Stellar Blade: The Kotaku Review

Stellar Blade: The Kotaku Review

Editor’s note: You’re reading the Kotaku U.S. review of Stellar Blade. If you’d like to read the Kotaku AU review, head over here.

In many ways, Stellar Blade is awesome. The action is awesome, the soundtrack is awesome, the world is awesome. However, when you peel back the curtain just a bit and peer behind all the flash and style, you find that Shift Up’s character action game can also be quite tedious. It’s a game of dichotomies, one that’s beautiful yet flat, enjoyable yet frustrating, vast yet shallow. There’s a lot to love about Stellar Blade, but equally, there’s a lot to dislike, and after 30ish hours of slashing and dashing as Eve, I came away from the game wishing it were more refined in some regards and more challenging in others.

Stellar Blade follows Eve, a soldier of the Airborne Squad 7 regiment, who gets sent down to Earth to eradicate an invasion of freakish aliens called Naytibas. As Eve battles these monstrosities in the hopes of saving humanity from annihilation, she stumbles upon a conspiracy about the true origin of the Naytibas. It turns out (surprise!) things aren’t quite as they seem, and soon, Eve is flying from zone to zone, riding her blade like a skateboard, and taking a short little trip to space to uncover the truth behind everything: the Naytibas, the last vestiges of humanity, the other Airborne Squad members, even herself. It’s a windy narrative that, while predictable, has some introspective moments alongside the kind of high-octane action you might see in something like Naughty Dog’s Uncharted. Unfortunately, this cool story is hampered by stale characters and frustrating platforming.

Stellar world, unstellar platforming

The game’s world is captivating. There’s the main hub area, Xion, that’s got those stereotypical (but cool) “last human outpost” vibes: empty streets, dilapidated homes, buildings comprised of shipping containers, abandoned belongings like books and guitars. This is where most missions begin and end, as well as where a lot of characterization happens, since many of the NPCs you interact with live here. Sadly, the characters themselves all feel one-dimensional. The English voice acting leaves a lot to be desired, particularly during emotional moments and tense situations. There’s zero urgency behind the line delivery, which hollows out pivotal scenarios into shallow nothingness. There’s real beauty to behold in Stellar Blade, especially in the character models and environmental details, but because characters are more 2D than 3D (metaphorically speaking), interactions with them come across as flat and lifeless regardless of the emotional weight packed into the writing.

Screenshot: Shift Up / Claire Jackson / Kotaku

Outside of Xion, there are several open zones for you to explore, each touching on a different natural element: grass, dirt, stone, water. These open zones are huge, filled with plenty of enemies to fight, sights to see, items to collect, and side objectives to complete. It’s easy to get lost in these locales, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Sure, you can literally get lost. Many of the areas twist into each other, with pathways folding over and under the other, making navigation a pain. But because there’s so much to do and so much to see in Stellar Blade, you don’t mind getting lost often. Chances are that, if you do, you’ll stumble upon an optional boss, a stunning outfit, a gorgeous vista, or that one item deep in the ocean depths so that you can finally complete that one side quest, dammit. Sorry, that was a projection. What I mean is, Stellar Blade is packed with stuff. Turning over every stone here is enthralling because it’s all beneficial in one way or another.

It’s just a shame, then, that platforming in this game, well…it fucking sucks. Eve has such a weird weight to her. Despite her petite frame, she feels like a sack of potatoes. At the same time, though, she’s got this lightness that allows her to air dash and double jump. She’s both too heavy and too light, which makes the precision platforming Stellar Blade asks of you a frustrating experience. A slight tilt of the left stick and Eve is moving, but if you let go of the left stick, Eve doesn’t come to an immediate stop. She, instead, winds down, like a car slowly creeping up to a red light.

Good luck judging jump distances with that, as her momentum makes even the tiniest bits of platforming a headache. And because she’s quick to go but slow to stop, and vaulting over ledges is automatic when you’re close to them, Eve will clamber over all sorts of obstacles and surfaces without your wanting to do so. When I tell you I’ve died more times due to momentum issues while platforming than to any one enemy, let alone the bosses, I mean it. It’s not Gollum levels of bad, but I had flashes of that game from behind my eyelids. Thankfully, unlike Sméagol, Eve can put up one helluva fight.

Killing (aliens) in the name (of drip)

Stellar Blade has been compared to a lot of games: Bayonetta, DmC: Devil May Cry (my personal fave), Nier: Automata, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Those comparisons are all apt, as Shift Up’s character action game feels like other character action games of recent memory. However, while it borrows a lot of ideas from Nier and Sekiro, I think it’s closer in attitude to Devil May Cry. Eve is stylish, like Dante. She might not be arrogant or cocky, but she’s well aware of her capabilities and expertise. And like Dante, Eve takes no shit. It’s not all vibes, though, as Eve’s combat mechanics even handle somewhat similar to Dante’s across the Devil May Cry franchise.

There are plenty of attacks to learn, each flashier than the last. By mixing light and heavy attacks, you can pull off chain combos that get progressively more complex as Eve flips and twirls while swinging her sword like a blade dancer in gymnastics class. Eve also has a dodge and parry at her disposal, which lets you evade attacks, block incoming damage, and deflect strikes outright to open enemies up for lethal executions. Stellar Blade is up its own ass a bit, as every single kill results in this momentary slowdown so you can take in Eve’s animation and the enemy’s death, I guess. But that gets real old real fast, especially when there’s a gang of enemies on the screen trying to bury you and each kill…kills your momentum. Still, scrapping with the game’s vast array of foes is exhilarating and just pure fun. Everything clicks, and when you unlock her full arsenal, Eve is the baddest bitch around.

I just wish the enemies, particularly the main bosses, put up more of a fight. There were a handful of more powerful Naytibas that took me out, but these, called warriors, were still just normal foes I encountered in Stellar Blade’s many open zones. Aside from the final boss, not a single one managed to kill me. And again, aside from the final boss, I killed every single one on the first try. Whether I played on normal or equipped the Skin Suit, which increases the game’s difficulty by eliminating Eve’s rechargeable shield, I rarely died here. (Unless I slipped and died while platforming, that is.)

Nothing was much of a challenge, which is ironic considering how terrifying the enemy designs are. From pincer bug-looking aliens wielding two swords to pus-filled bulbs shooting exploding corpses from their mouths to brutes wielding weapons the size of trains, Stellar Blade has some Bloodborne-ass, Lies of P-serving enemies to fight. They just don’t strike fear in the same way. I’m not saying every game needs to be punishingly difficult, and I’m glad to see that Stellar Blade has a decent assortment of accessibility options for things like aim assist and auto quicktime event completion. Still, though, I would’ve liked a bit more challenge instead of having to wait till the end of the journey to really start sweating. But sadly, once I found two or three hard-hitting combos that did excellent damage to enemy shields, knocked them off balance for quicker executions, and took solid chunks out of their health bars, most enemies were chumps. While the game is very flashy, sometimes that flashiness is all style, no substance.

Screenshot: Shift Up / Claire Jackson / Kotaku

Despite all this, I still had a great time with Stellar Blade. It’s a game of dichotomies, one that’s both fun and frustrating, but in this sort of middle rut it finds a way to tell a captivating story about transhumanism at the end of the world and how even robots feel things. The platforming might suck and Eve might be unwieldy to control at times, but the stylish action makes up for the more tedious elements. It isn’t perfect, but in its best moments, Stellar Blade is still pretty stellar.

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