video games

‘Stellar Blade’ review: A solid Soulslike with a throwback feel

Kyle Chua

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‘Stellar Blade’ review: A solid Soulslike with a throwback feel
Don’t let the 'Bayonetta' and 'Nier' comparisons fool you, 'Stellar Blade's' combat borrows a lot from Soulslikes. Check out our review!

Disclosure: Sony provided a copy of the game for this review

Stellar Blade is a fascinating game. It strikes me as one of those rare, out-of-left-field Sony gambles – an exclusive that likely won’t define a PlayStation generation but build enough of a following to one day be considered a cult classic.

Does that mean it’s not as strong as other AAA PS5 exclusives? Perhaps. There are parts of the game that, in my opinion, could be better and don’t live up to the standards of a modern mid-to-big-budget project.

However, my comment on how it might eventually be remembered has more to do with its unconventional nature instead of its quality. I say “unconventional” because the game has all the trappings of an Xbox 360-PS3-era release with the modern graphical and performance flourishes of current-gen consoles, which I don’t mean as a slight, but rather as praise.

Nostalgic charm

Much of Stellar Blade’s charm stems from how it doesn’t try to be anything else other than a stupidly fun and stylish sci-fi adventure, which is a trait so evocative of games from yesteryears. One look at the game’s protagonist alone – a shapely young heroine, clad in an outfit that doesn’t leave much to the imagination – should tell you as much.

But I love that about the game – how it’s such a throwback to games of the past that didn’t care too much about having grounded stories or photorealistic visuals. Instead, it just wants to be an enjoyable romp with anime-inspired fight scenes and a massive serving of alien gore.

That, however, also means you shouldn’t expect much from the game’s story. The Last of Us, this is not. You’re dropped into a post-apocalyptic Earth as the previously mentioned female protagonist, Eve, and your mission is to save humanity by eliminating the aliens – the Naytiba – who have invaded the planet. That fairly simple and somewhat generic premise serves as a good enough setup to frame all the over-the-top action sequences and set pieces you’ll experience throughout the game. But, overall, the story doesn’t do much for me.

A solid Soulslike

What Stellar Blade lacks in story, it at least makes up for in engaging combat.

Don’t let the Bayonetta and Nier comparisons fool you, though. In terms of the combat, this borrows a lot from the Soulslike subgenre, including a bonfire-style checkpoint system and enemies placed around corners waiting to catch you off-guard. So if you’re not a fan of those games, be warned.

The combat itself is reminiscent of FromSoftware’s much-lauded Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, where you have to break your enemies’ stance by parrying their attacks.

Parrying – as you probably already know if you’ve played any modern melee-focused action game – is executed by perfectly timing the block button as your enemies’ attacks are about to land. Successfully parrying an attack negates any damage to you, opens your enemies up for more attacks, and removes a point from their Stance meter. Deplete your enemies’ Stance meters and you can execute a special attack that does massive damage.

The parry system takes some practice, especially when you’re still learning your enemies’ attack patterns, but the window afforded to you to react is not that punishing. Still, you’ll probably want to access the training simulator as you rest in checkpoints to sharpen your skills.

The simulator also lets you practice combos that you learn from your skill tree, which can prove to be a great help in combat. You’ll want to commit the button combinations of these combos to memory, so that you don’t have to pull up your skill tree in the middle of fights.

See, there’s more incentive for you to adopt a more aggressive playstyle here than perhaps in other Soulslike games since your attacks can sometimes cancel your enemies’. Combos let you chain more attacks in quicker succession, leaving almost zero room for them to counter or go on the offensive.

The one thing that annoyed me about the training simulator though is that you can only pin one combo at a time on your HUD for reference, requiring you to navigate menus and loading screens again to practice a different combo.

As a casual Soulslike fan, I think the combat’s difficulty feels just about right – it’s not a walk in the park but it’s not unforgiving at the same time. A lot, if not all, of the bosses just require some practice, which could involve dying to them a few times to first learn their attack patterns. That process is made a lot more accessible here because there’s no penalty for death, apart from needing to repeat your progress from your last checkpoint.

Outside of combat, you’ll be exploring the desolate remnants of cities of Earth, activating checkpoint rest stops and scrounging for loot. This, for me, is the weakest part of the game.

The movement feels somewhat floaty and finicky, which gives off the impression that you don’t have as much control of Eve as you think you might have. It’s even worse during the swimming sections, where it feels like there’s a slight delay between inputs, and yes, there are swimming sections. These, among other movement-related quirks, can sometimes make the platforming a chore to play. While I don’t think the movement is all bad, it just doesn’t feel as refined as what you come to expect from a game with a good chunk of platforming elements.

Graphics-wise, however, I think the game is impressive. It’s not the most detailed or good-looking game out there, but it definitely has a distinct visual style that gives it a strong identity.

The game is also well optimized for the PS5, being able to maintain a stable 60 frames per second on Performance Mode. I didn’t observe any significant frame rate dips in the more than 15 hours I’ve spent with the game so far. If there were any dips or slowdowns, they weren’t significant enough to be noticeable, meaning they likely won’t affect your gameplay experience.

Overall, Stellar Blade is a solid first AAA outing for the South Korean studio Shift Up. The combat is exhilarating; the boss fights are intense; and the action set pieces are epic in scale. It doesn’t feel as refined and tight as, say, Sekiro, but it’s still impressive to a certain respect.

If you’re looking for a mindlessly fun Soulslike game, this is easy to recommend.

Then again, I also get that not everyone wants to play as a scantily-clad, anime-looking heroine who hacks and slashes through aliens with her… stellar blade. –

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