The cojones it takes to release a Soulslike in the era of FromSoftware. But what, in reality, is a Soulslike? It depends on who you ask, which can also be said of roguelikes. However, all that matters is whether or not a game is enjoyable. Steelrising departs from the Soulslike formula in meaningful ways, confidently striding into its own realm of fantastical historical fiction while offering a comfy, breezy action RPG experience.
Steelrising focuses on the end days of King Louis XVI in France during the French Revolution, but in this timeline, our monarch controls an army of automatons while you, the player, play the part of a sentient automaton named Aegis. Immediately, Marie Antoinette tasks Aegis with a rescue mission. So off she goes, but the winding path takes her to various locales across Paris as she rescues other notable historical figures, such as Robespierre and Lafayette, all the while slaying countless automatons in the streets of France.
The story plays out linearly, with Aegis going from point A to B in traditional Soulslike fashion. She opens up shortcuts, finds the game’s version of a bonfire, and eventually fights a big baddie. After a while, she can speak with those she’s rescued at a home base and take on side missions to flesh out the story for both the NPCs and Aegis herself. Some side missions are pretty straightforward, typically involving retracing steps in old areas and unlocking doors with newly obtained abilities. While the actual design of these quests doesn’t alight the imagination, the plot snippets accentuate an otherwise straightforward central arc of “defeat the villain.”
Traversing ye olde Paris while slaughtering machines is fairly entertaining and reminded me of the board game Scythe, which also involves machines in a bygone era. An onlooker may look at Steelrising and find the environments rather bland—which is fair—though I’d argue that the historical accuracy can’t (and shouldn’t) be sacrificed in this case. While it’s true that the colors and architecture are monotonous, they don’t look bad. They evoke a city that feels authentic to the time. Folks, make sure you have an adequate rig for this one. The game seems poorly optimized, and I by no means have an archaic graphics card, as I still play most modern games on high settings. Even though I had to play on the lowest graphical settings, Steelrising still looks excellent. This is unfortunate, but thankfully low settings still look wonderful, in part because the automatons are lovingly cobbled together and breathe personality.
Now, in terms of gameplay, Steelrising is what you’d come to expect from a Soulslike: third-person action focusing on careful movements, exploiting enemy patterns, and quaffing a flask from time to time. While I’d argue that Steelrising is undoubtedly a much, much easier romp than any other Soulslike out there, it still demands focus, or the enemies will slay you. This isn’t a “mash attack” sort of game or chaotic action experience like God of War or Devil May Cry. It relies on carefully observing enemy movements and responding, allowing you to dodge, exploit, rinse and repeat. Unfortunately, the enemy variety is lacking, and the enemies quickly become fodder with their attack patterns revealed. Even if I made an error, I wasn’t punished too heavily in Steelrising; my damage was always high and my survivability was never in question.
In fact, I defeated about 80% of the bosses on my first try. Several bosses were just more challenging versions of regular enemies, but even the unique ones lacked much variety. Some shot ice, fire, or electricity, launched bombs, or did long lunges across the map, but they were generally all slow, lumbering hulks with easily punishable patterns. The mobs typically hid behind a small piece of debris on the streets or stood in plain sight waiting to be challenged. Only rarely did they ever fight en masse or lie in wait in any unique environmental layout.
In terms of fun doodads, players can use the weapons one has come to expect in these sorts of games that all get more powerful with different stat combinations. Most weapons use a combination of strength, agility, or magic, but there are, of course, weapons that emphasize one significantly over the other. One unique feature is the use of ammunition, allowing players to use either a special ability on a weapon or a weapon, such as a pistol. Most enemies drop a bullet or two, but what this means is that if you choose to lean too heavily on a gun, for example, then when the ammo’s gone, you either grind against easy mobs or have to use a melee weapon for the time being until you can restock. As soon as I ran out of bullets the first time, I decided I was out of the gun game, as cool as it was.
Other customization methods include armor, though this is pretty vanilla; every piece of armor adds physical defense, elemental resistances, item find chance, endurance, and so on. Those into “Fashion Souls” may enjoy what Steelrising has to offer, as all of the armor is of the era and chic. Players can also equip various accessories called modules to add that extra punch or sideboard when needed. Aside from that, Steelrising offers grenades, potions, and the normal consumable nonsense one has come to expect from Soulslikes.
A must for Soulslikes is competent controls and hitboxes that make sense, and Steelrising does this phenomenally well, so no worries there. Audibly, the music is fine; I enjoyed it enough, but I’ve already forgotten every piece of music. The voice acting, while competent, doesn’t always wow. Oddly enough, I found certain distressed citizens to be some of the most impressive voice actors in the game.
Steelrising will catch grief from people who want it to be Dark Souls. And it’s not Dark Souls. Nor should it be. This is a competent, well-designed game that seems to focus on accessibility and reimagining history using a quasi-steampunk aesthetic. Does it have problems? Certainly! The enemies are samey, the platforming is tiresome, the sidequests focus on retracing steps far too often, and the graphics issues will irritate many. That said, I love it. This is a fun game. Soulslike purists will lambaste Steelrising for being too easy and short (about 15 hours), but I’d argue that the genre needs this game. The barrier for entry is far too high for many people who just want to have fun, and Steelrising gives those folks the ability to enjoy this genre. I’m not about gatekeeping. I, for one, applaud Spiders (the developer) for this bold work and hope we see more titles like it.