Initial release: 2022
Platform: PC/Playstation 5/XBox Series S|X
Was Bloodborne a revolution? Can we consider it the beginning of a sea change in how the soulslike genre has developed over the past 13 years since Demon’s Souls released? (Was Demon’s Souls a revolution? Or was it merely a revival of a decades-old design sensibility, a result of FromSoftware trying to create a thematic successor to King’s Field with more modern gameplay? Is the entire genre just an attempt to get in touch with long-forgotten RPG roots? Am I just talking bullshit? Keep reading to find out!) However Bloodborne (and the Souls series before it) might necessarily require some ink when talking about the evolution of games, one particular facet of the soulslike genre that, in all honesty, might be the one that generates the most Discourse™ is that of difficulty. Should soulslikes have difficulty options, how difficult is too difficult, is including a difficulty slider an affront to artistic vision, et cetera et cetera — every time FromSoftware releases a new title we have this go-round all over again. And as someone who has moved from saying “let hard games be hard” to earnestly arguing that not including a difficulty slider is a design failing that strips choice from the player — which in fact resulted in me trading places, opinions-wise, with a couple of friends— I can certainly say I’m fucking tired of the whole debate, especially since developers have been very slow to actually address any of it.
Enter Steelrising. Developed by Spiders, the outfit behind colonialpunk RPG GreedFall, Steelrising takes players to the night the French Revolution started, only it’s a little different this time. In this version of the Kingdom of France, clockwork automatons have been a fixture of French society for a few years, devised by a genius working for the king. Nevertheless, the Third Estate still demands that society be improved somewhat, and in response, King Louis has sent out an army of clockwork soldiers who have massacred everyone they can get their gears on throughout Paris. Marie Antoinette, desperate for information about what’s going on, sends out Aegis, her intelligent mechanical bodyguard with the body of a dancer, to find the man who built all these machines, a journey that will take Aegis to the heart of a conspiracy to hold on to power at any cost.
Right away most of the standard features of soulslikes are here, and indeed plays similarly to Bloodborne. At heart it’s an RPG, with stats for you to grow by earning experience in the form of anima, the game’s equivalent of souls, which is basically just a number that grows every time you kill an enemy, but drops to zero when you die. You have options in how you want to develop your gameplay style — do you go for the slow, but heavy-hitting weapons? Or do you lean into the dancer thing with a more agile build centered around speed? Or maybe you want to freeze your enemies, shock them, and/or set them on fire? There’s paths for all three. While Aegis isn’t as customizable as, say, the hero of Elden Ring, you still have a small range of options for her appearance, and can further enhance your look with clothing options you find throughout the game. Obviously these clothes each have their own effects on your stats — some give you more flame resistance, some give you better armor, and so on — but ultimately it’s not that consequential and you’re generally free to fashion it up as you like. And speaking of fashion, the game is appropriately pretty — 18th century Paris is rendered in all its highs and lows, vaulted clean apartments and unspeakable urban filth. The enemies are clockwork, and it shows in their animations, the slightly jerky movements and the way sometimes they seem to stop for a moment, as if their internal workings are resetting. As Aegis burns off her endurance bar, a flywheel on her back begins to glow red, eventually burning out and requiring Aegis to slow down while her endurance regenerates.
Gameplay wise, you’d be hard pressed to find a terrible amount of difference from the likes of Bloodborne. There’s somewhat more of an RPG vibe to it as Aegis can have lengthy conversations with key figures of the Revolution, including Robespierre, and how you handle the handily-marked sidequests plays a role in the ending. The various playable areas are also disconnected from each other, reachable only by mechanical carriage, but are internally very complex, with lots of paths back to previous areas that you can unlock, making more direct routes to your destinations possible. Nevertheless, the game emphasizes relatively fast play, as opposed to the stodgier combat of Dark Souls. Case in point, endurance works differently: when it bottoms out, if you hit a button at the right time, you can regenerate a portion of your endurance at the cost of taking some frost damage (from whatever mechanism is used to cool that red-hot flywheel.) It won’t hurt your HP, but a maxed out frost bar makes you immobile until it either melts or you shake it off. However, if you can pull it off, it’s enough to keep you in the fight for longer before having to pull away to catch your breath.
At its core, it’s a soulslike, through and through. But there’s one big difference: it’s easier than most other soulslikes — perhaps all of them. It’s hard for me to really explain how, when I struggled so badly through Bloodborne and even the Souls games (which I finished) require an intense amount of concentration, but Steelrising just felt easier. Maybe it was the fact that combat felt more forgiving, maybe it was that if you struggle with parrying in other soulslikes like me this game makes it very easy to do with a little practice. (The downside is that only some weapons will allow you to parry; on the upside, counter-attacks are automatic, and given the fast pace of the combat you can chain it into other attacks in fairly short order.) Whatever the case, while I didn’t finish the game on one life (far from it) I never felt terribly frustrated, though some of the later bosses gave me a little trouble. And this is even without fiddling with the difficulty options!
That’s right, Steelrising features an Assist Mode, which aims to take some of the sting out of gameplay. You can adjust how much damage you take, toggle an option to let you keep your not-souls after death, speed up your endurance regeneration, and make all your rapid cooldowns perfect. All of these are clear, obvious ways to make the game easier (and I can see keeping your anima being especially popular with people who are frustrated by soulslikes.) The game features no online gameplay, so difficulty options seem like a logical inclusion (I’m looking at you, Sekiro) but I would argue that even in a game featuring PvP at least the keep-anima option couldn’t possibly imbalance the game much, especially when these games are so often filled with cheaters anyway.
Of course, given that this is a Spiders game, some mediocrity is to be expected. There’s an overall sense of jank; FromSoftware’s hit boxes tend to be immaculate (we just don’t talk about Fume Knight) but Steelrising is real fucking weird about it sometimes. Part of why I leaned so hard into a parrying build is precisely because of how unpredictable the hitboxes were — it was easier to just block an attack outright than to try to dodge it, and in contrast to unpredictable hitboxes, most enemy attacks were pretty well telegraphed. The game was also plagued with some technical issues, chief among them a persistent bug where some ground textures simply wouldn’t load beyond a muddy low-res texture, and texture streaming issues featured throughout the game. I also had pretty regular performance issues, a lot of it seemingly connected to texture streaming; this is on top of extremely long load times both to start the game and then loading the game proper, as well as moving between zones. The game also doesn’t really explain how it selects which ending you get — I thought I had been working towards the ending that favored Robespierre, but instead the honor of ruling France had been given to La Fayette.
Nevertheless, this is a solid title in the soulslike genre, and while its relative obscurity and lack of polish makes me doubtful that its inclusion of difficulty options will be revolutionary any time soon, I still think it’s an important step forward for a genre that’s as much defined by what people who don’t play soulslikes think soulslikes are as it is by what people who do play soulslikes think soulslike should be.