REVIEW – Steelrising is a Souls-style game set in the turbulent early days of an alternative French revolution. King Louis XVI attempts to stop history in its tracks and crush the nascent movement with an army of steampunk “automatons” (robots). The French developers’ game boasts a solid combat system and, despite its alternative steampunk story, is surprisingly faithful to its semi-historical setting. Unfortunately, some of the harsher bugs and unpolished design solutions detract from the overall picture. This is yet another soulslike game that cannot break away from FromSoftware’s heritage.
After a string of mediocre RPGs and second-rate detective titles, French game developer Spiders Studio has finally started to fulfil its potential in 2019 with GreedFall. An excellent role-playing game with rich world-building and solid combat proved that the French team is capable of creating something unique. Three years and one genre change later, the developer returns with Steelrising. This is another step forward for the team. However, too many technical glitches stand in the way of being able to say that they have put a truly quality title on the table.
This is not how the French Revolution was taught in school
Instead of a rich RPG environment with lots of characters to meet and a vast world to explore, Steelrising is more of a Souls game. It retains the storytelling and choices of Spiders Studio’s previous games – you can unlock multiple endings based on your choices – but it’s about as grounded in reality as any other Dark Souls experience.
The story is set in 1789, during the French Revolution, when King Louis XVI’s human army was replaced by legions of automatons. These robot soldiers roam the streets of Paris, driving out and destroying all resistance. You, a customizable automaton named Aegis, will leave the Queen’s bodyguard to try to end the King’s tyranny.
I would like to make my first, slightly more subjective criticism right after the game’s intro, which probably affects me a bit more than most Hungarian gamers. Although I speak French at an advanced level, the game was made by French people. It is set in France during the revolution, and right at the beginning, Marie-Antoinette is talking to someone (obviously originally in French). However, the game still has no French dubbing, only English. I also played Assassin’s Creed Unity twice in French and really enjoyed the quality French dubbing. I can’t do that here.
Of course, one thing you can’t deny about Steelrising is the ambition of its developers. Replacing the actual events of the French Revolution with mechanical soldiers is no small feat, and the result is a truly unique universe in the gaming world. While you may recognize some famous French landmarks during the roughly 12-hour campaign, the war-torn streets and the dangers that lurk there are alien. Animated candelabras pose as boss fighters, trumpeters turn their tunes into damage, and giant-headed robot monsters lead packs of metal dogs.
Spiders Studio has been creative in coming up with a steampunk alternative take on the French Revolution, meticulously crafting every aspect to fit the alternative view of history. It is indeed an unusual approach to storytelling, setting and hostile design, but it works well. The game is forever set apart from any other Souls-like game trying to copy FromSoftware’s formula. If anything, the developer most certainly deserves praise for this.
That’s all well and good so far, but where every Soulslike needs to excel is in combat. Steelrising is similar to Elden Ring, with its ground combos and vertical speed jump button. Limited by the usual stamina bar, you can block, dodge and attack enemies from the ground or air with the energy at your disposal. The control with DualSense is responsive, and the dynamics of your attacks and the weight of your blows are realistic. At the same time, the combat feels very “feely” and is great to control – especially when you stagger a fighter and send them to the ground.
An outstanding selection of weapons also ensures you’ll find the right tool for your playing style, as you can fully maximize two of the seven different classes at once during the game. This dramatically expands your abilities, as Aegis can have his primary weapon in one slot and a projectile-based tool that deals damage from a distance and affects elemental weaknesses in the other. Switching between the two quickly is vital for defeating bosses, and you can then spice up your gear with the usual bombs and potions. All this adds up to a dynamic combat system with a surprising number of options and combinations. I’ll quickly note here that if you want to shoot from the start, go for the soldier caste at the beginning of the game because it has that special attack and believe me: it’s worth it!
