Stellar Blade Review | Definitely a Looker

A gorgeous new AAA title from the developers of Goddess of Victory: Nikke.

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Stellar Blade is SHIFT UP’s debut attempt at developing a console title. Coming from a studio that primarily handles mobile games, a AAA PS5 exclusive action-adventure title is a massive risk to take but one that if done correctly, can be one of the greatest level up stories in the industry. Despite the lack of an established franchise or IP to base it off from, Stellar Blade has already garnered quite a significant reputation for itself owing mostly to some very unique character designs being featured in various promo materials. However, is it more than just eye candy? Here’s our Stellar Blade review.

About a month ago, a demo for the game was released which allowed the player to experience the opening hours up until the first boss fight. As stated in my demo review, while it does have a strong start, filled with just the proper amount of visual spectacle and gameplay introduction, the rest of the time is spent on uninteresting levels and a combat system that feels like too artificially stripped down to try and provide a progression system in the latter hours.

The potential was there, but it didn’t leave a strong enough impression for me to be convinced that Stellar Blade was a title that I had to keep on my radar. Now that I got to experience the rest of it, I can definitively say that the opening hours of the game are where it is at its weakest. Once the areas become more varied, you gain more upgraded gear, learn new skills, and the story and characters receive long overdue development, the experience becomes much more substantial. But it’s not enough to sustain the level of quality the visuals bring to the table. Stellar Blade is an incredible looking game, but it feels like with everything else, its holding back from fully realizing the potential it has.

Looks absolutely stellar

As I’m sure a lot of you are aware of by now, Stellar Blade looks phenomenal. Let’s address the elephant in the room. Yes, the character models do show a more stylized version of what we’re used to when it comes to the human body. Certain areas are emphasized. EVE, our main protagonist, looks stunning in her different outfits that you can unlock and craft throughout the game. But there was not a single point in the game where I felt like it was trying to be exploitative. Sure, some clothing can be revealing, but I don’t see how that’s a problem. We have games like Tekken 8 which features multiple shirtless men with extremely exaggerated physiques plastered all over the roster and people love it. There’s no reason why a female character shouldn’t have the same treatment and reception.

When playing a video game, especially an action-focused one, the top priority is to experience something that we don’t usually have in the normal world. This means bombastic action, incredible set-pieces, and heroes that have peak human characteristics. We want them to be funny, cool, likeable, etc. And it’s definitely a bonus if they look attractive. Stellar Blade understands this and executes well on it. EVE looks amazing. Some of the other characters you’ll meet in the game will also look amazing. You can tell a large chunk of the development time was spent making sure that character models are given the attention and detail they deserve. Facial animations are however a bit flat. But other than that, very minor nitpick, everything looks great.

The same goes for the enemies as well. While you’ll mostly just be fighting against one enemy faction, the Naytibas, they do have multiple sub-species ranging from normal grunts to massive bosses. All of which look great in the way that they are grotesque and deformed.

The opening act of the game is already a small glimpse of what Stellar Blade offers from a visual point of view. The smoke and particle effects accompanying the action are top tier alongside highly dense looking environments. The texture work and lighting on display here really brings a lot of the areas to life. You do have to chug through a number of bland looking war-torn areas and underground bunkers but once you reach the town of Xion a couple of hours in, the game starts to truly stretch its wings from a visual point of view.

It is unfortunate that the environmental storytelling is not up to par. While the areas themselves look fantastic, despite painting an abandoned world overrun by aliens, there’s not much you can get from a narrative point of view other than what the dialogue says and the various journal entries you’ll pick up every now and then, a lot of which aren’t even all that interesting to begin with.

Nevertheless, if there’s any area where Stellar Blade goes for the full swing and doesn’t miss, it’s the graphics. Comparing what this looks like to their mobile titles, you’d never thought the folks at SHIFT UP would achieve this level of fidelity, but they did so with soaring colors.

