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Review

Review: Stellar Blade

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Stellar Blade is a Korean action game that joins the PS5’s small list of exclusives, but how does it stack up to the competition?

Despite all of the discourse around Stellar Blade (mostly in regards to the design of its main character), all I’ve really thought about it is “Hey, this reminds me of Nier: Automata”. After roughly 25 hours this comparison never really went away, with Stellar Blade following Yoko Taro’s strange adventure in a number of surprising ways. However, I also don’t think it’ll stick with me for quite as long.

Not Quite Nier

Stellar Blade starts off strong, with protagonist Eve being dropped onto a ruined Earth to take care of monsters known as Naytiba. Things go poorly, with her friend — and seemingly all of the drop squad — being wiped out. She’s saved by Adam, a man who seems to know of a place where humans are still surviving in this ruined world.

Most of the story involves Eve helping out this last bastion of humanity, known as the town Xion. She’s guided by Adam (and another character met early on), as they complete tasks and hunt down big boss monsters known as Alpha Naytibas.

Despite the action packed start, a lot of Stellar Blade is actually rather calm. You’ll explore a combination of linear and more open areas, with most storytelling being delivered via Adam following along with a drone, or via the many corpses you find along the way.

The story follows a number of similar beats to Nier: Automata, though thankfully with its own twists on certain things. It’s compelling enough, though mostly let down by the inconsistent English voice acting and some awkwards lines (the former at least being fixable by changing to Korean VA). Honestly, the voice acting is far from the worst I’ve heard, but it seemingly suffers from a lack of direction — it never manages to disguise the fact that the voice actors likely had little context for the scenes they were voicing.

Outside of English VA being so-so, I’d say the main problem I have with the story is how most of it is relegated to the last hour of the game. Most of the twists are fairly easy to see coming (especially if you’ve been reading the optional notes and completing sidequests), with one I’m really not a fan of despite seeing it coming.

In the end, I came out of Stellar Blade’s story feeling like it was basically Nier: Automata (don’t expect the comparisons to stop any time soon) but if you didn’t want to think too hard. A fine, if light, story with a weak ending section. I will say that it was a little more engaging than I expected overall, but nothing that I’d consider amazing.

Satisfying Combat

Combat makes up the meat of gameplay in Stellar Blade, with Eve already having access to most of her moveset right from the start. You have access to a sword with slight and heavy attack, and you can mix the two in different ways for a number of situational combos. Later on you get access to a set of ranged attacks via a new form of the drone, and some extra resource-based attacks.

The default set of moves works well, with attacks being quick and dealing decent damage. Enemy attacks can be parried, building up your beta resource meter, and there’s a dodge that is sometimes required to avoid certain attacks.

Similar to games like Sekiro or Lies of P, parrying is a big part of the game. It negates all damage, and parrying enough enemy attacks gives you the opportunity to stun them and do a finishing move. The timing takes a little getting used to since there’s a delay between pressing parry and when it actually comes out, but this became second nature after a few hours.

In fact, the only real issue I had with the main moveset is the dodge. It’s short, and the timing is incredibly hard to figure out — especially for projectile and area of effect attacks. While this doesn’t matter much for regular enemies (and certain attacks that require you to dodge in a specific direction give you an obvious window to do so), later bosses start to throw out dodge-only attacks more often.

I would have also liked at least one other weapon. Your ranged options feel very disconnected from the melee combat, forcing you to switch to an over-the-shoulder view with no way to quickly fire between sword attacks. Honestly, I rarely used it outside of a few sections where it’s required.

The other moves that you unlock are all tied to separate resources, rather than replacements for the regular sword. One fills from dodges and kills, letting you use four additional moves. The other acts similarly to something like Devil Trigger from the Devil May Cry games, letting you briefly power up. Both functional and have their uses, but not really spicing up the gameplay more than a completely new weapon or character would.

It’s a Soulslike… Sort Of

Outside of story comparisons, the most surprising area in which Stellar Blade felt like Nier: Automata is its overall structure. I went into the game expecting fairly lengthy, interconnected levels. Instead, a good chunk of it (especially when doing side content) is spent roaming around open area — you even get a map, something uncommon for Soulslikes.

