Amidst the barrage of Souls-type games, we’ve seen several efforts that offer something (at least a little) different. Steelrising, by Spiders (The Technomancer, Greedfall), is one such Soulslike game, keeping unchanged of course the basic core that defines the genre.
Set in an alternate reality in medieval Paris, the insane King Louis XVI has turned the once City of Light into a hell of ashes and ruins. The King has an entire army of robot automatons and does not hesitate to use them at will, quelling the revolution and forcing citizens to live imprisoned and afraid in their homes. You take on the role of Aegis, a special automaton assigned by the queen herself to support the faltering French Revolution and at the same time overthrow the mad king to save Paris from destruction. Through terrible battles and quests, the terrible secret behind the existence of the automatons is revealed and the protagonist learns all about its existence and how exactly it was created.
This particular inspiration for this alternative version of the French Revolution is deemed very successful. The marriage of robotic technology and medieval setting works very well and this is largely due to the depiction of the automatons which are very well designed. They manage to give the player the belief that they were indeed made by some genius using materials and technology purely of the era, without futuristic excesses such as lasers or missiles being fired in every direction. Every automaton that stands guard and stands in your way manages, with its design approach and its pretentious – but highly successful – sloppy kinematics, not to seem out of place in the medieval setting. Even some specific boss fights with bosses that have a richer repertoire of moves rely entirely on the alchemy and magic of this alternate reality. The game world is set up and rendered in such a way that makes you feel in your skin the absolute harsh truth of a war, the unequal battle of automatons versus humans.
Before you start the adventure, you have the option to choose the external characteristics of the protagonist, as well as choose a character class. There are four categories in total: bodyguard, soldier, dancer and alchemist. However, their choice is of little importance as you can shape your character with complete freedom. By killing enemies you collect anima essence which you can spend to increase your level or buy useful items and equipment. There are several areas you can upgrade, in the familiar classic genre game standards, such as your strength, stamina and health. Aegis has two types of basic attacks, light and heavy, and has a dodge option. Each move consumes stamina, which when depleted leaves you vulnerable and open to enemy attacks. A nice addition that often bails you out is that as an automaton, Aegis can use rapid cooling to instantly regain some of the stamina lost, at a small cost.
To aid in your mission, you can upgrade Aegis with special accessories that give you extra advantages on offense and defense, and are divided into three categories depending on rarity. Finally, after each boss you automatically unlock powers that are necessary both for your progress and for discovering new areas and secrets. Thus you gradually unlock a special forward thrust that gives you the necessary momentum needed to reach distant platforms, the hook with which to climb tall buildings, and finally a special kick with which to knock down walls and locked doors.
There is an extensive arsenal of weapons available for the protagonist which, apart from its basic use, also affects the action plan. Weapons such as deadly fans, sharp claws, swords, chains and more are available for purchase or waiting to be discovered in the world. Each of them has a special function such as counterattack, shield or long range attacks from safety. These special abilities are lost when you change weapons as they are tied to your weapons and not your character, so tactics are required of you depending on the type of enemy you face. All weapons are upgradeable, with improvements to their individual attributes and quality. Much emphasis is also placed on secondary weaponry, consisting of special resistance or reinforcement potions and many types of grenades. All upgrades, purchases and character leveling are done at special altars – statues that function like the familiar bonfires of Souls.
Battles are satisfying and fun once you understand how the game’s mechanics work and how they blend together harmoniously for the best possible outcome. The powers of fire, ice and electricity play a very important role, as the use of equipment and special abilities that use the elements of nature, combined with powerful attacks, give you a significant advantage. The intelligence of the enemies is not impressive and you quickly pick up on their predictable movement patterns, but that doesn’t mean the battles aren’t fun. Perhaps this is helped by the fact that the game is more player-friendly and more forgiving of error, despite its soulslike nature. At some point, though, you’ve discovered so much powerful equipment and are equipped with so many grenades that you only lose through your own recklessness. As for the bosses, they’re really a missed opportunity, because while they’re very original and imposing, they in no way justify their title. They are easily tackled and killed and are not particularly challenging (even the final boss).
The game doesn’t offer total freedom to navigate the streets of Paris and is divided into small areas that aren’t connected in real time. To move from one to the other you have to travel via a special carriage, which also acts as a refueling and upgrading station. A terrible flaw is the lack of a detailed map, which is costly to explore, as the areas are winding, filled with roads, vast expanses of paths and detours. In addition, you often need to look up as well, as you have to use the hook to climb up a building to progress to the next stage. Add to that the constant backtracking from the side quests you undertake, and you can see that memorizing areas is deemed necessary. At least the side quests are interesting and deep, shedding light on the story with nice details and even split into branches with different approach paths.
The game’s graphics are truly a feast for the eyes. Each area is gorgeous and depicts the harsh realities of the world in detail. Everywhere you pass you see remnants of battles, with bodies scattered or in abandoned piles in the middle of the streets and buildings engulfed in flames and destruction. Tour the streets and squares of Paris where the revolution raged, claustrophobic mines and beautiful royal gardens with the burning city as a backdrop. The character models are decent, but lack particular detail in facial expressions and generally lack emotion, with blank stares into infinity being commonplace. This could be forgiven for the protagonist being a robot, but for the rest of the characters it’s not excusable in a game of this level in 2022. There are three graphics options focusing on resolution, image quality and high framerate respectively. The game really “shines” in the last option and more importantly, it runs smoothly. In the option for image quality I encountered horrible frame drops and stuttering, and even crashes.
The music is also well done, with nice tracks that change depending on whether you’re in combat or not. Unfortunately the voice acting is below average, with overacting and funny French English accents, with the exception of the protagonist. This “wooden” robotic tone of Aegis, but which also hides human emotions e.g. with some voice breaks, works very well acoustically and adds points to the experience.
Steelrising is an atmospheric adventure with an original setting. It could do even better with more attention to performance and balance issues in the difficulty – equipment usage diptych. While it doesn’t redefine the soulslike genre, it does provide 15-20 hours of fun. If you’re looking for (another) “Souls installment”, it deserves your attention.