Affaire de l’esprit de la changement. — Created to dance for the entertainment of contested King Louis XVI‘s court, Aegis is a soul’s amnesia trapped within a clockwork automaton. Void of personal identity beyond small fragmented memories, she begins deadpan and utterly reasonable, if not briefly questioning in her service as bodyguard to the Queen Marie Antoinette Josèphe Jeanne. Part detective and capable weapon lord, she is able to command well over forty steel-and-flesh wrecking implements with an expertise squarely aided by her original purpose of performative dance. Her own basic cognition and some particularly active survival instincts serve her as a decidedly capable protagonist who will inevitably, yet subtly, evolve within the dialogue choices made by the player. Aegis is essentially the camera obscura pointed at the court of the inevitably executed King, their greed and prideful superiority in variously pathetic and inspired points of survival mode spark as revelations of the absurd and inhuman nature of man as the monarchy threatens to be abolished. With war breaking down upon them in desperate and perhaps supernatural occurrence there is some great pleasure in both seeing these people reduced of their superior attitudes and aiding in the revolution of the people as the player earns mastery of Aegis‘ skills within this well-crafted admixture of “soulsborne” and metroidvania inspired third-person action and modest intrigue.

In most practical terms Steelrising is an action RPG very much of this ~2009-Present era in the sense that you control the character in real time and level up through use of automatically siphoned but not fully banked currency when defeating enemies or using special consumable items. It is a “souls-like” game by design taking direct influence from loop-based revelation of shortcuts as a basic rule of progression through somewhat intricate level design and the necessary retrieval of of non-banked experience points when the character dies, dying twice in succession means you’ll lose that cache of experience. The actual game design in practicum plays a bit more like The Surge 2 with a jump button and easier fast travel between areas with some Bloodborne style weapon variations aiding the variety of options. Combat is universally adaptable and fair, all options quick and effective with some elemental attacks and special combination attacks and (mostly) fleet movement making for a very “correct” feeling of responsive control. Though the animations for Aegis‘ running/walking feel anchored in an unrealistic way this should not hinder the actual feeling of combat and traversal, which is slick and impactful in motion.

Soldier class, LVL 43, immediately after starting NG+.

The level of combat difficulty in Steelrising maintains a fairly low threat thanks to forgiving parry windows, beyond fair dodge timing and (almost) always readable signaling for unblockable attacks. The best sign that Spiders play-tested and honed this game as fans of this particular style comes by way of the rarely overwhelming number of opponents placed within smaller, contained areas. This never feels unfair or artificial in bottlenecking areas with the advantage of numbers, and even when a pack of mecha-dogs are joined by a large automaton sentinel they do not resort to brute-forcing their numbers on you. Even if they did, the player has every advantage at their disposal anyhow. Every strategy is available to the player, to the point that the game is incredibly easy once you’ve explored all of the combat options (I chose my trusty “spear + ranged” ideal). None of the weapons appear to be unplayable memes, in fact one could feasibly spend all of their extra currency on elemental grenades and avoid using an actual weapon for the entire game, as I’d basically half-healthed several of the most difficult boss encounters with a volley of 10-15+ grenades. Ranged weapons are viable, too, in the place of an actual magic system though you won’t have your hand held in terms of making it work unless you’ve stumbled upon a viable Alchemist build. Physical damage was the biggest threat to early game, so I’d opted to a class which allowed for heavy hits at a reasonable dodge distance (Soldier).

Most players will likely choose one of two typical choices (Bodyguard, Dancer) from the four available character starting classes: Bodyguard is weighted towards powerful Strength-based weapons but this ends up being a deeply unsatisfying defense-based (Engineering points add Armor) build where your special action with your starting weapon is eh, blocking attacks and firing Petrification grenades. This is just fine but most players will be quick to opt into a faster, more reasonable weapon to keep up with the early game enemies, who provide a big chunk of the games enemy variety and movesets up front. Dancer is visually weighted towards the typical Agility-based build though it includes the curious feature of Immobilization (read: stun, but not knockdown) building attacks, critical hits, and high physical damage. The combination attacks for this class will be a big crutch for players but great movement speed and parry/dual wield weaponry make it a fun and skillful yet balanced way to ease any early game difficulty. Alchemist is (again) the sort of “magic” system of the game in terms of the best weapons for the class having some strong Elemental damage stat (Flame, Frost, Fulmination) which produces a stun or critical damage DOT on enemies when built up, often hindering defenses or priming them for critical attacks. The use of guns becomes a bit more viable with this play style, but dual batons and short swords mean staying in close combat for many early encounters. This class notably balances well for its high armor starting stat, and helps to make a grenade focused build hilariously viable.