This feels pretty similar to Automata, with that game having a big opening before transitioning to sort-of open world content not long after. With Stellar Blade, you do spend at least a little time in a more traditionally designed Soulslike level before the open stuff, as you explore the ruined city streets and open up new shortcuts.

I’m in two minds about the overall structure. I think the open area are actually pretty decent, outside of the somewhat bland desert settings for both. There are a bunch of secrets and items to discover, and the generous fast travel points (and a second, faster sprint speed) mean that getting around is easy enough.

But when it comes to the Soulslike levels, there are actually only a few across the entirety of Stellar Blade. Even in the final section, where I expected Stellar Blade to go back to the more interconnected nature of its starter area, things still stayed fairly closed and linear.

Speaking of Soulslikes, Stellar Blade is also on the easier end of things. Checkpoints are frequent, and exploring lets you upgrade your refillable healing resource enough that you’ll rarely run out — even if you do, there are extra healing items you can carry. Enemies do reset when you die or rest at a checkpoint, though the aforementioned abundance of checkpoints means that you don’t have to retread much old ground.

Honestly, this general lack of difficulty (outside of a few boss fights later on) isn’t exactly a bad thing, though it can feel a little inconsistent at times — I played without having to try very hard for most of the game’s second half, before the final couple of bosses decided to ramp the difficulty up.

For those looking for a challenge, you’re also forced into beating the game once before hard mode is unlocked. Those that want things easier meanwhile do have the option to pick the lower difficulty setting, though there’s no new game plus (yet) if you want to carry things over into a harder difficulty playthrough.

Update: Despite the developer mentioning that new game plus would come at a later date, it’s actually already available now. It includes a number of new upgrades and costumes, making repeat playthroughs more worthwhile.

A Mostly Beautiful Game With A Stellar Soundtrack

Being a PS5 exclusive, Stellar Blade doesn’t have to hold back on the visual side of things. Eve herself has unsurprisingly had a lot of time spent on her, featuring fluid animations during her athletic combos. She also has a variety of costumes that can be unlocked or crafted, and I preferred a lot of them to the default option.

Enemies and environments on the other hand are a mixed bag. The general enemy designs are fairly generic, taking the form of mutated, almost zombie-like opponents. Most bosses also follow this theme, though they get some interesting additions like sawblade heads. I would have also liked a little more variety, since the enemy designs rarely change even by the end.

Environments are more varied, but still somewhat limited in the long run. The initial drop into the game features lots of explosions and particle effects, as you charge along the beach. This is contrasted with the area right after, being a calm ruined city that’s slowly filling up with water.

These areas leave a strong first impression, but the variety afterwards is a little lacking. The large desert areas are a little bland, with only a few interesting locations here and there. You’ll also end up exploring multiple sewers and labs that feel a little samey. Still detailed, but not as inspiring as the starting areas.

Thankfully, you get to explore a couple of cool area themes right at the end, but it still feels like Stellar Blade could have done with at least one extra theme to break things up.

However, even in the more bland environments, the soundtrack is always strong. It’s my final comparison between Stellar Blade and Nier: Automata, but also by far my most favourable one. Stellar Blade’s soundtrack is amazing, featuring a number of instrumental and vocal tracks — the latter capturing a similar melancholy vibe to the Nier games.

It even does something I love with game soundtracks, where you have a multiple area themes for both exploration and combat, switching between each on the fly. Some boss fights also make use of dynamic music once you hit certain phases, hyping you up even during the easier moments.

Final Thoughts

Stellar Blade is a decent action game that rarely becomes an excellent one. There were few moments that I could say I truly hated, but most of the midpoint was also somewhat plain compared to the opening. Some extra variety would have gone a long way to making each playthrough more memorable, though I’d still recommend giving Stellar Blade a try, especially if you’re okay with a somewhat easier time compared to recent Soulslikes such as Lies of P or Lords or the Fallen.

Our Stellar Blade review was created using a copy provided by PlayStation. All screenshots were captured by us in Performance mode.