Story woes

While not anything too bad, the story of Stellar Blade didn’t really do much for me. A lot of it is due to the lack of proper pacing as the game does take its sweet time way too much to introduce certain characters and plot elements. By the time something becomes interesting or there is a payoff to what was initially alluded to, a lot of the attention and excitement is already gone.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, there is a lot of biblical elements that are not-so-subtly spread throughout the game. The main character is called EVE and one of her companions is named Adam, who spends a lot of the game guiding her in a place that she’s not all that familiar with. Sounds familiar? Once you meet the townsfolk at Xion, they call you Angel. You go around accomplishing favors and requests. Initially, a lot of them are apprehensive about you. But the more the story progresses, they become fascinated to the point that others will outright worship you for being their savior. Sound familiar? There’s a lot to unpack and explore in Stellar Blade and if you actually look deep enough, you’ll notice some very interesting things in the way it tries to flesh out its lost world.

Earth is lost to the Naytibas. EVE is part of the 7th Airborne squad being dropped down to try and fight off the aliens. What’s left in the planet are a struggling few, trying to maintain some semblance of order among a desolate time.

EVE is not someone who grew up on earth. She barely knows anything about its past, culture, and the way the people live. It’s basically a fish out of the water scenario with Adam acting as the guide. Early on in the game, you go through a ruined library and after examining the shelves and having books explained to you, EVE makes a comment at how wasteful it is to use that amount of space for such limited “data” that’s prone to physical destruction. The same goes for when she comes across an old map that’s hung on the wall. Both are very subtle moments but ones that give so much context as to where our protagonist is in the world right now and how separate she is from the reality of it. At the end of the day, her mission is to fight of all the Naytibas to help recolonize the planet. This is a simple but compelling driving force for her to go around and helping people out.

EVE is a killing machine that’s also soft-spoken and is pure of heart. You spend a lot of time in the game learning about this place you’re tasked to protect. At a certain point, the compassion she feels to be of service becomes even more prevalent and I understood why she would want to continue doing so. However, the game does take its time to truly introduce who and what she is. All you know is that she is part of an elite force that’s designed to fight. For quite an extended amount of time, this is all the context you have. Tidbits are fed to you with the way NPCs speak, optional reading materials, and EVE’s internal monologues but if you’re someone who’s not patient enough to wait for breadcrumb storytelling, Stellar Blade might not be for you.

The main plot contains a lot of mystery and questions posed by EVE herself and everything around her. And sometimes, the answers don’t come until hours later into the game. I’d even catch myself forgetting that it was a plot element to begin with and then suddenly, the story just brings it back. The pacing of the main campaign could use a bit more urgency to it.

While the bigger picture of fighting back against an army of savage alien invaders is cool, it is slowed down in how the game presents it. EVE is essentially an errand gal, tasked to acquire items or discover people that are lost. These weak missions structure extends beyond the main campaign and into the side missions themselves. Very few contain a mildly interesting enough narrative context to motivate you into pursuing the optional content. A lot of which just boils down to fetch quests and mundane requests.

The latter half of the game does start ramping things up but it’s a question as to whether or not the first half captured your interest well enough for you to continue. I can mention that there is a multi-ending featured here but not much else. There are certain moments in the game where you can make decisions. Not as extensive as the likes of Mass Effect games but they do have a butterfly effect to determine how your story concludes.

The way of the blade

Gameplay is where Stellar Blade shines bright. There are 3 main components to this game: combat, linear exploration, and very simple “puzzle” solving.

Combat will be familiar to anyone who has played any modern action title. You have your standard light and heavy attack combos in which you can combine with powerful special moves that you can unlock and upgrade as you gain more experience. You also have the option to execute a perfect dodge in which you can immediately perform a powerful counterattack. Or land perfect parries. Doing enough will wither down an enemy’s stagger points which leaves them open to a devastating special attack.

