Steelrising review: "It's not worth the disappointment"
Many games of recent years have drawn inspiration from the souls-like genre popularised by Dark Souls back in 2011, but very few have managed to even approach the quality of FromSoftware's catalogue. It seems a little banal to compare every game that releases in the genre to its obvious forebears, but it's important to note where they differ, and why so many of them often fall short of the mark. Steelrising takes its most obvious inspiration from Bloodborne, which is clear in some of the best aspects of the game like combat and the similar setting choice, but it never reaches parity, instead coming across as a poor imitation more often than not.
Reign of terror
Steelrising takes place during the French Revolution of the late 1700s, but in an alternate history where fully functioning automatons (referred to as automats) were created by the ruling class to oppose the public in their uprising. Essentially, the revolution failed, and now the automats roam the streets of Paris inflicting terror on what civilians are left, while King Louis XVI reigns as the Clockwork Tyrant.
Most automats are mindless and only have the goal to kill whoever they are told, but you play as a unique one with agency called Aegis, who serves as the bodyguard to the Queen. The game begins as the queen decides to send you out to track down Vaucanson, the engineer and mastermind behind the automats, to see if he has an answer for stopping their reign of terror. Things obviously don't quite go that simply, and before long you'll be journeying across the districts of Paris and meeting some of the key historical figures behind the revolution as you try to find Vaucanson and depose the king.
Early modern development
While Steelrising has one of the most interesting premises and settings of any recent souls-like, it squanders a lot of the narrative potential that's rife from a period of such political and social turmoil. The villains of the story barely feel developed beyond their one-note power hungriness, and many of the side characters you'll meet blend into one another and feel one-note.
There's some ambiguity behind the ambitions and goals of characters like Marquis de La Fayette and Robespierre, but this is mainly built upon during side quests. Some of these quests also give you choices that can dictate who gains power in the end, but these should have been more prominent in the main story, emphasising the stakes of the political manoeuvring behind the scenes.
It ultimately feels like a watered down recreation of one of the most important times in early modern history, and one of the stories biggest failures is its lack of representation toward the working class and women of the period, the two groups who played a big part in the revolution and arguably benefited the most from the dissolution of feudalism.
One area where Steelrising stands out is its recreation of revolutionary Paris. While the graphics aren't game changing, the game looks beautiful, and the chaos and turmoil of the period is heavily shown throughout the levels. The environments tell a better story than the narrative; there are dead bodies strewn everywhere from the automat massacres, makeshift fortifications and barricades lining the streets, and fires raging across the vistas, which all serve the atmosphere well. There's a dread that fills you as you walk around the corpse of a once bustling Paris, and speaking to some of the survivors through doorways and windows as they retell the events they witnessed can be surprisingly horrifying.
The meat of the Steelrising experience lies in the traversal and combat, and it pretty much follows the souls-like blueprint exactly - though this doesn't always pan out successfully. It has all the elements you would expect, but it doesn't go much further than that.
Combat itself is can be a little janky on some occasions, but it still fells good to play due to the emphasis on fast-paced attacks and use of tools and consumables. You're given a lot of tools to fight with, such as light and heavy attacks, dash attacks, jumping attacks, special moves for each weapon, and during the game you'll find a grapple, dash, and kick tool for use in both traversal and combat. Enemies animate well, and the clash of metal on metal from fighting them is endlessly satisfying, however they often feel very simple, and with the relatively small number of different enemies you'll fight during your 20 hours of play, they can get old quickly.
There's a startling lack of diversity to the enemy encounters too, and considering they aren't hard to fight to begin with, it really drains the game of any challenge. You'll barely fight more than a few at once until the final level, when the game suddenly throws out way too many to seemingly compensate for the lack of challenge beforehand.
The bosses also fall victim to this simplicity too. Most of the game's boss fights are just harder version of standard enemies you'll have previously fought against, and are there to pad time. There are several unique boss encounters, which is where the combat is at its best, but they are also just a bit too easy. There's clear potential here for a much better souls-like experience, but it's buried behind plain encounter and boss design.
It's also worth mentioning the level design, which is mostly serviceable, but does miss in some areas. Many of the different levels are linear when you go through them, but there are metroidvania elements with different shortcuts you can open and chances to loop back through previously explored areas to new places. This is complimented by the three tools you'll get, with the dash allowing for quicker traversal and shortcuts, or the grapple which adds more verticality in some areas for example. Some of the game's best moments come from this kind of intricate level design, but there are many times when the paths blend into each other, and it's not clear that you've unlocked a shortcut.
Performance was a consistent issue during my time with Steelrising, and it served to sully the experience even more. I played on a PC that has a mix of the minimum and recommended hardware with low settings, and during every session the game would crash at least once. Long loading times, pop-in, and semi-frequent stuttering were also among the performance problems. Most of the time the game ran at between 50 and 60 FPS, though there were some dips below 30. Some of this can definitely be attributed to my own hardware, but problems like the crashing are likely to be universal among PC players.
Steelrising had all the potential to be a strong entry into the souls-like canon, but it never manages to exit mediocrity. The backdrop of the French Revolution isn't taken full advantage for the narrative, and the characters involved don't get their time to become memorable. At its best moments, the combat and the bosses are a blast due to the varied weapons at your disposal, but basic encounters quickly drag down the rest. If you're really itching for some new souls-like gameplay, then it may be worth taking the plunge after some patches and post-launch support, but otherwise it's not worth the disappointment.
Reviewed on PC. Code provided by publisher.