Stellar Blade review: PS5 exclusive’s beauty is only skin deep

EVE stares at an enemy in Stellar Blade.

Stellar Blade

MSRP $70.00

“Stellar Blade is a masterclass in style, but it’s lacking substance.”

Pros

  • Stunning enemy design
  • Beautiful art direction
  • Fluid and flashy combat
  • Helpful Action Assist feature

Cons

  • Dull narrative
  • Boring level design
  • Stiff platforming

About halfway through Stellar Blade, its hero, Eve, fights Tachy, a former friend and mentor turned enemy. It’s an awe-inspiring battle thanks in part to Tachy’s striking design — one that contains shades of both Sephiroth and Elden Ring‘s Melenia. The “cool” factor didn’t last long. Even though I was experiencing a visually stunning battle with deep combat, I just didn’t care much about what was going on around it. With a lackluster narrative and bland level design, the flashy action only had so much pull.

Stellar Blade is undoubtedly gorgeous, but that beauty is only skin deep. Strong visuals and excellent enemy designs nicely complement thrilling combat that finds the middle ground between Dark Souls and Bayonetta. But the style-over-substance approach to developer Shift Up’s PlayStation 5 exclusive left me wanting something more.

A not-so-stellar story

Stellar Blade follows Eve, a soldier made to rid Earth of the threat called the Naytiba. They are grotesque creatures that can grow to be quite powerful and brutal. Eve’s airborne squad, including Tachy, is wiped out almost immediately, but she’s saved by a Scavenger aptly named Adam. After that, she works with Adam and another soldier named Lily to rid the world of the Naytiba threat and learn more about where they came from. Unfortunately, this plot didn’t do much to grab me beyond that strong sci-fi setup.

Stellar Blade and the Alpha Naytiba
Shift Up

Eve and Adam aren’t particularly strong characters, while Lily often feels sidelined despite having a standout voice performance. Thematically, Stellar Blade asks what it means to be human and interrogates how religion and faith can be weaponized, but it doesn’t have much to say on those topics. There are plenty of other story-driven single-player action games to try on the PS5 if a compelling narrative is what you’re looking for, and Stellar Blade lags behind its peers on that front.

Shift Up uses the story mainly as a means to an end so it can bring Eve to beautiful new locations and have her square off against a murderer’s row of memorable bosses. This tradeoff tends to work more than it misses because Stellar Blade has spectacular art direction. It runs beautifully in performance mode, a must-have for an action game like this where timing is key.

The attraction was purely surface-level.

A lot has been said online about the look of characters like Eve, but a less-discussed aspect is Stellar Blade‘s killer monster designs. I was excited every time I entered a new area because I couldn’t wait to see what the Naytiba lurking there looked like. From floating starfish creatures to aggressive praying-mantis-like bugs, even the enemies meant to be easily dispatched have distinct looks.

Shift Up doubles down on that strength with bosses like Tachy, as they look even more impressive. Stellar Blade is a looker, but once that initial infatuation wore off, I began to feel that my attraction to it was purely surface-level. A game can have memorable locales, characters, and enemies, but if there isn’t meaningful substance to back them, it’s not likely to stick with me beyond one playthrough.

Fighting the good fight

Though story is lacking, combat is where Stellar Blade truly shines. Eve has basic light and heavy attacks that enable several different attack combo strings, a block to protect herself from damage, a dodge roll to get her out of the way of incoming attacks, and a parry. These are the core fundamentals of most action games, and Stellar Blade nails them. Combat is slower-paced than it is in titles like Nier: Automata and Devil May Cry 5, but there’s still room for experimentation and flair.

Stellar Blade STALKER fight.
Shift Up

One-on-one fights with Naytiba are particularly satisfying. Taking on large groups of enemies is very difficult early on, but over time, players unlock Beta and Burst abilities that have a wider area of effect. Each attack, combo, and ability is stylish, but the intensity of dodging, parrying, and timing attacks and abilities is more akin to a FromSoftware game. That gives Stellar Blade a distinct action style that sets it apart from the games it draws from.

After beating Tachy, players can activate a powerful combat mode that prevents damage and enables some even more powerful attacks. The key to doing well in Stellar Blade is not just going on an all-out offensive but learning the perfect times to dodge, parry, and use Eve’s additional abilities. Dodging and parrying build up the Burst, Beta, and Tachy Mode faster and prevent Eve from taking damage, a valuable resource that can only be restored at camps or with the few healing items players can carry at a time.

Action Assist is the perfect kind of accessibility option.

Because of that light Soulslike influence, Stellar Blade is more difficult than your typical character-action game. Thankfully, it gives players a helpful tool to get better at it. There’s a feature called Action Assist that can be activated while playing on the Story Mode difficulty. This feature slows the game down and displays the proper input for a dodge or parry on screen. This not only helps players counter or dodge an attack but teaches the proper response to certain enemy attack patterns as well.

When I was struggling with some of the tougher bosses, using Action Assist allowed me to learn the best ways to deal with their attacks. As a result, I taught myself to get better with each subsequent run of the fight. Action Assist is the perfect kind of accessibility option for a difficult game because it doesn’t just negate a challenge, it teaches players how to get better.

A flash in the pan

Although the combat is great and the levels look gorgeous, the connective gameplay tissue between combat encounters feels much more elementary. Platforming is stiff, and oftentimes, the design of linear levels boils down to just finding a passcode or key that can open a door. It’s thoroughly uninspired design that feels like busywork between the more entertaining fights and beautiful vistas.

Stylish combat and art direction come at the cost of substantive game design.

Unfortunately, things don’t get much better in the sandy wastelands that make up Stellar Blade’s two open-world-like areas. These are dotted with sidequests to beat, but completing them often just feels like marking boxes on a checklist. Even the more basic quests require Eve to return to Xion, which serves as the vendor hub between levels, in order to complete them.

It took me around 20 hours to beat Stellar Blade while completing enough side content to access the true ending. Those going for 100% completion and the platinum trophy could spend double that but will have to deal with dull game design outside of combat while doing so.

Eve kneeling with her sword.
Sony Interactive Entertainment

The frustration elicited by Stellar Blade’s lack of substance makes me reflect the wider internet discourse surrounding it. By now, you’re probably familiar with the fact that Stellar Blade is at the epicenter of an internet culture war. Eve is a traditionally beautiful heroine that players can dress in revealing outfits. Some are using that fact to argue that all women in video games should look and dress like Eve. The whole discourse has the same problem that Stellar Blade has as a game: It’s surface level.

We should be talking about what’s underneath that. The noisy conversations centered around Eve’s looks take away from more valuable discussions about Stellar Blade‘s weak narrative or lacking design. Those are the elements Shift Up needs to work on if it wants to create something that’s more than a momentary water cooler discussion. That’s what Stellar Blade feels like: a flash in the pan, even if that flash dazzles.

Stellar Blade was tested on a PS5.

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