You know that one soulslike game that is a decent enough take on the genre, but also has a bit of wonkiness that otherwise holds it back? Sorry, did you think I was talking about Lords of the Fallen, or maybe Mortal Shell? Or perhaps you thought I meant The Surge, Ashen, Vampyr, or Remnant: From The Ashes – or even Thymesia from earlier this month? No, in this case I was referring to Steelrising, a French Revolution-themed action-RPG that’s chock full of creepy robots, emotionally unstable aristocrats in powdered wigs, and death screens that tell you you’re dead. The unfathomably weird setting is a delight, but simplistic combat and underwhelming boss fights end up making disappointing use of it. That means in the long list of recent serviceable soulslikes with lots of rough edges, Steelrising is… well, another one of those.
Set in a bizarre alternate history version of the French Revolution where 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 incredibly weird in the best possible way: all the robo-folk take design cues from old school clockwork machines of the time period, you spend a lot of time hanging out with actual French revolutionaries like Lafayette and Robespierre, and Marie Antoinette herself serves as your boss and chief quest-giver, which never stops feeling super strange (but I’m into it). The roughly 15-hour campaign tells a pretty predictable “down with the king” story that has you turning increasingly dangerous metal machinations into scrap, but the peculiar setting and characters help make that journey mostly enjoyable.
The hit-or-miss voice acting for its historical figures is shored up by some great writing and interesting side missions as you assemble a group of renegades to help you fight 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 lets you rob the king’s treasury and then decide which of two opposing political causes you’d like to use those funds to support, complete with dialogue options to pick from. Some of these decisions affect the outcome of the story in major ways, which was a welcome surprise in a genre that usually relies heavily on cryptic environmental storytelling. Plus, Steelrising isn’t afraid to touch on some interesting philosophical and political topics like dictatorships, the consequences of bloody insurrections, and some surprising late-game story developments that I won’t spoil here. Cutting down robots is fun and all, but I quite enjoyed taking a break from the action to debate politics with my French compatriots from time to time.
Between those moments, Steelrising does still place most of its focus on the tried and true recipe of fighting your way through areas filled with deadly enemies in hopes of reaching the next save point before eventually killing a big, scary boss. All the expected chords are struck here, including respawning enemies when reaching save points, losing your primary resource upon death (called “anima essence” in this case), and third-person hack-and-slash combat that has you dodging around and using limited consumables to recover health. It’s a formula that’s all too familiar, and although I’m a fan of soulslikes, it’s still a bit eyebrow-raising how remarkably little this iteration does to set itself apart from all the other options we have nowadays.
An unoriginal idea can still be executed in exciting ways, but Steelrising doesn’t completely nail some of the game mechanics it tries to replicate either. Combat is a fairly one-note contest of dodging and slicing with a few status ailments, special moves, and weapon types thrown in to jazz things up. There are certainly some interesting weapon options, many of which have special abilities associated with them that might let you block or fire a weapon from afar in addition to its melee strikes. That includes the fire chain, which lets you ignite enemies from a distance in style, as well as the nimble glass-core batons, which I relied on extensively to freeze and then wail on my enemies. However, swinging those weapons is frequently imprecise, and combat can feel downright janky at times as a result. The all-important dodging mechanics feel smooth and responsive at least, but enemies often waddle around and simply let you kill them, and I sometimes got stuck on pieces of the environment at the worst moments. Plus, the age-old problem of a terrible camera that floats through objects and obscures your view is likely to cause issues on a regular basis.
The robotic opponents you fight along the way come in a few creative varieties, from small and weak humanoids to enormous foes that carry around building support columns as weapons. There are also some cool robotic dogs, freaky snake-like creatures, and even some murderous musicians who kill you with brass instruments like you’ve always dreamt they would. Each of these enemies has their own bag of tricks to learn, and facing off against them initially accounts for some of Steelrising’s best moments.
Unfortunately, once you’ve fought these motorized baddies a few times, you won’t find many surprises ‘round the bend. There just aren’t many types beyond what I’ve mentioned here, with most others being slight variations of one another that hardly impact how you approach different combat scenarios. Bosses are even worse as many are just beefier versions of existing enemy types – the much more unique “Titan” bosses do provide a boost of variety, but they’re so laughably easy to defeat that you’re likely to wipe the floor with one and then not think about it again.
Steelrising never really falls entirely flat on its face in any of these attempts, so the things it doesn’t try to do are what really what take it from passably enjoyable to underwhelming. Its alternate history theme is exceptionally creative, but it seems so afraid to break from the soulslike script elsewhere that I practically started recognizing sections from other games. There were times when I would walk into a room and instinctively know an enemy was going to lunge out at me from the ceiling, or that I would find an item hidden in a dangling bag I had to strike. That familiarity means there aren’t any real surprises to be found, and the adventure ends up largely feeling like it’s trying to parrot stuff I’ve already played rather than chart its own course.
Those levels also try their hand at a bit of platforming, as you unlock a midair dash and a grappling hook that you’ll sometimes be required to use to get through levels, but this addition is unfortunately not very well executed either. For one, the camera issues often mean you’ll get turned around while dashing through a tight gap or be staring up at a grappling point hoping it decides to lock on to the spot you’re trying to leap to – an issue that’s much more frustrating if you’re being mobbed by nearby enemies. But Steelrising seemingly doesn’t actually want to trust you with these abilities either, as it sometimes locks you out of areas you should theoretically be able to access using these powers. For example, if you find a spot to dash over a wall and the developers have arbitrarily decided you shouldn’t have access to that place yet, you’ll run into an invisible barrier. This completely took the steam out of my engine every time it happened to me, as it makes things feel needlessly linear.
That’s a bummer when its hub worlds are otherwise a lot of fun to explore. As you travel around various areas of France, you’ll be treated to some really cool sights, including a few notable places like the Bastille or Versailles – all of which have gone full-dystopia in light of their current automaton occupation. Even when some of Steelrising’s rough edges hampered the experience, the sprawling historical settings continued to impress. I got to fight my way down the ruined cobblestone streets of 1789 Paris and murder a giant robot’s dumb face in the courtyard of a gorgeous castle, and that’s not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a by-the-numbers soulslike if it weren’t also prone to some bugs, and Steelrising has plenty to share with you. During the course of my adventure I got stuck on invisible objects, stopped being able to see enemy health bars for hours at a time, and even crashed to the Xbox dashboard at times (presumably because it just couldn’t handle my combat prowess). None of these issues are so rampant that I wanted to rage quit, but they certainly don’t do any favors for a game that already feels unpolished at times.
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Author: Tom Marks