Few historical moments couldn't be improved with the addition of murderous clockwork automata. Imagine robots rampaging through the signing of the Declaration of Independence, for example, or shoring up Harold Godwinson's army in the Battle of Hastings. Cult RPG developer Spiders seems to agree, as its latest game, Steelrising, imagines an alternative French Revolution with 100% more clockwork monstrosities.
Unlike Spiders' usual fare, Steelrising isn't a dialogue-heavy RPG, although it does have its fair share of conversation trees. Rather, it's a Soulslike, which initially feels like a rather incongruous choice for a historically dense setting like the French Revolution. That incongruity turns out to be prophetic, too, as Steelrising feels like it's constantly trying to reconcile its two halves to varying effect.
Combat Is The Star Of The Show In Steelrising
In terms of its core loop, Steelrising is a very familiar experience. Each of its levels is a semi-linear, open environment in which you must move from checkpoint to checkpoint (they're called "Vestals" here, but they're effectively bonfires), dispatching enemies and searching for loot. Along the way, you'll unlock shortcuts back to Vestals you've already visited. If you've played Souls games, you'll know the drill.
Happily, unlike many of its peers, Steelrising seems to know that it's combat that makes a good Souls game tick. The combat here is weighty, satisfying, and chunky. I played the heavy halberd build, so my attacks were slow and purposeful. Blows land with a hugely satisfying impact, and finding an opportunity to counterattack after an enemy leaves themselves open constantly feels rewarding.
The combat here is weighty, satisfying, and chunky.
It's a good thing the core combat is so good, because Steelrising struggles when it comes to giving you opportunities to explore its intricacies. There's an elemental affliction system that can either freeze, burn, or shock enemies, but I never really found myself using it because the core combat felt just fine without it.
This is also another Soulslike in which enemy variety is sorely lacking; while combat does feel good, you'll be testing your halberd arm against the same six or seven basic enemy types for the majority of Steelrising. Bosses inject a little variety, but they're few and far between; most of your time with Steelrising will be spent battling grunts on the ground, and the lack of variety quickly makes this a tiresome experience.
Steelrising Feels Torn Between Two Worlds
When things do slow down and you get a chance to talk to NPCs, many of whom are real historical figures from the French Revolution, you'll remember that this is a Spiders game. While conversations will always be conducted through dry dialogue trees of the "tell me more about X" type, they're always well-written. NPCs come across as distinct and interesting personalities that you'll want to get to know.
At times, Steelrising even confronts some of the more thorny historical issues of its moment. Haitian revolutionary Julien Raimond shows up here, and the fact that he's a Black man who owns an indigo plantation becomes the momentary focus of a confrontation between him and statesman Maximilien Robespierre. I was genuinely shocked Steelrising went there, but I was gripped.
Unfortunately, following this tense exchange, Henri Grégoire steps in and directs you towards the objective of the quest you actually need to be pursuing right now. This moment is indicative of Steelrising's problem; it never knows whether it wants to be a combat-heavy Soulslike or a more narratively nuanced RPG, and the two halves always feel in contention with one another.
At times, Steelrising even confronts some of the more thorny historical issues of its moment.
It almost feels like there are two games going on here. Rather than the French Revolutionary politics and the Soulslike combat intertwining and working in tandem, it feels like the gameplay parts must stop in order for some story to happen, then some story must stop in order for some gameplay to happen. It's a shame, because the writing is very solid, and although notable Revolutionary figures appear with suspiciously anomalous frequency, Steelrising does a great job of creating a strong setting. It just never finds a satisfactory home for the Soulslike gameplay within that world.
Difficulty Is Weird In Steelrising
Of course, it's entirely possible to let Steelrising's story take a back seat to its gameplay. After all, as much as this setting would make an excellent RPG, that's not really what Steelrising is. If you do focus mostly on the combat, you'll find a well-crafted Soulslike that stands head and shoulders above its peers in terms of game feel. There are plenty of combat options, too, with a wide range of weapons and styles on offer to try out.
Sadly, that wide range of weapons also means that Steelrising can never quite find a good balance when it comes to difficulty. To be frank, most of its bosses are an absolute walk in the park. Once you've figured out how to dodge the one or two moves that might actually do some damage to you, you're set for the whole fight; just dodge forward and to the right and punish any overly confident attack animations you see.
My halberd also came with a ranged component for its alternate attack, and that ranged component broke combat entirely. I rarely found myself lacking the alchemical capsules needed to fire the gun, which meant that some boss fights were pathetically easy; I just stood at range and shot the boss until it died, rarely even sustaining a single hit in the process. This goes for normal enemies, too, and unfortunately Steelrising never changes the formula to stop you from exploiting the systems in this way.
Steelrising's Ambition Is Great And Terrible
This lack of difficulty means that exploration isn't rewarded as it should be. Steelrising has some pretty good level design; aesthetically, its stages are annoyingly similar, but it feels churlish to blame Spiders for that when they're going for something approaching historical verisimilitude. The actual layout and implementation of the levels are great, with lots of looping pathways and optional areas to explore. It's just that there's never anything useful in those areas, protagonist Aegis feels so absurdly overpowered from a very early stage that you rarely need any of the upgrade materials Steelrising throws at you.
It's unfortunate because there were moments during my time with Steelrising when I felt genuinely awed by its presentation. The burning streets of Revolutionary Paris are littered with sinister automata, which clank and whirr menacingly as they move towards you. Steelrising's world hums and clicks with clockwork efficiency, making each animation a joy to watch. Levels always throw more at you just when you think you're done, too; I found exploring areas like the Bastille and the winding backstreets of Paris constantly addictive.
In some ways, though, Steelrising's size and ambition are also working against it. I encountered a fair few bugs, with three nasty game-ending crashes and one occasion on which I got stuck on the level geometry and had to forfeit my "souls" to return to a checkpoint. You know what you're getting with a Spiders game; some small amount of jank is to be expected, and it never ruined my enjoyment of the overall experience.
These issues did make me feel like nothing in Steelrising quite fits together as it should, though. A Soulslike in Revolutionary France is a strong idea, and Steelrising does explore some of the avenues that idea presents, but it feels like a project that was just a little too ambitious, leading to some inconsistent execution (ironically for the French Revolution).
Steelrising | Final Thoughts
I don't want to sound like I'm too down on Steelrising. It's easily the best non-From Software Soulslike I've played, thanks to its excellent atmosphere, satisfying combat, and surprisingly well-written dialogue. I just wish it had found a way to reconcile the two warring halves of its gameplay and its story. As it is, Steelrising feels like a good Soulslike and an incomplete RPG jostling for space, and it's because of that conflict that neither half quite fulfills its potential. Still, Spiders has proven itself adept as a developer of more combat-heavy experiences, and Steelrising is a promising beginning for a potential future shift in direction.
TechRaptor reviewed Steelrising on PS5 with a copy provided by the publisher. It is also available on PC and Xbox Series X|S.
- Great Combat
- Compelling Exploration
- Solid Writing
- Lack Of Challenge
- Gets Repetitive Quickly
- Feels Like Two Half-Games