Steelrising is a surprisingly strong Soulslike with homages to Bloodborne's best bits
From Paris with love
I confess, I was worried about revolutionary robot Soulslike Steelrising. I'd seen it in a hands-off capacity and thought it looked like it could be in line for the Soulslike throne, but with Action-RPGs it's all about hand feel: does it feel rough or smooth under the thumbsticks? As luck would have it, I managed to get hands-on with the game to confirm whether its substance does, in fact, match its style. Here are my findings.
I tackled two hours of Steelrising, which saw me battle through the tutorial area, sock it to some robots in a woodland zone, and get on a boat and row over to Paris - where I socked even more robots in a grander setting. Then after a quick intermission, the devs loaded me into a build where I fought a boss and did some extra exploration. Overall I got to play a hefty amount, and with no red tape. All the menus were open for perusal, alongside cutscenes too. On the other hand I only saw a bit of story and interacted with one (1) NPC, so it was almost impossible to get a sense of Steelrising's storytelling pedigree.
I understood that Steelrising is trying to carve out its own Soulslike niche with its robo-revolutionary setting, though. Thing is, it's hard not to compare it to the likes of Bloodborne and Nioh. That has less to do with the baseline Soulslikery I'd seen a million times before - collecting some equivalent of souls (Anima Essence), saving progress at some equivalent of a bonfire (a chair), carrying some equivalent of an Estus Flask (vials of blue oil) - and more to do with how those influences clearly shaped exploration and combat. Some of these things Steelrising got very right, and others it couldn't quite replicate.
For instance, many of the early levels were gorgeous and intricate, but I wouldn't say they bristled with intrigue or mystery like FromSoftware's offerings. When levers led to shortcuts I'd be met with that, "Oh, I'm back here!" feeling, but moment to moment and area to area, it didn't quite command my attention as much as the big boys. There are signs that Steelrising is heavily inspired by a certain Gothic legend in particular. Inch your way through Bloodborne and you'll encounter NPCs hissing at you from behind closed doors; some even weave a touching personal tale into the gloomy surroundings, illuminating them for a moment. Steelrising had a glimpse of this, as I encountered a farmer who asked if I had any water to quench his thirst. Aha! But later he snatched the water from my grasp and only gave me a potion in return, and it seemed like a missed opportunity, a simple transaction that could've been so much more.
This pattern continued, with NPC chatter and dialogue doing the bare minimum to get by. I imagined the NPCs like cast members on the Truma Show, waiting inside a burning building for main character Aegis to pass the window. There she is! Okay, quick! Cue the line: "Oh no, this can't be happening... [dramatic pause] can it?!" That's the sort of craic you can expect.
So, if it wasn't extra curiosity that pushed me forwards, what was it? The combat, baby. This is where Steelrising mashes together elements of Bloodborne and Nioh into a surprisingly cohesive whole that encourages experimentation above all else. And that's starting with the enemies, who were wonderfully designed bastards and whose concept art I'd pin up on my walls in a heartbeat. Seriously, I was shown a few bits of art before the hands-on session and it was like the devs had poured an entire Screw Fix store into the Nether.
Regular enemies took some time to diversify, but by the end of my session I'd dismantled a good few monster machines. I fought a variety of spindly brass fellas who lurched and span at me. Big clunkers that swung balls on chains. Tin dogs. Bulbous golems that self-destructed before I had a chance to smack them into shutdown. All of these were fantastic fun to dispatch as Aegis controlled very nicely, with deft dodges and satisfying cracks whenever I landed some blows. The game's rhythm was more measured than I'd expected too, with a slightly stiff robotic edge to movements which – whether they're intentional or not – seemed like a neat way to uphold the android OS theme.
Weapons were stylish and enticing, with a willingness to break away from the tried and tested. I used two massive iron fans that I could unfurl like a peacock to parry attacks with a clang. Later, I opted for twin claws that built up enemy stagger meters quickly, so I could hit them with a flurry of scratches and then finish them off while they were in a daze. I picked up a flaming ball on a chain too, which combined heavy hits with intricate twirls and spins.
The neatest thing, though? The game forced me to use everything in my innards (Aegis whips weapons and items out of her steel shins and intestinal piping). The game hit me with two tin dogs and a clunker, for example, which taught me to use the various elemental bombs I'd stowed in my front bonnet to slow them down or soften them up a bit. A freezy gun let me chill foes from afar, making them even more vulnerable to a sustained assault. Once I'd learned to utilise my arsenal, I brought the knowledge with me into boss fights.
Right at the end of my session I fought The Bishop, a little religious idol nestled inside a capsule that controlled the equivalent of an enormous Dyson Ball vacuum. Except that the ball wore a whirling buzzsaw and he threw a bible on a grappling hook at me - no, I am not shitting you. It was intense! I learned that I should jump to avoid his biblical bashes and mix in aerial attacks at the same time. It also reinforced the game's cooling mechanic, which lets you recharge your stamina bar instantly if you time the button press correctly. Again, it's very, very similar to Nioh's Ki system, but less spammable. Do it too much and you'll freeze over. Which is exactly what happened to me.
There's depth in upgrades too, which I reckon has great potential for players who take their builds seriously. But it's a screen that's mightily confusing when you open it up, searing your eyeballs with percentages and numbers that won't mean a great deal unless there's a guide you can consult. Even if you're a veteran Souls player, it's difficult to discern how they've renamed stamina, strength, and the like.
Yet, there's something compelling about Steelrising. It's rough around the edges, sure, and a bit derivative, sure, but also comforting in its familiarity. Combat is deep and satisfying, while exploration isn't half bad too. Once I'd defeated that Bishop, I gained his grappling hook and unlocked new ways to progress through zones I thought I'd ticked off. Neat! In some ways Steelrising builds on Souls, in others it steers too close to what's been done already, but it's shaping up to be a good time and that's all that matters. The hand feel? Yeah, much better than I'd expected.