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Stellar Blade Review

Biblically Accurate Alpha Naytiba

Stellar Blade is almost a game for sickos. One of the highest bars of achievement for a title to clear in our post-irony, internet heat death existence, if something reaches sicko status you know it’s done so by being unapologetically, messily, itself. The ideal being that it finds its unapologetic, messy fans.

Stellar Blade, the latest from South Korean developer/publisher SHIFT UP, has all the aesthetic and tonal markers of sicko-certification but struggles to conceive of an identity beyond the one it builds in someone else’s image. For all its excellent mechanical strives, its inability to grow beyond its inspiration points clips its wings just as it begins to soar.

This Adam and EVE story is familiar

Stellar Blade transplants you into the genetically enhanced form of EVE, a member of the 7th Airborne Squad dispatched by a space faring colony of surviving humans under the religious leadership of Mother Sphere, a quasi-techno-god. EVE’s mission is to reclaim Earth from the mutated Naytiba, monstrous creatures that have pushed the last of humanity into the wastes after decades of war. If you’ve even dabbled in this flavour of sci-fi before, this plot description will raise a small army worth of flags and your loose estimation of Stellar Blade’s revelations is likely bang on.

Doubly so if you’ve played NieR: Automata, Stellar Blade’s creative director Hyung-Tae Kim being an unabashed fan of Yoko Taro’s seminal transhumanist masterpiece. It’s a reverence that seeps into Stellar Blade’s bedrock, atop which SHIFT UP builds a strange, interesting, profoundly gaudy new home. It fills its rooms with showpiece furniture and tawdry artwork, but the bones of the thing are solid in ways its overdesigned skin belie, making Stellar Blade one of the most compelling action experiences of the year even as its taste is frequently called into question.

Stellar Blade offers some neat explorable zones

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To take out the Naytiba, EVE has been specifically designed with efficient violence in mind and to that end, Stellar Blade achieves a killer sense of mechanical and thematic harmony. Landing somewhere between the glorious rigidity of Sekiro: Shadow’s Die Twice and the more forgiving freeform Bayonetta-types, Stellar Blade isn’t content to be strictly Soulslike or character action game, instead opting for its own unique (largely successful) flavour. From baseline light and heavy combos, EVE builds Beta Energy which can be used to fuel skill tree’s worth of special moves for crowd control and targeted damage increases.

Throughout the first half-ish of Stellar Blade’s 18–20-hour campaign, EVE will also nab herself a handy arm cannon and a few other combat upgrades, typically centred around narrative milestones. There’s a fluidity of movement to combat that takes some getting used to, EVE’s lithe form not just for show apparently as she is able to effortlessly flow through attacks with a generous parry and assortment of timing-based dodges, the best of which sees her effectively warp behind an enemy in one of the game’s countless expressive camera motions. The timing windows on these moves can be altered via skill tree, but the base experience is a steady upbeat of challenges leading to a third act boss gauntlet that demands more than the preceding dozen hours combined.

Stellar Blade is eyeing more than raw challenge fiends though, backing its crown jewel quality combat with an equally impressive suit of approachability options. Core difficulty can be adjusted from the jump (a hard mode unlocked after your first completion), but Action Assist is the revelation here. With this toggled on, key moments during combat will slow time and prompt the player on which course of action, parry or dodge, is best for any given situation. These windows and visual cues are forgiving and plentiful, allowing players who are less trigger happy the chance to experience the game’s incredible boss encounters and combat writ large.

Stellar Blade offers some of the best combat we’ve played in years

This fucking rules, honestly. It’s a fantastic step in the right direction for a genre typically averse to opening itself up to different types of players and a smart choice on the game’s part to allow more people to see the best of what Stellar Blade has to offer. The Naytiba, with their gnashing teeth and fleshy protrusions, are the tip of the game’s sharpened enemy design and variety, each mission into the wilds and beyond hosting an impressive array of things to swing a sword at. Visual distinctions leading to contrasting combat demands, EVE’s small arsenal of tools is in constant rotation with the game’s demands, even going so far as to strip away melee and pivot to Dead Space adjacent levels and Sonic-lite momentum platforming.

That last one though is where Stellar Blade starts to dull. Earth’s last human city Xion forms something of a hub for most of the game, an evolving space that serves EVE with a litany of lore titbits, side quests, and nearby explorable open zones. Whether trekking through the arid harshness of the wastes or the more established spots of civilisation, EVE will often have to swing and jump through yellow-paint splattered obstacles with a physics and control system that feels distinctly not made for it. The same fluidity of movement that makes combat such a joy turns precision platforming into a grating chore, with everything from swinging animations to clambering feeling inert and unengaging.

