Stellar Blade Review

Stellar Blade

by Matt Kamen |
Published on

Platforms: PS5

In a long-distant, post-apocalyptic future, Earth is overrun by horrific monsters called Naytiba. Humanity’s last hope for survival and reclaiming our home is… a sword-wielding robotic K-pop idol wearing an assortment of skimpy outfits.

Yes, Stellar Blade leans heavily into cheesecake with its lead character EVE – always capitalised, wading into battle in armoured heels and rocking a ponytail long enough to make Ariana Grande jealous – and is replete with moments of high camp (save spots that open up a parasol, drop a dreamcatcher, and begin playing smooth jazz when activated, for instance) but it gets away with it thanks to delivering on its promise as an incredibly stylish action game. Given Korean developer Shift Up has next to no track record in the West – a free-to-play mobile game and a romance visual novel are its only priors – Stellar Blade is an achievement that’s all the more impressive. Stunning visuals and a wonderful soundtrack don't hurt, either.

Stellar Blade

On the run up to its release, Stellar Blade drew endless comparisons to 2017's NieR: Automata. The similarities are undeniable, and not just because of the slender anime girls who front both games. Each pack in a host of experiences – here including linear action runs through meticulously designed levels, open exploration, RPG style quests for NPCs, platforming parkour challenges, and much more – that leave the player constantly guessing what might be coming next, and both games feature utterly ridiculous plots. The apocalyptic themes here draw on a blend of well-trodden sci-fi and horror ideas, add a dash of contemporary AI fears, and dust off with some attempts at commentary on class warfare, but on a base level you're still ultimately a cybernetic saviour from a space colony trying to take back the planet with a sword.

Hugely entertaining in its own right, despite a lingering sense of familiarity throughout.

The trick is, Stellar Blade makes you believe that EVE can actually do it. That robot body allows for an endlessly customisable moveset, while equippable "exospines" allow tailoring towards certain combat roles. A stealth-focused exospine in conjunction with the "ambush" skill let you play more like a ninja, sneaking up on enemies and dispatching them with a single blow, while a defence spine and heavy attack moves turn EVE into more of a bruiser. Prefer ranged combat? After a while, you'll be able to upgrade a companion drone into a multi-ammo gun, that can also be combo'ed into a chain of melee attacks.

Stellar Blade

Whatever you prefer, EVE is never less than effortlessly graceful, gliding around the battlefield like a dancer. There's a wonderful sense of flow to combat in Stellar Blade, even in its initially simple alternation of light and heavy attacks to charge up "beta energy" for more powerful strikes, and each new skill unlocked only adds to that flow. Of particular delight are the Blink and Repulse skills, which allow you to teleport behind or out of range of enemies, depending on a visual prompt. Master these, and you'll be practically juggling Naytibas the size of buildings.

Special mention should be made for the Naytibas themselves too, immediately some of the most inventive and impressively designed monsters in any medium. There are around 60 enemy types to encounter in the game, and every single one is distinctive, from skittering insectoid grunts to corrupted mechanoids – hinting at the Naytibas' true origins – to a giant Alpha whose entire head is a colossal ring of grinding, hungry gears.

For all its strengths though, Stellar Blade never quite has a breakthrough moment that's all its own. NieR: Automata is far from the only game players will find similarities to – there are dashes of Dark Souls, Sekiro, and Bayonetta to be found in the mix, and while it's all tremendously well put together, it's hard to escape the feeling that the end result is a bit of a remix. It also loses some lustre for some truly awful, sub-B-movie dialogue that, at least in the English dub, is delivered painfully flatly. That said, EVE declaring "you don't seem very likeable" in deadpan monotone to a shopkeeper is almost hilarious.

Still, Stellar Blade proves a promising AAA debut from Shift Up, hugely entertaining in its own right, despite a lingering sense of familiarity throughout. Enjoy it now, and look forward to what the developer does next.

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