Genre has been on my mind ever since I had a chance to have some practical time with a preview of Steelrising, an upcoming soulful action RPG from the French developer Spiders. In this sting of the infectiously popular and notoriously challenging genre, Spiders hopes to send us to an alternate timeline in Paris during the French Revolution. But instead of fighting against human soldiers, we are facing deadly clockwork machines, or “machines”.
You take on the role of Aegis, a vending machine once built to dance, but now reused and tasked with finding the Queen’s children in the midst of a deadly revolution, while at the same time hunting for secrets about her own origins. You will engage in brutal battles with other vending machines, gain experience, “anima” to increase your stats while finding new weapons in the environment. If you die, you release the anima where it is, and if you die again, you will lose it forever. It is a soul; this you can.
Here is my heretical credentials for even daring to talk about a soul The Surge; the science fiction aesthetic only speaks to me more than fantasy (especially the worn cultural traces of medieval fantasy—yawn). I’ve played with Dark Souls 3 in frustration, which I have with Blood-borne. Elden Ring was the first spiritual except The Surge which I really enjoyed, and it’s mostly because it gave me more to do than just march down the corridors of death to find ways to connect said corridors together through doors so I could skip the suffering and move on to more suffering.
Based on an early preview of a beta version of the game, Steelrising is set to be, at least for me, one of the better soul-like experiences I’ve had – if for no other reason than that I can pause it and not have to worry about online invasions from infinitely better players. There is also the super-fantastic inclusion of “Assist Mode”, which allows you to adjust how much damage you take, as well as a few other parameters. I have been told that this mode comes at the expense of not being able to earn certain achievements.
It sounds like a fair trade that preserves the challenge the developers face while still respecting the players’ time and skill levels. I’m a woman with a full time job and a lot of hobbies, so even if I respect the challenge of a straight soulslike, unless the aesthetics really catch my attention or, as Elden Ringthe pace is a little different, getting exhausted from dying over and over again is more than likely driving me away from the screen to tackle a modular synthesis project or trying to read that Pynchon novel again or something, something else.
I’m not sure if Steelrising will win over soul-like fans, who I imagine have different tastes in terms of what removes the bar established by successful and specific games. I can tell you that in my first moments with Assist mode turned off, it definitely felt like a soulslike because I got frustrated, and it was a known frustration – maybe a little more frustrating than I have found other soulslikes.
These enemies hit and they hit hard. Also, when they are in groups, I think they are much more dangerous than in a FromSoft souls game, especially since it looks like you have to hold the right analog lever to change your lock target instead of being able to snap it. On top of this, I feel like the game wants me to keep up the pressure with more speed than I might be used to in this genre, which is challenging when the endurance meter drops, in my opinion, much faster than it probably should.
But Steelrising differs in that I, the player, the one who owns the stupid box I play this on, can tell the game to get fucked and not hit me for so much damage. Or some damage. I own this world now.
While such a powertrip is entertaining in itself, it allowed me to understand the pace of the game a little more. I was able to go from deadly skirmishes with creaking metal freaks to something more like sparring. Most of the time when you get hit, it’s pretty obvious, so hitting damage (you still take fall injuries and certain types of elemental damage) allowed me to jump in and learn both the enemies’ moves and my own without the frustration of dying over and over. again. That was what turned the transition from frustration to fun for me.
Being able to shut down damage and get myself back up after each hit allows me to better learn the movement moves of the enemies and anticipate their attacks. Scaling the damage from zero allows you to dampen the learning curve of the experience and acts as a kind of rolling difficulty level. I also gained better control of my movements, and learned the most effective times to get in and moan. It really helped me figure out which weapons I wanted to use more of, and learn Steelrisingits nuances without as much frustration. I can make the game meet me where I am, as opposed to the other way around.
I focused on two weapons all the way. First was a serious fire chain weapon that allowed me to keep some distance from enemies with stylish attacks and hit the ground for a sleek but effective AoE fire. Others were a “shield musket” that did a little more damage than Blood-borne firearms and could freeze enemies to let me move in for an end. As the name implies, it contained a magic (?) Shield I could deploy if enemies tried to stop my efforts to keep them within reach.
If I had to compare this to one of them souls games, it seems like it’s sitting somewhere Sekiro side of things, especially since you can jump and use a grab hook to slide up to higher areas across the Parisian streets. It works well enough so far. The clockwork machines and the 18th century setting help this to stand out from the crowd souls clone in ways that the game’s match may not. It’s a unique atmosphere. Throw in a dash of something like that Assassin’s Creed via the historical fiction side of the story, and you will have a sense of what to expect.
The story hits like a more traditional action RPG than anything from FromSoftware. First, it does not seem to be as cryptic. You also get access to a consumable compass that turns the lens markers on or off. Although I appreciate the frugality of saying, Elden Ring by letting me explore the world without such things, I enjoyed having some more traditional HUD elements here because I could stay focused and get more direct to the story rhythms.
This early preview was a little more flawed in history than I had hoped, especially since I think the story and aesthetics are going to be what really makes this game unique. I hope it’s just because this was simply a preview of something larger in scope. I’m interested in Aegis’ interactions with humans, since she’s a vending machine that fights against other vending machines. It’s a cool opportunity here to play with the standard “feeling robot” atmosphere. What exactly is feeling in this world? Does Aegis feel a sense of belonging to other vending machines she kills?
The demo left me with questions I want answered. If previous Spiders games are something to go for, especially The technomaniacI also expect some fun twists and unexpected plot revelations.
Although this early preview was described as a beta version, the performance and visual effects need to be significantly improved for the final release. My favorite part of Spiders games is usually their environmental design, which in previous games sings with artistic talent and ambition. But so far Steelrising shows a general dullness that I hope will be polished to a finer sheen in the final release. I also hope that the sound has a better balance, since it is a cool soundtrack that is unfortunately buried under the often shrill sound of the match.
The performance is also worth mentioning. Although I think a stable and fast framerate is probably best for this genre in general, Steelrising has a more comprehensive need for stable and reliable fast frame pacing. Like I said before, it feels like I want to be a little faster than most soulslikes, so much so that I wonder how this game could have been if it had been borrowed the devil can cryhis action instead Dark souls‘. Aside from speculation, there is a cool mood in the character movements. Like clockwork machines, everyone moves at a stiff, calculated, slightly nerve-wracking pace that reminds me of the original Terminator film meets the bounty hunter droid in season one of Mandalorianen.
When the frame rate slows down, as it did regularly at fairly high settings at 4K on a machine with an RTX 3070 in mind, the animation work simply does not sit properly and looks worse than it actually is. This has a pervasive effect that makes the game feel a little harder than it should, as everything just feels off and it does not quite sell the otherwise interesting concept of clockwork machines that are engaged in battle with stiff, deadly blows in the middle of the sound of ticking gears .
Steelrising lands September 8 this year for PC, PS5 and Xbox Series consoles. No PS4 or Xbox One release planned. With a genre that has a clear leader and many have been, wannabe competitors, time will tell if the full, polished experience will help this one stand out.