Stellar Blade Review: Makes the Cut and Leaves a Promise

Written by Allen

May 14, 2024

Do you need to make something original to be good? Well, being original helps. But I think we’ve proven time and again that it’s not necessary.  I mean, I always want to try somebody’s spin on adobo or curry. Everybody likes to sink their time watching react videos, maybe reality TV. Heck, for several decades now the weebs haven’t stopped enjoying isekai anime or the regular tokasatsu offerings from Japan. So long as the ones making it understand what people like about whatever they’re replicating, we can expect whatever it is to be well-received.

 

 

Another part that matters is that whatever you’re creating doesn’t simply figuratively copy somebody else’s homework. It’s okay to honor a working formula, but you have to attempt to add to it. Try to improve something, maybe make it look better, maybe check some aspect of it that can genuinely be improved. Sometimes that means digging deep and finding something truly unique to revamp said formula, like Vampire Survivors that completely repurposed Castlevania sprites into an action roguelike that turned the gaming scene upside-down. Sometimes you just have to put two things together that already exist, where they work so well together, that we wonder why it wasn’t done earlier. Dragon Ball FighterZ quickly comes to mind. Rouge-like mechanics on a shooter aren’t really all that new, nor is the concept of tag-fighters that’s existed for decades. But the names I mentioned previously certainly shook the scene in their unique ways. And for all intents and purposes, Shift Up intends to do just that with their PlayStation 5 exclusive title, Stellar Blade.

 

Overview

 

 

Stellar Blade aims to be a straight-up action game, where the developers have no intention of hiding where they draw their inspiration, Yoko Taro’s NieR Automata. A story set in a post-apocalyptic world, where humanity’s survival is at risk. You play as Eve, a super-weapon formed as an android (or gynoid, if you want to be more exact about it). And you’re there to eliminate all threats to humanity. Which, you know, if you thought I was talking about NieR, I wouldn’t be surprised.

However, it doesn’t simply try to win you over with the good old nostalgia glasses. They present you with graphics that the previous console generation simply couldn’t handle back then. In worlds that carry a bit more character through what you see, the design and modeling of the characters are far more detailed. The set-piece action takes me back to other notable titles before, like Uncharted. They also create a much denser open world for you to explore and be rewarded by, and even attempt to improve on the rather simple combat flow that Platinum Games had created back then. Rather than relying on a forgiving dodge window to get through fights, Shift Up encourages you to stand your ground, and make use of Sekiro’s parry system to give you far more engaging combat. To make successful parries and attacks feel more rewarding, they added a flair that reminds me of Devil May Cry. To top it all off, it remembers not to take itself too seriously and adds a few side activities that remind you to have fun. Like collecting cans, or just relaxing with a bit of fishing. And as we all know, a fishing mini-game is an integral part of any good RPG. So, it must be a great title then, right?

 

 

Their eagerness to create something like NieR Automata and try to improve on it is something that I commend. But there are simply some areas they do not deliver on. The sore thumb that sticks out is the narrative, and how it’s delivered by the cast of characters. Who with maybe a few exceptions, show an entire gamut of emotions between stoic, brooding, and at times, bordering cynical. The individual stories don’t feel as impactful when the game doesn’t try to give it the time it needs for us to form a connection with what’s in front of us. You have set-piece after set-piece, after a big fight, a new side-mission, or a new thing to try see, or try out. And that leaves behind the lulls and slower-paced scenes needed for feelings to settle and brew. I mean, it’s pretty hard to stay focused when you’re in an arcade full of flashing screens and loud sounds, or is it easy to think about your feelings when you’re going full-speed on a rollercoaster. I think this is an idea that Shift Up may have overlooked in their journey to making their ideal version of NieR, while excitedly trying to make all these other ideas work within the Stellar Blade.

Another matter would be the online discourse that happened around Stellar Blade. And, unfortunately, the title will likely be more remembered by the controversy that it got caught up in, rather than the earnest work it had put forward. And look, Shift Up knows how to flaunt the female form. I don’t think this is anything new to Korean game developers. We’ve seen these things since Tera or Black Desert Online. And I also think it should be noted that they don’t go anywhere with it. It proceeds to be a well-packaged game that has a lot to offer. I honestly think that if all you did was pay attention to Eve’s posterior, you’d hardly be ever able to progress the game.

