next save point before ending up killing a big, fearsome boss. All the expected chords have been struck, including enemies respawning upon reaching save points, losing your main resource upon death (called “anima essence” in this case), and hack-and-slash combat in third person that forces you to dodge and use limited consumables to recover health. It’s an all too familiar formula.and while I’m a fan of soulslikes, it never ceases to amaze how little this iteration does to set itself apart from all the other options we have today.
Combat is a dodge and slash contest…
An unoriginal idea can be executed in an exciting way, but Steelrising also misses some of the game mechanics it tries to replicate.. Combat is a dodge and slash contest, with some status ailments, special moves, and weapon types to spice things up. There are some interesting weapon options, many of which have special abilities associated with them that allow you to block or fire a weapon from afar in addition to its melee strikes. This includes the chain of fire, which allows you to set enemies on fire from a distance with style, as well as the agile crystal core staves, which I rely heavily on to freeze and then attack my enemies. However, handling these weapons is often imprecise, and combat can sometimes be ineffective. The all-important dodge mechanic feels smooth and responsive, but enemies often wander around and just let you kill them, and I sometimes got stuck in pieces of the environment at the worst times. Also, the old problem of a terrible camera floating through objects and obscuring your vision is likely to cause problems on a regular basis.
The robotic adversaries you fight along the way feature some creative varieties, from small and weak humanoids to huge enemies carrying building support columns as weapons. There are also some cool robotic dogs, creepy snake-like creatures, and even some killer musicians who kill you with brass instruments like you’ve always dreamed they would. Each of these enemies is interesting and facing them early on is some of the best moments in Steelrising.
Unfortunately, once you’ve battled these motorized baddies a few times, you won’t find many surprises around the corner. There aren’t many types beyond the ones I’ve mentioned here, and most of the others are slight variations of one another that barely influence how you approach different combat scenarios. Bosses are even worse, as many of them are stronger versions of existing enemy types. The much more unique “Titan” bosses add extra variety, but they’re so ridiculously easy to defeat that you’ll most likely kill one and never think about it again.
His theme is creative, but he fears going off script in other ways.
Steelrising never quite falls for any of these attempts, so the things it doesn’t try to do are the ones it really does. they make it go from being passably nice to being disappointing. Its alternate history theme is exceptionally creative, but it seems to be so afraid of going off the soulslike script elsewhere that I practically started to recognize sections from other games. There were times when I would walk into a room and instinctively know that an enemy was going to charge me from the ceiling, or find an item hidden in a hanging bag that I had to hit. That familiarity means that there are no real surprises, and the adventure ends up having the feeling of trying to repeat things that I have already played instead of charting its own path.
Also at those levels. try a bit of platforming, since it unlocks a jump in the air and a grappling hook that you sometimes have to use to beat the levels, but this addition is not very well executed either. For one thing, camera issues mean you’ll often turn around while sprinting through a tight gap or stare at a grapple point hoping it locks onto the spot you’re trying to jump to, a problem that’s much more than that. frustrating if harassed by nearby enemies. But it seems like Steelrising doesn’t want to trust you with these abilities either, as it sometimes locks you into areas that you should theoretically be able to access using these powers. For example, if you find a place to jump a wall and the developers have arbitrarily decided that you shouldn’t have access to that place, you will be met with an invisible barrier. This makes things seem unnecessarily linear.
It’s a shame when its hub worlds are otherwise great fun to explore. As you travel through various areas of France, you will see some very interesting places, like the Bastille or Versailles, which have become totally dystopian due to their current occupation by automatons. Even when some of the grittiness of Steelrising marred the experience, the sprawling historical settings continued to impress. I had to fight through the ruined cobbled streets of 1789 Paris and assassinate a giant goofy-faced robot in the courtyard of a beautiful castle, and that’s not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a lifelong soulslike if it wasn’t also prone to some bugs, and Steelrising has a lot to share with us. Over the course of my adventure I got stuck on invisible objects, lost sight of enemy health bars for hours, and even got stuck on the Xbox control panel at times. None of these issues are serious enough to make you want to leave the game in a rage, but they don’t do any good for a game that already feels a bit unpolished at times.
Steelrising es a competent action game with an unforgettable setting, but is dragged down by its monotonous souls-like formula which does nothing to make combat or exploration stand out. Despite some memorable weapons and enemies, combat is often imprecise or sloppy, and boss fights are largely forgettable. That said, while the story is fairly straightforward, the recognizable faces from history you meet and the beautiful French landscapes can help make fighting robots in an alternate history somewhat entertaining.