I’d spent a couple hours trying each of those aforementioned classes and found the weapons fine enough to start but I felt most in control using the Gribeauval Halberd weapon given to the Soldier class. It scales with the Power stat which increases Physical damage alongside Impact (enemy Knockback/knockdown) that’d become incredibly powerful once I’d slotted in modifiers that enhanced charged attacks. Knocking over enemies, hitting them when they were down generally destroyed them and those who were persistent were made quick work of at a distance since the weapon includes a special charged Incendiary grenade shot. Most folks will go looking for new weapons throughout the playthrough but the starting weapon for this class is clearly superior for its Medium speed, fast/powerful charged attacks, and ranged Elemental option. I’d end up fully upgrading two guns, several strong/slow weapons, and a variety of options but even the higher damage halberd type weapons lacked either the speed (Volley Mallet) or the ranged attack (Romas Partisan) until the late game revelation of the Requiem Mallet, which is still a bit slow but has the strongest charged attack in the game. Since I’d maxed out the Power stat, it really didn’t matter which fully upgraded weapon I’d used but rather which gave me the most options for combat.

Making up for the lack of Engineering (Armor) stat, I’d put extra points into Vigor and Durability alongside high Armor valued outfits which emphasized Stamina regeneration and various Elemental resistances. This way my playstyle, which’d rather dodge attacks than block or eat the damage, was much more in line with a Hunter Axe based build in Bloodborne where knockback and fearless aggression, pushing into attacks and really knowing your spacing/timing for best impact, was the only reasonable way to play. This was helped out by the Module system in the game, specific upgrades which you unlock slots for with Module Keys. I’d implemented the Critical Repair module as soon as possible, allowing for healing upon Critical hits, an important boon since my build was reliant on knockback/stun which allowed for critical hits when the enemy was immobilized, Grenades would also intensify this effect for most bosses with different elemental damage types. The Efficient Charging module was important for early game and building up damage with charge attacks but this was ultimately less important than some other options such as the Efficient Ventilation module which I’d never found an upgrade beyond level one (they go up to level 3 on New Game) but was too valuable for the faster Stamina regeneration. The Endurance Module granted extra stamina, and the Avarice module helped gain levels faster but the eventual purchase of the Destruction module topped off my damage to a ridiculous degree where nothing’d been a true challenge at that point. Most modules are useful for any class or weapon focus and can really make the difference against tough opponents, though the trade-off is that the very good ones occasionally cost as much as a level, or a weapon upgrade so the choice becomes a matter of sustaining your economy without grinding too much. I’d found exploration granted rewards in every case and the odd extra level did eventually close the difficulty gap for new areas/bosses.

Modules are worth seeking out as they add a lot to combat customization.

The world of Steelrising sets you in the midst of an occult “steampunk” affected version of Paris and surrounding regions by way of what could broadly be considered the “reality, but…” of historical fiction, right at the inception of King Louis XVI‘s unleash of clockwork automatons (spoilers: they are infused with the souls of dead slaves and commoners, by dimensional crystal rift) set to kill the opposition to his rule. Most of the main characters you’ll interact with for side-quests and plot advancement recently moved to essentially abolish the monarchy in favor of democracy, some are military generals and others are religious leaders but all have strong influence over the people of Paris. This sets us in late 18th century France per the major hotspots of the French Revolution, which reimagined as warzones on the streets of several key locations in the fight for the end of monarchic rule over the country. Practically speaking this grants us partial access to about ten different multi-section or semi-open world stages which are generally resigned to industrial areas, downtown districts, affluent neighborhoods, and a few still standing landmarks which’ll probably be most interesting to folks who’ve spent time in historic districts, studied the history of the French revolution, or perhaps folks who merely know the short of why a fellowe like Maximilien Robespierre was important (with a bit of grey area involved…) or why the name de Vaucanson is a brilliant reference to a famous inventor who’d been responsible for the all-metal lathe (and a duck automaton that’d falsely eaten and shit). There is a lot of detail and personality available within this game that’ll appeal to folks who are either French, have some interest in revisionist history or are simply Francophile in nature though I am not sure there is a ton of crossover there for the typical dark fantasy attuned Souls-like enjoyer, this world is far less cryptic and the mystery at the center of Steelrising‘s plot is explored on very direct, quasi-scientific terms.