The creators of Stellar Blade managed to balance out their offerings within the title and get things mostly right. It’s landed itself somewhere in the middle of every game I’ve referenced thus far. Somehow, it’s managed to be something I can uniquely recognize despite how it draws its ideas from many, many IPs. Probably more than I have already named. For this reason, I believe that we are witnessing just another step of Shift Up’s journey rather than the debut of its opus. A peek at what they can be once they have further matured as creators, and I’m honestly excited for them.

So that’s it for my general look at Stellar Blade, feel free to settle in as I go through the specifics and the nitty-gritty details of what I think works and doesn’t for the title.

 

Production

 

 

Stellar Blade spares no time trying to make things look good. And no, we’re not just talking about humanoid weapons wearing skin-tight suits. Pretty much all the models look realistic like all the people appear to be Korean models that were scanned into the game. My personal favorite is the old man named Orcal. It shows that they are capable of making interesting designs without relying on titillating images from characters like Eve. Though honestly designs from characters like Adam and the hair stylist make me question what they think can look interesting sometimes. Apart from that, many enemies are not nearly as pretty, but look unique enough and can communicate what they’re all about at a glimpse. I also particularly appreciate how honest the attacks are in this title after what I had gone through with Elden Ring.

While the environments are generally a series of reused assets one after the other, they manage to keep the layouts stand out from one another or at least feel different enough that you never really feel lost. One exception to this would be the city of Xion, the hub you constantly return to for side quests or to proceed with the main story. The open world areas, in contrast, can be easy to navigate thanks to how they make use of landmarks as reference points amongst the vastness of the space you can explore.

The audio experience of Stellar Blade also shows how this game is a big fan of NieR Automata, as the scoring sounds very similar. It’s pretty telling what they’re after when they’ve hired the same studio behind NieR’s music. That being said, they manage to stand apart from their muse as there’s a good mix of techno and pop within their songs. You can close your eyes and imagine you’re playing one of their mobile games when the synthesizers kick in. On top of that, they have picked good audio effects for combat, making sure to let you know you’ve made a good parry when it lands. And giving you matching cues to dodge the trickier moves that enemies throw at you.

 

 

The voice acting is unfortunately where a lot of the game falls short. Almost everyone tries to sound stoic or cynical, whereas the few characters that don’t suffer the same problem. They mostly carry the same tone from start to end. Eve as a character does a fairly good job despite this, as you hear her voice the most, you have time to understand the subtle nuances in her tone. She also goes so far as to show other emotions and you can see this because of how long you’ve been watching her. It fits her character, which is someone naïve and innocent, trying to eagerly accomplish her mission. Where the story makes her grow and change bit by bit. And unfortunately, she’s the only character I even ended up vaguely caring about. Compounding that with the pace that Stellar Blade tries to keep you at, it’s not going to pull any heartstrings when characters go through tougher times.

Though to end on a lighter note, I have to praise Shift Up and how well-polished this title ended up becoming. This is a win for the PlayStation 5. Never crashed, which is more than what I can say for many of the newer titles these days, even on console. I also kept the game on a Balanced setting for when it’s asking between frame rate or resolution, and I probably only noticed the texture resolution going down once when I was just standing around in the open world, fishing. That’s a technical accomplishment I’d commend the developers for.

 

Mechanics

 

I already mentioned that the gameplay pretty much is a mix of NieR’s movement, Sekiro’s combat, and Devil May Cry’s flair. You move and jump around and it feels completely similar to NieR. The main way of fighting against enemies is either taking them down before they can do anything or parrying through their attacks and waiting for an opening. As for Devil May Cry, you’ll get it when you see the Beta and Burst skills.

The cool part here is how much it picks up from the Souls formula, where you can choose to make combat encounters easy for you if you so choose. Having three types of consumables for healing, and having access to several types of bombs that you can also easily refill is pretty much spelling it out for you. Yes, you can choose to directly interact with how they fight, and play by their rules. But when you have bosses that seem to be a little too spongy, or when you just want to quickly take out whatever’s in front of you. Grenades and Skills can just quickly knock them down, and I haven’t found anything immune to the knockdown in the entire game. So whenever I was getting a bit frustrated with what I was up against, out go the fireworks. Including another surprise, that’s sort of a spoiler so I’ll just leave it at that.