What sets Stellar Blade apart is its emphasis on precision, with perfect blocks and dodges playing pivotal roles. The combat challenges players to anticipate enemy attack patterns and react accordingly. And if you’re not playing on Story mode, a split-second hesitation can mean the difference between avoiding an attack to respond with a counter move or be staggered with a heavy blow. It reminds me a lot of how the Jedi games from EA handle their combat.

However, at the start, EVE feels criminally underpowered. A lot of the special moves and buffs you eventually unlock feel like they should’ve been available in the first place such as a double dodge or faster attack movement. There were points in the opening hours where EVE felt too heavy and clunky to control. Locking onto an enemy limits her sidesteps to a brisk walk. Dodging feels imprecise. Attack animations can be slow and cannot be cancelled so if an enemy decides to swing while you’re in the middle of doing one yourself, don’t expect that you can avoid or parry it in time. It feels that its promise of a fast-paced combat system is something that can only be seen once EVE is fully levelled. But for majority of the time, it’ll look and feel like all that junk in the trunk she’s carrying is not just aesthetics.

The only weapons you’ll have is the sword and the gun. That’s really about it. While animations and effects for them are excellent, you might find yourself getting bored of using the same tools over and over again.

There are certain points in Stellar Blade where it’ll put you in large open areas. While they look great in their own right, they ultimately feel empty in terms of interesting content to discover. They just act as spaces for side missions to take place in. But how about the mainline route? While there is absolutely nothing wrong with linearity in a game, the way Stellar Blade places you in multiple corridors, literally and figuratively, make it a tedious thing to play through.

Every now and then, you’ll come across camps that are the game’s version of a bonfire from the Soulsborne titles. Here you can upgrade stats, buy gear, and rest. Once you go about your journey, you’ll just be met with very simple level design. Exploration, with little there is, just rewards you with more and resources. At a certain point in the game, it becomes overly abundant where the economy just completely becomes irrelevant. I have all the money in the world to buy items, but I also have so much already on hand and in storage because I found them in chests or drops from enemies.

Every now and then, you’ll see a “locked” door that can only be opened on the other side. Once you reach the other side, EVE just kicks or breaks the door open. Why couldn’t she do that before? These “shortcuts” are barely beneficial. You’ll also find locked chests or doorways that require a code. These can usually be found just a stone’s throw away. Spamming the scan button from the drone reveals every point and item of interest in the area. It’s almost the same problem the Batman Arkham games had where your screen is just constantly filled with blue tint just so you can easily find that one item or that one ledge to progress.

There is a reward that you’ll get once you find everything in a certain collectible which I’m very sure that fans of the existing character designs will enjoy. The multiple unlockable costumes are already great in their own right, but locking some of the best ones behind exploration, character relationships, or collectible progression was a cheeky and smart thing to do on SHIFT UP’s end.

Stellar Blade Review Final Verdict – 8/10

I really wanted Stellar Blade to be a home run. In a lot of ways, it could’ve been. Combat, once you get all the upgrades, is fantastic. The graphical prowess on display is next level. The soundtrack that is constantly being played is euphoric at times. But the story pacing and linear level design that feels like it played it too safe really drags the experience down.

For a first-time console title for SHIFT UP, the game is an incredible achievement. It’s by no means a bad game. I just felt like it could’ve been so much more. However, I am excited to see what else the developers have next after this. They have proven that they can handle a massive AAA title. And with an already impressive first go at it, I have no doubt in my mind that their next project is something that’s worth watching out for. Whether if it’s a continuation of the Stellar Blade IP or another original, SHIFT UP has my eager attention.

This review was made using a game code for the PS5 provided by the publisher. 

8

Stellar Blade is a gorgeous game that carries a lot of interesting factors in gameplay, narrative, and world building. However, it felt like SHIFT UP wasn't all that confident in truly going all out in terms of a more unique execution to tie it all together. As it stands, it's a perfectly enjoyable game on its own but it definitely could've been a lot more special.