Genre has been on my mind a lot ever since I had a chance to get some hands-on time with a preview build of Steelrising, an upcoming soulslike action-RPG from French developer Spiders. In this stab at the infectiously popular and notoriously challenging genre, Spiders hopes to send us to an alternate-timeline Paris during the French Revolution. But instead of fighting human soldiers, we’re facing off against deadly clockwork automatons, or “automats.”
You take on the role of Aegis, an automat herself once built for dancing, but now repurposed and tasked with finding the Queen’s children in the midst of a deadly revolution, while also hunting down secrets about her own origins. You’ll engage in brutal battles with other automats, earning experience, “anima,” to level up your stats while finding new weapons in the environment. If you die, you drop the anima where it is, and if you die again, you’ll lose it forever. It’s a soulslike; you know the drill.
Here are my heretical credentials for even daring to talk about a soulslike: The only one of these kinds of games I ever finished was Deck13’s The Surge; the aesthetic of science fiction just speaks to me more than fantasy (especially the well-worn cultural grooves of medieval fantasy — yawn). I’ve toyed around with Dark Souls 3 in frustration, as I have with Bloodborne. Elden Ring was the first soulslike aside from The Surge that I really enjoyed, and that’s mostly because it gave me more to do than just march down corridors of death to find ways to link said corridors together via doors so I could skip the suffering to go on to more suffering.
Based on an early preview of a beta build of the game, Steelrising is set to be, for me at least, one of the better soulslike experiences I’ve had — if for no other reason than I can pause it, and don’t have to worry about online invasions from infinitely better players. There is also the super-awesome inclusion of “Assist Mode,” which lets you adjust how much damage you take, as well as a few other parameters. I’m told this mode comes at the cost of not being able to earn certain achievements.
That sounds like a fair trade that preserves the challenge the developers envision while still respecting players’ time and skill levels. I’m a woman with a full-time job and a multitude of hobbies, so while I have respect for the challenge of a straight soulslike, unless the aesthetics really grab my attention or, like Elden Ring, the pace is a bit different, getting worn out on dying over and over again is more than likely to drive me away from the screen to tackle a modular synthesis project or try to read that Pynchon novel again or something, anything, else.
I’m not sure if Steelrising will win over diehard soulslike fans, who I imagine have discriminating tastes as to what clears the bar established by successful and specific games. I can tell you that in my first few moments with Assist Mode turned off, it sure as hell felt like a soulslike because I was getting frustrated, and it was a familiar frustration — maybe a bit more frustrating than I’ve found other soulslikes.
These enemies hit and they hit hard. Also, when they’re in groups, I find them to be way more dangerous than in a FromSoft Souls game, especially since it seems you have to hold the right analogue stick to change your lock-on target instead of being able to flick it. On top of this, I feel like the game wants me to keep the pressure on with more speed than I might be used to in this genre, which is challenging when your endurance metre drops, in my opinion, way faster than it probably should.
But Steelrising differs in that I, the player, the one who owns the stupid box I’m playing this on, can tell the game to get fucked and not hit me for as much damage. Or any damage. I own this world now.
While such a power trip is entertaining in its own right, it allowed me to understand the game’s pace a bit more. I was able to go from deadly skirmishes with creaking metal freaks to something more akin to sparring. Most of the time when you get hit, it’s pretty obvious, so turning off damage (you still take fall damage and certain kinds of elemental damage, however) allowed me to jump in and learn both the enemies’ moves and my own without the frustration of dying over and over. That was what flipped the switch from frustration to fun for me.
Being able to shut off damage and get back up after every hit let me better learn my enemies’ movesets and anticipate their attacks. Scaling the damage up from zero lets you attenuate the learning curve of the experience and serves as a kind of roll-your-own difficulty selection. I also got a better handle on my moves, learning the most effective times to get in there and wail. It helped me really sort out which weapons I wanted to use more of, and learn Steelrising’s nuances without as much frustration. I can have the game meet me where I’m at, as opposed to the other way around.
I focused on two weapons throughout. First was a seriously badass fire-chain armament that let me maintain some distance from enemies with stylish attacks and punch the ground for a slim but effective fire AoE. Second was a “shield musket” that delivered a bit more damage than Bloodborne firearms and could freeze enemies to let me move in for a finishing blow. As the name implies, it featured a magic (?) shield I could deploy if enemies attempted to thwart my efforts to keep them at range.
If I had to compare this to one of the Souls games, it seems like it sits somewhere on the Sekiro side of things, especially since you can jump and use a grappling hook to zip up to higher areas above the Parisian streets. That works well enough so far. The clockwork automats and 18th century setting help this stand out from a Souls clone in ways that the game’s combat might not. It’s a unique vibe. Toss in a dash of something like Assassin’s Creed via the historical fiction side of the story and you’ll have a sense of what to expect.
The narrative hits like that of a more traditional action-RPG than something out of FromSoftware. For one, it doesn’t appear to be as cryptic. You also get access to a consumable compass that toggles the objective markers on or off. While I appreciate the austerity of, say, Elden Ring in letting me explore the world without such things, I liked having some more traditional HUD elements here because I could stay focused and more directly get to the story beats.
This early preview build was a little more lacking in story than I’d hoped, especially because I think story and aesthetic are going to be what really make this game unique. I’m hoping that’s just because this was simply a preview of something larger in scope. I’m interested in Aegis’ interactions with humans, as she’s an automat herself fighting other automats. There’s a cool opportunity here to play around with the standard “sentient robot” kind of vibe. What even is sentience in this world? Does Aegis feel affinity for her fellow automats she’s slaying?
The demo left me with questions I want to see answered. If previous Spiders games are anything to go by, particularly The Technomancer, I’d expect some fun twists and unexpected plot revelations to explore, too.
While this early preview was described as a beta build, performance and visual effects need to improve substantially for the final release. My favourite part of Spiders games is usually their environmental design, which in previous games sing with artistic talent and ambition. But so far Steelrising exhibits an overall dullness that I’m hoping will be polished to a nicer sheen in the final release. I also hope the audio has a better balance, as there’s a cool-sounding soundtrack that unfortunately gets buried under the often-shrill clank of combat.
The performance is also worth mentioning. While I think a stable and fast framerate is probably best for this genre in general, Steelrising has a more substantial need for stable and reliably quick frame pacing. As I said earlier, it feels like it wants me to be a bit quicker than most soulslikes, so much so that I wonder how this game might’ve turned out had it borrowed Devil May Cry’s action instead of Dark Souls’. Speculation aside, there’s a cool vibe in the character movements. As clockwork automats, everyone moves with a rigid, calculated, slightly unnerving pace that reminds me of the original Terminator film meets the bounty hunter droid in season one of The Mandalorian.
When the framerate drops, as it did regularly on roughly highish settings at 4K on a machine with an RTX 3070 in the tank, that animation work just doesn’t sit right, and looks worse than it actually is. This has a cascading effect of making the game feel a bit harder than it should as everything just feels off and it doesn’t quite sell the otherwise interesting concept of clockwork automats engaged in battle with rigid, deadly strikes amid the sounds of ticking gears.
Steelrising lands on September 8 of this year for PC, PS5, and Xbox Series consoles. No PS4 or Xbox One release is planned. Occupying a genre that has a clear leader and many has-been, wannabe competitors, time will tell if the full, polished experience will help this one stand out.