 

Content

 

 

Leaving the how Stellar Blade takes story beats from NieR, it does quite a lot to keep you from getting bored if the continuous clashing of parries and slaying of alien-monster things somehow gets old on you (not for me).

This title alternates between linear and open-world sections. Where it tries to introduce new concepts to you during the linear stages, then gives you a large place that can be effectively a playground for you to make progress on several other fronts as well as just to enjoy the game.

You can expect to encounter new enemies, and bosses, or play through carefully put-together set-pieces during the linear sections. While you can explore open-world areas as you are invited to accomplish side-content that can be simple slay requests from a job board, pursue requests from some of the friends you’ve made during your journey, or just collect cans and go fishing. Personally, my favorite thing to do was to find new things to fight, like optional bosses. Unlocking chests could feel like a chore if you’re looking for a passcode, and seeing the good old yellow paint to tell me that I can go there could be annoying at times. While it was certainly necessary at times since there was no way for me to know I could traverse vertical areas without it, and hinted that there was something to find. I felt like the potential of the movement and platforming sections was squandered because it never really flowed naturally with Stellar Blade’s core combat. Most times they were just new arbitrary obstacles to get through by following the obvious instructions laid in front of me, and forget about it the next minute.

 

 

That’s not to say that every idea they tried didn’t bode well. Some of the puzzles were welcome to break up the pace, because they weren’t exhausting to do, and didn’t overstay their welcome. The sections where they limit what weapons you can use also completely change what sort of game was being played, and left me somehow pleasantly surprised and scared at the same time.

I do believe that how you progress Eve’s capabilities in the game can be rather frustrating. I mean sure, you can learn beta skills and farm a few other upgrades. But the ones that change up how you play are locked behind story progression, and this is where the flaw of alternating between open world and linear game shows.

 

 

Stellar Blade doesn’t try to keep you away from what you can do, except for what you can unlock. And this left me frustrated seeing what I can supposedly equip but is just locked. Particularly the spine gear. I wouldn’t mind going through the story to get it unlocked, but my completionist brain won’t let me leave things I can finish right now hanging. I think they could have paced it better, as min-maxing what I can get is something I just naturally do, and having the feature locked in my face bothered me.

 

Features

 

 

First, I’d like to reiterate how much I appreciate how polished Stellar Blade was. Never give me technical issues to get bothered with. Considering they’re not a big developer, this is an achievement worth taking note of.

Following that, they offer an NG+ mode. Where they offer new equipment and upgrades for you to see if you can really push the limit, and even add a hard mode with new enemy placements. This might be my Soulslike experience talking, but I do find this game to be on the more forgiving side, save for maybe the final boss. However, I expect that not everyone will have a breeze through this game like me.

Though this would better belong on how I discuss content, the many outfits you can find and forge for Eve can be further customized in NG+ as colors can be changed. And when a game is inviting me to play fashion guru, well, let’s just say I hardly pass on the opportunity.

Also, Boss Rush mode is coming soon. Man, how I wish you guys had a chapter select.

 

Conclusion

 

 

Shift Up’s Stellar Blade isn’t something I would call original. While it does have flaws one can’t deny the genuine effort and passion the developers put behind it. On top of that, I had fun.

Like an eager rookie who just stepped up to the plate, they’re very eager to show what they’re capable of as game designers in every way they can imagine. Even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense for it to be there, it’s a miracle they managed to pack in so much without the game falling apart. They heeded the wise decisions made by those they looked up to and tried to follow them as closely as they could. But the title really begins to shine when they’re confident enough to rely on their ideas, and it gives me a glimmer of what they can truly be capable of. Come to think of it, Eve herself is a good representation of the very studio behind it. Eager to do its duty, perhaps lacking in experience, and has to contend with whatever the world has in store for it.

Stellar Blade sits squarely in the middle of many great titles of the past, and I think they should decide on which direction they want to take for their next. They’ve also positioned this release well after Lies of P and set it at a pace and difficulty that’s more accessible than Elden Ring. So if you’re looking to maybe start on the genre, I can recommend this title to you.

You’ve shown us that you can walk the walk, Shift Up, I look forward to seeing where you go next.

 

Stellar Blade is an impressive fan game. Scoring a 4 out of 5.

 

Available exclusively on the PlayStation 5.

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