Yes, the Souls-like genre is bloated, to say the least, but by no means does that suggest that developers shouldn’t attempt to carve out their slice of the challenging action game pie. It does mean, however, that a new game in this stacked genre needs to innovate to stand out. While Steelrising, the latest title from French developer Spiders, doesn’t quite manage to break the mould in any lasting fashion, its creative premise and historical setting allow it some room to breathe away from this exceedingly crowded market.
In an alternate 1789, France has been thrown into turmoil by the inadequate rule of King Louis XVI. The people have revolted, the monarchy is on the brink of destruction, and revolution is looming over Paris. So far, so historically accurate, but I did mention that this is an alternate 1789.
In the king’s madness, he turns to the enigmatic oculist Cagliostro and the acclaimed inventor Jacques de Vaucanson, commissioning an army of unfeeling automatons that purge Paris of those who oppose the crown…and just about everyone else. At the height of the Clockwork King’s delusion, queen consort Marie-Antoinette tasks her mysterious personal guard Aegis, the only automat with the capability of speech, to end the mechanised violence.
Leaving the safety of Saint Cloud, the player will control Aegis, the brass ballerina turned brawler, as she makes her way across fractured France. Despite her dancing background, Aegis can do far more than pirouette and plié.
Without being too reductive, Steelrising’s combat is more or less what you would expect from a Souls-like RPG, with a few minor tweaks thrown into the mix. Aegis’ basic manoeuvres consist of a light and special attack, a dodge and a jump, all of which are tied to a stamina bar. If depleted, you’ll have a brief window to press a face button to regain your stamina early, though it comes at the cost of ice build-up that could potentially have you frozen in place.
Strewn throughout the city are Vestals, mechanical cages that Aegis can access to refill her health and upgrade her gear. This is done by using Anima; a resource dropped by defeated enemies. As is expected, you lose all collected Anima Essence upon death, wherein you can regain it by returning to the spot you fell.
The fundamentals are similar to Bloodborne or Elden Ring, as Aegis is nimbler than the lumbering knights in the Souls series. Steelrising does an admirable job emulating this combat style, though it feels clunky in places. Aegis was programmed to move with the grace of a dancer, and some of her animations portray that well, but the timing of attacks, blocks and parries often feel a bit sluggish and occasionally non-responsive.
After making a few cosmetic decisions during the game’s opening, you’ll be given a choice between four starting classes: Bodyguard, Soldier, Dancer or Alchemist. Though your choice here won’t lock you into a particular play style, it will determine your starting weapon, item and stat buffs.
The weapon variety is impressively wide, from fans, chains and claws to maces, wheels and dual swords. Each weapon type offers a different fighting style, whether heavy and hard-hitting halberds or fast fans. Expanding on this are the special attacks that can be used to block incoming attacks, parry enemies or infuse your damage output with an elemental effect of ice, fire or fulmination. Ranged weapons and some special attacks use Alchemical Capsules, a type of ammo gained from killing enemies or purchased from a Vestal. You’ll never be too strapped for Capsules, but balancing when and where to use this resource can lead to tense moments.
As extensions of Aegis’ own body, these damage-dealing devices more than look the part as well, with my personal favourite being a heavy axe that took the form of three parchment scrolls that could be unfurled to create a shield.
While the arsenal at Aegis’ disposal is varied and unique, the same can’t reasonably be said for the environments she traverses. On route to overthrow the Clockwork King, you will travel through eight regions across France, including Luxembourg, Invalides and Bastille. Mechanically-altered France is an ideal setting in theory, but, save for the final area, none of the locales manages to feel distinct from the rest. Cobblestone streets adorned with crumbling buildings are interesting enough at first, but the appeal fades when you’re walking those streets, again and again, no matter the level.
Once again, similar to the Souls games, levels become interconnected by unlocking passageways and gates that lead to previously visited areas. Furthermore, the levels feature a degree of verticality and incentivise exploration by employing three upgrades that Aegis obtains by defeating certain bosses. A grappling hook, a dash and a ram allow the player to reach previously inaccessible areas in hopes of discovering secrets, though these diversions more often lead to an item or two that you’ve seen before. Though I enjoy the added dimension to levels, the often-stiff controls made platforming a chore, leading to all too frequent backtracking.
Standing, rolling and floating between Aegis and her goal is the king’s army of automatons. The design of the enemies you encounter is intricate and exciting, with plenty of moving parts and period-appropriate flourishes that make them feel believable in this fictional retelling of history. In particular, the design of the bosses is fantastic, drawing inspiration from the location you encounter them. A clear standout is a bible-wielding machine, propelled by a huge sphere, whose weak point is a tiny statue of a bishop where a head would typically sit.
Regarding gameplay, the clockwork combatants are serviceable, with clearly telegraphed attacks and move sets that allow you to watch, learn, and act. Unfortunately, I feel like I had seen everything there was to see in combat upon leaving the first main area. Travelling to a new level means battling the same few automats, the only difference being their elemental damage output. There’s no point in comparing this aspect to the Souls series, but a deeper variety of enemy types would’ve made a world of difference.
Exempt from this criticism are the bosses. Just as they stand out aesthetically, so too do they in a combat sense. The fights against these gargantuan gearheads are challenging and fulfilling, feeling like an actual test of your abilities. As you whittle away at their health, their attack patterns and movements will devolve, causing them to become less predictable and more dangerous. Though it’s possible to load up on bombs and other damage-dealing items to try and cheese your way through these battles, I never felt compelled to do so.
The destruction of these tin titans is compelling while you’re taking part in it, but the narrative behind your actions is decidedly less intriguing. As I’ve said, the setting is interesting, but the story is largely forgettable. You’ll meet plenty of notable historical figures, but none of them manages to feel alive or meaningful. This is mainly due to some stilted writing and rather wooden voice acting. Bafflingly, all characters speak in either a high English or cockney accent, regardless of the French setting. I would assume this is down to budget, but it seems doubly odd, considering Spiders is a French developer.
While the visuals aren’t outstanding, the art direction does manage to carry most of the weight. Vaucanson’s mechanical creations are complex and detailed, with animations matching their robotic nature. However, I ran into several technical troubles, ranging from funny to frustrating. Enemies had a bad habit of T-posing post-mortem, and a fair share of missing audio made for some awkward cut scenes that should’ve been dialogue-heavy. Worst of all, I had an issue with a boss clipping through the environment and not returning, moments before I landed the finishing blow. Not ideal for a game built around challenging combat, that’s for sure.
The tough-but-fair gameplay that’s made the Souls-like genre so popular is undeniably excellent, but it’s not exactly inclusive. Looking to change that, Steelrising includes a number of assist options that aim to make the experience more accessible for everyone. Choosing whether or not you lose Anima upon death, reducing enemy damage and improving stamina regeneration are all options that keep the experience intact while allowing more players to enjoy the game. The accessibility conversation has been growing over the last few years, and it’s great to see Spiders bringing these options to a genre known for being devoid of them.
The PS5 version of this game was played for the purpose of this review.
Though the alternate history setting allows Steelrising to immediately separate itself from the bloated Souls-like genre in an aesthetic sense, its shortcomings prevent it from standing out in a way that truly matters. Some elements work well, and the accessibility options are very welcome; just don’t go in expecting Spiders to have reinvented the automaton.