Spiders is trying its hand at an action-RPG, in this alternate take on the French Revolution.
Generally speaking, I've always found the action-RPG sub-genre of games to be a bit all over the shop. On one hand, I understand and appreciate how the challenge they offer appeals to an array of people, and likewise it's more than clear that a lot of these types of games are based in very creative and interesting worlds. But at the same time, the way that the narrative is conveyed (which often revolves around the player figuring literally everything out for themselves), the UI, item suite, and customisation elements, and even the very, very punishing gameplay that feels like you're taking one step forward and two steps back, well... let's just say I've never understand the wonder surrounding these parts of action-RPGs. Yet still, here I am reviewing Steelrising, an action-RPG game from the talented French team that developed GreedFall, Spiders.
And why I'm reviewing this game this time around is for two main reasons: first and foremost I find the concept and setting of an alternate French Revolution (that sees deadly mechanical automatons stamping out the uprising of downtrodden people) really unusual and intriguing, and secondly because the preview build I checked out a few months back made it clear that Steelrising doesn't have all of the same pitfalls of the action-RPG sub-genre. What I mean by this is that the RPG elements feel more streamlined and less complex, the UI more manageable and intuitive, and the gameplay seemed to be less overwhelming. Some of this hasn't quite translated to the review build of the game might I add - particularly the last one as Steelrising can be a serious challenge at times - but generally speaking, this all carries forward, and makes for a game that is more approachable and accessible, even if it still very demanding.
Anyone who has played an action-RPG, will find Steelrising instantly familiar. The gameplay is about progressing through a location, whilst facing all manners of powerful creatures, and having to decide whether or not to fight them or flee and save some much needed health. The loop evolves here as you only get the resources necessary (Anima Essence) for upgrading gear by defeating enemies, but at the same time, in a typical A-RPG fashion, if you die in combat you'll spawn at the last Vestal (think a Dark Souls campfire), leaving behind all of your Anima Essence on your corpse. The similarities with Dark Souls doesn't stop with just this loop either, as items found around the world are displayed as a sort of glowing blue flame, to ensure you don't miss them in their often tricky hiding locations.
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The combat also plays similarly, but is noticeably more fluid. Aegis, the protagonist of this story, is an automaton alike the machines she is fighting, but is more agile and seemingly built with more advanced technology, and therefore can face the enormous mechanical beings in battle by using her agility and ability to dodge to avoid incoming hits. It's a system that feels far more rewarding and entertaining to play than the more sluggish FromSoftware games, as manoeuvrability is key here, both in a horizontal and vertical sense.
The vertical element is quite unique to Steelrising as well, as it also gives a bit replayabilty to each of the locations you can visit. As you progress the storyline, you'll continue to find items and gear that improves Aegis' abilities, such as a grappling hook or a way to break certain walls/doors. Once you have these moves, you can reach new heights around the Parisian skyline, and discover new ways to move around a level or find some carefully hidden loot. The exploration doesn't feel as fulfilling as a typical open-world RPG, and is more a product of getting from one place to another, but you can see that Spiders has worked to encourage players to return to prior locations, even if there's little reason to do so in a narrative sense.
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And speaking about the narrative, this is one area that I'm rather conflicted about, because on one hand I like the concept of the storyline and how it gives a new approach to the French Revolution whilst still keeping key historical elements like iconic names (such as Robospierre and Marie-Antoinette) heavily involved. But at the same time, the bulk of the storyline is conveyed through finding lore passages, or by discovering strangely animated flashback sequences relating to each character. Plus, the interactions between characters and Aegis are a little lacking in emotion - largely because Aegis is an automaton and doesn't display any human nature - which puts a lot of the responsibility on the supporting characters and their sometimes peculiar looking facial animations. It's a combination that doesn't always quite work.
The customisation and RPG suite is also an interesting one, because while there are options to find/change weapons, armour, items, and so on, I've found that you can easily just stick to your guns, upgrade your starting gear (assuming it matches your playstyle) and you'll be fine. It begs the question as to why you'd ever change weapon type, especially if you start as an Alchemist (who excels with elemental weapons) and decide to start using weapons with poor elemental affinity - you're literally shooting yourself in the foot from minute one, and it feels like a strange design style to be so cut and dry.
But while it has its kinks, one part of Steelrising I really appreciate and welcome is the accessibility suite that makes the challenge of the game more approachable. You can completely ignore this and face the game as Spiders intended it or rather remove the feature that sees you lose all your Anima Essence on death, make enemies do less damage, and so on. It just allows a wider audience to be able to enjoy the game whilst preserving the integrity of it, and I can't see that as anything less than a positive feature.
While I do think Steelrising lacks some of the marvel and ambition that for example Elden Ring embodies, this is still a formidable and entertaining action-RPG. It's challenging, set in a beautifully realised world crammed to the brim with opportunity and threats, and plays fluidly and smoothly. It's not at all a perfect game, but it has enough character and individuality that it can stand on its own in an otherwise very competitive sub-genre.
7 / 10
Fluid and smooth gameplay. Plenty of challenges. Interesting premise. Doesn't fall into all of the A-RPG sub-genre pitfalls. Accessibility options are a highlight.
Lacks human emotion at times. Customisation and RPG suite feels flawed.