Farkas Kempelen would like to take part
If you’re familiar with this genre, you’ll be used to everything this game has to offer: time your dodges correctly, retreat at the right time to regain your stamina and don’t be too greedy, or you’ll run out of steam and get thoroughly injured or quickly cut down. You can’t change difficulty levels, so you have to fight smart all the more. The usual resting, re-energizing Dark Souls ‘bonfires’ are called Vestals here and are represented by a statue, and you can use the ‘currency’ dropped by enemies to upgrade your stats or buy new items. You know, like in the other soulslike.
What’s a bit different here is that your character and weapon upgrades really matter. We could feel Aegis getting stronger as we progressed, whether by increasing his attack power, putting on extra armour, or giving him more life. While in a Dark Souls game, it can sometimes feel like you’re just increasing stats for the sake of it – especially once you reach a high level – in Steelrising, every improvement counts. It’s satisfying when you notice that your enemy dies after fewer hits, and you’re all the better for it.
When everything’s running smoothly, this title is a joy to play. It adds value to the combat system; it’s something you want to engage with for the sheer enjoyment of it actively. As the power of Aegis increases, so does your confidence and ability to use more powerful moves and chain attacks together to take down enemies quickly.
France, as you’ve never seen it
Structurally, Steelrising covers eight locations in France, including Saint-Cloud, Versailles and Luxembourg. As the story progresses, these areas are unlocked and bring optional side missions. They’re all disconnected from each other; you can’t treat the title as an open world and seamlessly travel between each one. So each district – or the whole game – is really quite linear.
Although there are secrets to discover and small optional areas, there is only ever one direction to go. The game always drives towards the following main objective, with shortcuts to the Vestals opening up along the way. There’s a degree of freedom once you’ve opened up the whole map – the best time to complete side quests, for example – but invisible walls always discourage you from straying off the beaten track.
Some variety can be drawn from the skills unlocked during the campaign. The slow-motion dash, grappling, and powerful kick add light platforming to the usual soulslike exploration. And while you can only ever use them when the game deems it necessary, they’re still fun to use.
Error in the machinery
Unfortunately, the overall experience is somewhat spoiled by what goes on under the “robotic armour”. Minor visual and technical glitches constantly marred our playthrough. Enemy life bars randomly disappeared, interactive prompts didn’t work, and texture pop-ups were, unfortunately, widespread. Also, during many dialogue scenes, the audio was completely absent or intermittent, with only half of it audible, meaning that without subtitles, you have no idea what’s going on. In addition, the game warns you before you enter the final area that there is no turning back. It says it will create a separate save file so you can return to other areas and access all future content, but this second save was never made.
The game is perfectly playable in its current state, and a patch has been applied on day one, but unfortunately, we cannot guarantee that the update will fix all the bugs we encountered. Typically, closing the PS5 app and restarting it fixed all the problems, but it’s disappointing that technical flaws let down such a fundamentally sound game. For me, the game froze up pretty badly at one point; for a few seconds, the PS5 screen went completely black, and I almost had a heart attack.
The visuals are not great, either. Of course, we didn’t expect Steelrising to push the boundaries of PS5, but the title is decidedly last-gen looking, with poor character models and dull environments. We were never once impressed by the visual splendour, even though we were in one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals. Perhaps most embarrassing of all, the game is designed exclusively for current-gen systems. Without a PS4 version to hold back the software’s capabilities, Spiders Studio could have done a bit more to make the title shine in the visual department. However, that didn’t happen, and without support for adaptive triggers or haptic feedback, this release feels like a wasted opportunity.
For soulslike fans only for now
Steelrising is Spiders Studio’s best game to date, but too many bugs and technical problems hold it back from true greatness. Its combat system remains engaging and enjoyable throughout, and its unique, mechanical approach to the French Revolution means it will live longer in our memories than previous soulslike efforts. For now, it’s only for fans of the genre, but in six months, Steelrising could be in top form, at which point it will be well worth playing.
+ Very unique environment and story
+ Fun, agile, well-controlled combat system
+ Satisfying improvements and enjoyable abilities
– Too many bugs and errors
– Outdated visuals, made for the old generation
– Too linear at times
Release: September 8, 2022.