Steelrising Is Looking Like a Surprisingly Good Bloodborne Tribute

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Developer Spiders is best known as something of a BioWare tribute studio. Its most successful game, GreedFall, is the latest in a modest line of RPGs that draw heavily upon the likes of Mass Effect and Dragon Age. But Spiders’ next game, Steelrising, is nothing like a BioWare game at all. Instead, it’s an ode to FromSoftware. Specifically, it is Bloodborne set in the French Revolution, with Yarnham’s beasts swapped out for Parisian clockwork robots. As a pitch, it sounds a little derivative (at least mechanically). But despite seemingly minimal innovations, playing Steelrising reveals something that has genuine promise.

At a recent hands-on event I was able to play around three hours of Steelrising, which covered the opening locations and the first major boss. Playing as Aegis, a clockwork automaton ballerina-turned-bodyguard, I explored a small variety of twisty rural village and Parisian city locations that knotted themselves together with shortcut routes. As I tore apart robotic enemies with blades and bullets I collected Anima Essence, a resource that I could use to upgrade my stats and improve my weapons, provided I didn’t lose it upon death. Upgrades were conducted at ‘Vestal’ checkpoints, which also refilled my health restoring oil burette with a fresh supply. If it’s not already clear, Steelrising plays exactly like a FromSoftware game.

It’s easy to be cynical about this. Where, exactly, is Spiders’ original work here? But look at FromSoftware’s own library, and it can often be difficult to see the difference between Demon’s Souls and Elden Ring. The Soulslike formula seems fated to remain as ‘pure’ as possible, and so it’s in the details that we find each new game’s differences. With Steelrising, those differences appear to vary in significance as well as quality.

Like Bloodborne, Steelrising is an action-RPG that promotes aggression. With only a few weapons that offer the ability to block or counter, this is a combat system in which you dodge and jump your way through incoming blows in an enjoyably mobile manner. While it’s governed by the genre staple stamina system, when your endurance is exhausted you can rapidly cool your robot’s internal mechanisms with an active reload-like button press, which instantly tops your stamina up and throws you back in the fight. This is particularly helpful in mastering Steelrising’s staggering mechanic; give an enemy no reprieve and a diamond-shaped gauge will build to breaking point, allowing you to land a high-damage critical attack. These are minor tweaks rather than big changes to Bloodborne’s core, so consider this an alternate recipe to an already great meal, rather than a different dish entirely.

Satisfying combat with a mechanical rhythm is accompanied by a beautiful, intricate ‘clockpunk’ art style.

Across my three hours I discovered that this combat core can be expanded upon with a range of weapons that influence small variations in playstyle. A pair of metal corrugated fans can be used to slice apart brass baddies, but slam them together and they become a shield (or, more accurately, Sekiro’s Loaded Umbrella) for a more defensive approach. A better offense can be found in the dual-wielded falchion and saber, which sends Aegis pirouetting through the air like a deadly tornado. A more exotic option is what can only be described as a scorching yoyo, which can be slammed against the floor to create a flaming detonation that inflicts damage-over-time. For longer range engagements, a pistol can fire a volley of freezing alchemical bullets that disable enemies and open them up for a brutal melee.

While I eventually settled on the falchion and saber for the final half of my demo, I was eager to experiment with each and every weapon I found, and discovered something to like in all of them. The fun of them helps overcome what I foresee will be Steelrising’s main combat problem; rhythm. It is notably choppier than its apparent inspiration, with your actions never quite flowing together with the same fluidity as the best Soulslikes. More than anything, this highlights Steelrising’s significantly lower budget and holds it back from being a true peer of FromSoftware’s catalog. And yet this never bothered me across my hours of play.

Enjoyably goofy enemy designs with well-drawn attacks, from fire-breathing metal snakes to walking electrified battering rams, keep combat consistently fun, if not smooth. The fiction also helps do a lot of lifting; since the enemies are all robots, their jerky movements, frequent pauses, and stiff, exaggerated wind-ups feel in-keeping with their nature. Aegis is thankfully a much faster automaton, and while her animation transitions could flow better, her speed and ability to swiftly dodge around enemies ensured that her mechanical movement never felt to my detriment.

The combination of a fast protagonist and jerky, easily-read enemies meant Steelrising, at least in these opening hours, felt a touch easier than the usual Soulslike offerings. But for anyone who does struggle, Assist Mode offers a significant advancement in the ongoing difficulty debate around Soulslikes. Rather than being a straight up easy mode, Assist allows you to manually adjust various factors to tailor the challenge. You can reduce enemy damage in percentage increments, opt to keep your Anima Essence on death, and adjust how quickly your stamina replenishes. If nothing else, I hope Steelrising is influential in aiding other developers find new and innovative ways to help people enjoy Soulslikes.

It seems that Spiders is doing plenty right with its tribute to FromSoftware, then. But my play session also highlighted a number of things the studio is struggling with. The demo opened on a plodding conversation between historical figures Marie-Antoinette and her favourite, Gabrielle de Polignac, which suggested that while Steelrising will have a more cinematic approach to storytelling than Dark Souls, that may not be in its favour. Its environmental storytelling may fare no better; while I enjoyed that the world displayed the hallmark Soulslike design where all roads eventually lead back to a central checkpoint, I found little to be truly fascinated by on my travels. Aside from some notes left by long-dead NPCs, the few areas I explored felt more like maze routes than an actual country in the midst of a political upheaval.

And yet, despite these flaws, Steelrising remained really engaging, at least in those opening hours. That satisfying combat with its oddly mechanical rhythm is accompanied by a beautiful, intricate ‘clockpunk’ art style, which sees the grandeur of Assassin’s Creed Unity blended with the ticking metal monsters of Doctor Who’s 2006 episode The Girl in the Fireplace. Aegis herself is a mechanical marvel, her weapons elegantly sliding out from body panels like a renaissance-era Robocop. Treasure chests click and whirr as their mechanisms pop into place, and the Vestal checkpoints clatter as their cages rise out of the ground to reveal the chairs that upgrade Aegis’ abilities. Despite its clearly modest budget delivering something that’s far from a technical powerhouse, Steelrising powers through to deliver surprising good looks.

It was in my final task of the demo, a fight against the gargantuan Bishop of the Cité, where I could see all of Steelrising’s best ideas come together. The boss itself is an amusingly tiny cleric piloting a massive rolling pulpit; a Catholic Weeble, basically. It’s armed with a colossal Bible on a chain, swung in heavy arcs that are easy to dodge but lethal if you get complacent. The ball it rolls around on is impervious to damage, meaning you have to leap up to strike at the little bishop himself. That demands burning plenty of stamina, and so using the rapid cool mechanic to regain stamina is vital to chaining together the leaps, attacks, and dodges required to bring down this mechanical menace. It’s the combination of meshed combat systems and absurd alt-history fiction that makes Steelrising endearing to me despite its struggles. I doubt it’ll give Elden Ring a run for even its small change, but I’m nonetheless fascinated to see what other wild enemies and weapons remain to be found in the burning streets of Paris when Steelrising releases this September.

Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Features Editor.

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Author: Matt Purslow

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