Watch my full playthrough of Steelrising on YouTube

Exploration of the game world leads to two truths that’d stood out to me being unearthed. First that freedom not only comes with a grave cost but that the alternative dehumanization likely runs much deeper and colder than expected. Slavery and racism are confronted with considerable intelligence as the game nakedly displays the destructive egotism of the wealthy and their place of superiority during these times, attitudes and excesses which directly lead to their downfall. In this way we find Spiders approaching themes which have persisted in all of their games, from unchecked corporate-ruled governments in the doomed world of Technomancer to the manifest destiny of imperialism of a doomed continent in Greedfall, in an appreciably different way which allows for the French Revolution era to draw parallels with the state of government and its similarly ruthless dysfunctional relationship with the people today. We gain these insights during side-quests, “memory echoes” which help Aegis regain her memory, and through exposition which arrives with the gate of a new area or boss fight. The rewards for exploration, and repeated re-traversal of each area are many if you appreciate lore just as much was power-ups or options for your build. Access to these areas naturally arrives just as it would in the average metroidvania or Zelda title, with upgrades to traversal or certain destructible gates/walls. If you are a completionist you’ll find that these smaller actions and explorations begin to present choices within their quest threads and these will begin to influence Aegis‘ affinity for saving the monarchy by usurping the evil influence over the king and his intentions, or the choice to remain “incorruptible” and take France for the people.

The performance from voice actress Cassie Layton, who was Lady De Sardet in Spiders‘ popular action RPG Greedfall and Ashera in Xenoblade Chronicles 3, must’ve been a difficult expectation to meet and perform in progression as Aegis. First she’d had to sustain the eerie coldness of a human-esque automaton, and does so well enough when presenting the logic and inquisitive thought required of the character in complex interaction with the distended subjects of the King amidst a violent revolution. What arises soon is, of course, treachery and deception on the part of most all of the cast as they are saved and interacted with per side-quests in various points of sanctuary. The actress’ performance then becomes vital to selling the idea that the character of Athénaïs de Vaucanson is not only developed enough in the mind of the player but that when Aegis realizes that she is her, one and the same, a soul transmitted through occult magick and a special type of crystalline dimensional extension… that her character must not only regain its true personality (which is left somewhat light) but change to include the repercussions of realizations that’d occurred during the game. The only rough part of the writing in this sense is not feeling like she’d become a revolutionary in the process, at least not believably swayed in dialogue beyond a cold shout of “Vive la France!“. It is such a difficult performance to appreciate for the sake of its awkwardness ’til it has all been experienced, knowing the full plot of the game and how it subtly manifests through various storyline choices (wherein sides of the Revolution are essentially picked, support is given) but it does all come together, and I believe most people will feel something for the torment and resolve of the heroine. I’d just expected her to take a more vengeful, incensed role against the monarchy after her father, the inventor of the automatons passes away in a harrowing, emotional way. Even if you do end up disappointed with your accidental hand in exclamations of fealty to the crown on her part, as I did, there is no question that in this character-driven action game Aegis ends up memorable for not only how she interacts but also internalizes, doubts and maintains an inquisitive resolve throughout.

Total play time for New Game: 24 hours 21 minutes.

I could go on, of course but only a few key points need to be included beyond. The main one is that the boss fights weren’t numerous, creative, or challenging enough but the first few did reward some artful dodging and observation. Again, you’ll amass enough grenades to basically kill every boss without using your weapons, so, you don’t need to overthink any aspect of combat if you’re just looking to break through. The outfits (read: armor) for the character while aesthetic weren’t much of a choice when it came to actual benefits, as armor scales the difficulty of combat with great significance, they were all fucking ugly too. While these aspects of the game should not render it a verdict of “Play once, hold regard for” that is where I’ve ended up with it despite recently finishing a full second playthrough for a different ending. I will eventually attempt a NG+ run with my original build/playthrough but I did not walk away from Steelrising feeling like I’d missed out on any vital content, though they will release a DLC option at the end of this year (2022).

Even if I don’t feel like it is worth replaying more than once or twice the the twenty or so hours I put into Steelrising to start managed to generally prove worth the $49.99 buy-in in terms of quality and an overall satisfying full rip through. Having played through each of Spiders games from Mars: War Logs (2013) through Greedfall (2019) last year I’d found this one refreshingly polished, reasonably sized yet somewhat ambitious, and virtually free of bugs and crashes on the Playstation 5 version. It does ultimately leave me with the feeling that the game could have been bigger, or, forced the player to use more options or alternate builds for some manner of gains since it really doesn’t cater to “run” style gaming due to the prominence of the story. All of this said and taken into account, the ultimate question here is whether or not I’d had fun playing the game. The answer being a resounding yes, I’d found the enemy patternation and their placement within each area fun to master in loops as the timing of the weaponry and combat in general carried the game to interesting and somewhat challenging places. The exploration of the world was fun enough and I’d spend enough extra time looking over each area that it was a wonder the game managed to keep egging me on with side-quests and places to explore. I don’t think it’ll blow minds who are more interested in the machine of combat rather than what skin it is wearing but this is yet an above-average game in this sub-genre which does everything right in generating intrigue and tasks enough that it never felt impersonal, or uninspired. A moderate recommendation, higher for folks who’d like The Surge games as much as I did.

Moderate recommendation. (74/100)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
Action Role-Playing Game
RELEASE DATE:September 8th, 2022

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