Enemy variety and detailing is always a joy to behold

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Which is a bummer because Stellar Blade’s environments are typically gorgeous, if a little rote in its first half. It’s not just that you’ve seen these sci-fi markers before, it’s that SHIFT UP has tried to infuse the basics of old cities and sleek laboratories with its verbose art direction and style sensibilities. This clash can be just as often beautiful as it is perplexing, a mishmash of imagery and settings that feel a little too excitable, a little too keen. This is most obvious in the studio’s overarching choices regarding women in the game, almost every single one half clad in some baffling bit of skintight ware or another. The men, mind you, all wearing four jackets and two pairs of pants just to be safe.

This isn’t a moralistic judgement, I wrote a whole news piece about how absurdly handsome the character Adam is after all, but it’s a distinct choice being made that will draw distinct reactions from across the spectrum. I found it all a bit silly, others don’t for one reason or another, but Stellar Blade feels somewhat bogged down in its, let’s say, youthful exuberance. You’re invited to dress EVE in a variety of outfits found via collectibles and thankfully some of them tone this down, allowing for a clearer picture of her character work and world building to snap into focus. This is something Stellar Blade sorely needs at times, its overarching musing on the nature of humanity diminished in their proximity to other works and outright obfuscated by its strange tonal choices.

Stellar Blade, for all of its sicko marketing and attention-grabbing imagery, can be a little dry. EVE’s journey is peppered with standout visual moments, punched up by an exceptional understanding of how to frame and pace a moment with the camera, but even its revelations and mildly interesting notes are undersold by muted voice work and script issues. I enjoyed thinking about Stellar Blade’s plot more than I enjoyed experiencing it at times, a tension I often enjoy but desperately wished the game could have avoided. EVE does at least evolve as she moves through the plot, the first act or so riddled with moments where you wonder how she could possibly not be reacting giving way to some outright “let’s fucking go EVE” scenes in the third.

The game’s plot is a little muddled too, clarity around its ideas and even basic components only really falling into place for me days after hitting credits. Yet this isn’t enough to strictly dampen my mood around the game, its outstanding combat prowess doing the heavy lifting without a doubt, but Stellar Blade is also full of other small touches that leave their mark. The game’s score is one of the best I’ve heard in years, blending orchestral bombast with an album worth of vocal track bangers that loop nicely over exploration and kick boss battles into the stratosphere. It’s not the first time Stellar Blade reminded me of 2023’s best Soulslike, Lies of P, another game that understood style and substance in a way Stellar Blade only ever brushes against. Between that and the obvious NieR stuff, at least Stellar Blade is cosying up to the right crowd.

Final Thoughts

Stellar Blade is collage filtered through kaleidoscope, its myriad influences bleeding together in a neon swirl that produces vibrant new colours and dull familiar ones at an uneven pace. When it chooses to use its building blocks to reach new heights it’s a dizzying achievement in combat presentation and approachability, with EVE’s toolset fun and varied enough to carry the weight of the game’s lesser components. It leaves you wanting to see what else this studio could accomplish, even if they’ve gotten this far on borrowed wings.

Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher

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Stellar Blade Review
EVEolutionary Steps
Stellar Blade’s remarkable core combat and overwhelming commitment to style carries the weight of its uneven exploration and muddled narrative.
The Good
Killer combat systems
Loads of cool enemy designs
Impressive suit of approachability options
Absolute banger soundtrack
Excellent use of camera work and style
The Bad
Story is dry in ideas and delivery
Platforming isn't fun or engaging
Character designs can be a bit silly
8
GET AROUND IT
  • SHIFT UP
  • Sony PlayStation
  • PS5
  • April 26, 2024

Stellar Blade Review
EVEolutionary Steps
Stellar Blade’s remarkable core combat and overwhelming commitment to style carries the weight of its uneven exploration and muddled narrative.
The Good
Killer combat systems
Loads of cool enemy designs
Impressive suit of approachability options
Absolute banger soundtrack
Excellent use of camera work and style
The Bad
Story is dry in ideas and delivery
Platforming isn’t fun or engaging
Character designs can be a bit silly
8
GET AROUND IT
Written By James Wood

One part pretentious academic and one part goofy dickhead, James is often found defending strange games and frowning at the popular ones, but he's happy to play just about everything in between. An unbridled love for FromSoftware's pantheon, a keen eye for vibes first experiences, and an insistence on the Oxford comma have marked his time in the industry.

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