Frankly, I'm no expert when it comes to Soulslike titles, though I do understand why and how they can be interesting for some. There's just something inherently satisfying about seeing through your opponent's attack patterns, then taking them down accordingly.
By that token, I think it's safe to say that we generally know what to expect from such titles at this point. So, from here on out, games will have to find other ways to set themselves apart from the crowd. Exploring unique aesthetic themes is certainly a possible avenue, one that newcomer Steelrising seems to have used to its advantage.
Developed by Spiders and published by Nacon, Steelrising's narrative is set within an alternate version of 17th-century France, one where King Louis XVI has crushed The French Revolution aided by an army of automatons. Players assume the role of Aegis, a mysterious automaton serving as Queen Marie-Antoinette's personal bodyguard. Concerned about the state of her country as well as the fate of her young son, the Queen dispatches Aegis to investigate the ongoing situation in Paris, which is where your adventure begins.
Aesthetics aren't half bad
Over the course of the narrative, players will run into alternative versions of numerous historical figures, such as Maximilien Robespierre, the Marquis de Lafayette, and the aforementioned King Louis XVI. Needless to say, you'll align with some of these individuals, and fight against others in pursuit of the truth, all the while dealing with the King's mechanical, death-dealing hordes.
First and foremost, I have to admit; it's quite refreshing to see Spiders taking the “alternate history” route for Steelrising, and crossing the border into steampunk territory while they're at it. Although most of the Soulslike titles we've seen tend to have historical inspirations, such as how Sekiro goes down the samurai route, we've never really had one that's set in an alternate history per se. Personally, I think it's nice to explore this “what could have been” scenario instead of going with the usual 100% fantasy setting that we see across the board. Walking through the various environments, which can range from tranquil forests (albeit one strewn with corpses of soldiers) to the remnants of the once-thriving Paris is quite amazing, though the absolute dewdrop silence outside of the clanking automatons also means it's eerie as hell!
Speaking of the automatons, delving into steampunk design is also a nice touch. Admittedly, it isn't the most revolutionary (pun intended) of aesthetic themes, but for what it's worth, it is a much-appreciated departure from seeing giant ogres, monstrous serpents, and samurai warriors everywhere you look.
Nowhere is this theme more apparent than in the hordes of merciless robots commanded by the King, which come in all shapes and sizes. From standard-fare mechanical hounds to wrecking-ball-wielding saucepans-on-legs, it's an oddly novel experience, though I do say so myself. Many of the walking automatons even lumber around with a stilted gait that highlights their automaton nature, essentially tying a nice bow on the whole pseudo-steampunk package.
Bring out the WD-40 spray
But as well as Steelrising scores for aesthetics, the gameplay aspect is where it starts to show signs of rust. Unfortunately, they're significant enough that even the game's aesthetic and narrative appeal can't offset them.
Among other things, this part of the game can definitely be described as “unimpressive”, which says a lot about the experience considering how heavily Soulslikes rely on their gameplay aspect to engage players. Specifically, even for someone who doesn't regularly dabble in such titles (like myself), there's a nasty “sameness” that pervades the combat experience, which comes across as simple, or even downright basic at times.
Of course, I should first clarify that I don't expect every single attack pattern to be as “creative” as Elden Ring's Malenia – that's simply unrealistic. But at the same time, I want to be able to say that Aegis' combat capabilities are creative enough to depart from the standard gameplay formula in at least one way. Sadly, though, I can't.
For starters, Aegis itself doesn't feel as “mysterious” as the description makes it out to be. Its movement lacks a certain degree of finesse that would have otherwise made combat palatable at the very least, and many of the mechanics, like upgrades or the class system, feel like they're just there for the sake of adhering to convention. Even the grappling hook ability, which is intended to introduce an element of verticality feels like it's not getting enough room to strut its stuff.
In other words, many of the moving parts feel like they're there because they're expected to be there, rather than because they help the game develop its own identity. Steelrising sticks so tightly to the established Soulslike RPG formula that it has forgotten to make its own mark, effectively rendering it a less polished version of everything else.
To make matters worse, scoring hits here doesn't feel as “chunky” as they should, which is truly unfortunate. In other Soulslikes, you sort of feel the impacts your weapons are making on the opponent, and that forms a large part of the satisfaction. But here, all you get for the effort of studying your opponent's attack patterns and responding correctly is a ridiculous “ping” sound – so, where's the rest of my change, Spiders?
A helping hand (or two)
Yes, I'm aware that this sounds absurd for a game that is, by genre definition supposed to be difficult, but I really think the developers deserve some praise for Assist Mode as well as the implementation of mid-ranged weapon styles.
In short, this former basically allows you to dial down the difficulty if you'd like to focus on enjoying the narrative. It offers several options which make gameplay simpler, including percentage-based damage reduction (up to 100% – wow!), stamina regeneration, and the ability to keep all your collected currency (or Anima Essence) even if you die. Needless to say, this makes the game infinitely more accessible, especially for players who haven't touched a Soulslike title before, and I think it's a fantastic addition because this way, the narrative doesn't go to waste simply because a less-experienced player can't beat a certain boss.
As for weapon variety, it's not so much about the “quantity” here as it is the “quality”, and by quality, I mean that there are a handful of weapons that allow Aegis to fight in ways other Soulslikes tend to shy away from. For example, there's the chain, which is not only extremely cool (from a martial arts point of view), but also provides a viable combat avenue for players who don't quite like going too close to the opponent. Most other Soulslikes generally place a lot of emphasis on CQC, so I think the inclusion of such options helps the game set itself apart, even if only slightly.
When you play it “too safe”
But even with these saving graces of sorts, the overall gameplay package of Steelrising doesn't really scratch the metaphorical itch. Although it does attempt to diversify itself via aesthetics and one or two “accessibility features”, they don't go a long way in solving the key problem, which in this case is the unimpressive gameplay experience as a whole.
After all, visuals can only do so much to keep players engaged, but if, and especially when you're a Soulslike, allowing them to feel the satisfaction of beating a boss and really feeling the damage they've dealt is the one box that absolutely needs to be checked off. Otherwise, it's like you're buying a pie just to eat the crust. It also doesn't help that the game is afraid to venture out of the “comfort zone”, so to speak, and as a result, what could have been a truly unique experience ends up walking in the shadow of others. 6/10.
For more information, check out the game's Steam page.