Stellar Blade feels more like a Soulslike than a fast-paced action RPG

Stellar Blade STALKER fight.
Shift Up

Korean developer Shift Up first made a name for itself with mobile games like 2016’s Destiny Child, a turn-based RPG, and 2022’s Goddess of Victory: Nikke, an on-rails third-person shooter. Now, Shift Up is throwing its hat into the ring of AAA game development with Stellar Blade, an action game starring a young woman named Eve who is trying to reclaim Earth from an invading alien species. The developer’s first attempt at crafting a premium console experience is already much stronger than I expected.

Ahead of its public release, I spent two hours playing Stellar Blade’s demo, which consists of its first chapter. Its slower real-time combat has a surprising amount of influence from the Soulslike side of the action genre, but I can already see how that will evolve to create flashier and more fluid battles later on.

Taking back the planet

Stellar Blade‘s opening cinematic section immediately grabbed my attention. In it, a group of spaceships hover over Earth and deploy pods containing Eve and her comrades to fight the Naybita alien threat on the planet. Those ships get shot down and scraps of metal enter the atmosphere like meteors alongside the pods. Eve then awakens in a fiery abyss, with aliens slaughtering her squad. This is where the demo transitions into the tutorial.

Stellar Blade, at the very least, nails its dystopian-cyberpunk setting. Ruined buildings with vegetation are scattered throughout the environment, with streetlights dimly illuminating the surroundings, making it feel reminiscent of Stray. The soundtrack bounces between angelic choruses while you’re exploring its linear levels and blood-pumping electric guitars when you’re in battle. When fighting the Naybita, the music made me feel like I was playing a Devil May Cry game.

Stellar Blade and the Alpha Naybita
Shift Up

Stellar Blade opts for realistic-looking visuals rather than the cartoonish style of Bayonetta or the anime-inspired Nier series. Eve herself looks gorgeous, and the grotesque Naybita aliens really highlight the contrast between the foes. The Naybita are covered with disgusting appendages, making them look like they crawled straight out of Resident Evil.

Eve also has a companion named Adam (of course), who remotely pilots a flying drone next to her. One stray thought strikes me: Eve’s English dub voice actor speaks with a British accent, which contrasts with Adam’s American accent. Their personality dynamic reminds me of 2B and 9S from Nier: Automata, with Eve being more reserved while Adam is more down to earth and not afraid to show his emotions.

Surprisingly Soulslike

Stellar Blade doesn’t hold players’ hands, but it will reward patience. Eve can block, dodge, and parry attacks, but the window to perform the latter two options is much smaller than in a game like Rise of the Ronin. In a sense, the combat feels more like something you’d experience in a Soulslike game rather than a straight action game. In fact, Stellar Blade has its own version of bonfires. These are checkpoints that will resurrect all of the enemies you’ve defeated when activated, just like in a Souls game.

Stellar Blade skill trees.
Shift Up

I can further feel that genre influence in Eve’s initial lack of intricate combos. Parrying attacks build up your Beta meter, which, when full, allows Eve to execute a variety of powerful Beta attacks. These attacks include one where Eve charges up a large energy blade and launches it forward, and another one where she triggers a quick triple thrust move. They deal a hefty amount of damage, and both the visual and haptic feedback made them feel satisfying to pull off. The end of the demo had me facing off against a Pyramid Head-looking Naybita monster with lightning powers. While I was able to defeat it, it took every ounce of skill and all of my healing potions.

Combat seems like it’ll get much deeper in the full game. Stellar Blade features a skill tree where Eve can unlock new skills and abilities. These include traversal mechanics such as double jump and nullifying fall damage. There are also combat skills, such as the abilities to increase the window for parrying and to be able to dodge twice. I’m eager to see how that widens the combat beyond its straightforward opening hours.

I’m pleasantly surprised to see a great suite of accessibility options here that make it feel like a first-party PlayStation title (it’s not, but Sony is heavily promoting it like it is one). The list includes color-blind filters, as well as the option to automatically succeed at quick-time events.

But wait, there’s more!

After defeating the demo’s big boss, I was immediately shown a video montage of more advanced gameplay that we’ll see later in the game. As the demo booted me to the main menu again, I unlocked a Boss Challenge mode — and, boy, did it test my limits. The boss I faced off against is called Stalker, a four-legged creature with a fleshy chain saw appendage attached to its head.

Eve facing an enemy in Stellar Blade.
Shift Up, PlayStation / Shift Up, PlayStation

Thankfully, this version of Eve in the Boss Challenge mode had more skills unlocked. She could even transform Adam into a gun, briefly turning combat into a standard third-person shooter. The parrying and dodging windows felt a bit more forgiving here since those respective skills were unlocked too. While the gameplay still isn’t as fast and flashy as your average action game, it’s encouraging to see that a more offensive playstyle is possible down the line.

In Stellar Blade, Adam leads Eve to the last surviving city on Earth, Xion. There, Eve builds relationships and helps to rebuild the city. However, the demo doesn’t go there and there’s not much indication as to where the story is going so far. Even so, I’m excited to see how Stellar Blade unfolds. I’m hoping it nails the story and characters, as excellent worldbuilding is what makes its contemporaries like Bayonetta and Nier: Automata so special.

Stellar Blade launches on April 26 for PlayStation 5.

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