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July 2024

Stellar Blade

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 5
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: SHIFTUP
Release Date: April 26, 2024


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PS5 Review - 'Stellar Blade'

by Redmond Carolipio on April 25, 2024 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Project EVE is an action game where you play as Eve fighting off unknown invaders called NA-tives, and reclaim the lost Earth after its collapse.

Stellar Blade grabs the eyes and cramps the hands. It wants you to stop and stare — and then fight like hell. It will probably succeed in getting you to do all these things.

Whether you think, "Whoa," or roll your eyes at some of the stuff you see afterward — I did both — it's impossible to gloss over the aesthetically confident presentation of the waifu-fantasy heroine locked into several dances of flash and fire against monsters seemingly designed in a malice factory.

They have teeth-wheel heads, multiple smiling mask-faces, or wrecking-ball hands. This is all while you swim through a narrative that gets pieced together (sort of) as one progresses, eventually asking questions that range from simply asking, "What is going on?" to the purpose of the protagonists' (and others) very existence.

I picked up a lot of different vibes from this in roughly 40 hours of play, and I went through it twice to see different endings. We've got shades of Devil May Cry, Nier: Automata, some God of War and, perhaps in a shade of black with hints of red, Bayonetta. I mention the swaggering super-witch because she's the first being (among others) who came to mind as one who has the combination of powerful, stylish combat prowess and blazingly feminine aesthetic design. In other words, she's one of the few I've seen, in this type of game, look like that and kick that much ass. However, one of the key differences between Bayonetta and Eve, the star of Stellar Blade, is that Bayonetta's in on the fun right from the jump. Eve, however, is stone-cold serious the whole time. In that regard, she's more like 2B from Nier: Automata.

It's for good reason. Eve is part of an elite squad of soldiers (who all look like goddesses) dropped to Earth from space to fight a species of monsters called the Naytiba, who have overrun the planet in a seemingly years-long conflict. Eve's story truly starts when her and her partner Tachy (the squad leader) land on Earth, slay some monsters in what serves as the combat tutorial, and eventually encounter an "Alpha" Naytiba, which is a higher-tier creature that not only fends off both soldiers but also hacks off Tachy's arm before plunging a blade through her, leaving a distraught Eve to pick up their mission solo (after she is rescued). Their mission is to find the leader of the Naytibas, the Elder Naytiba, and neutralize it. On a personal note, Eve wants payback against the monster that took down her friend.

Eve's journey takes her to various places across the planet, and she has company in the form of Adam, the guy who rescued her. He's what's known as a Scavenger, and he hails from one of the last bastions of civilization, named — of course — Xion. He flies a drop ship called the Tetropod and follows Eve on missions through a very useful flying drone. Yes, before we move forward, I know this seems a little on the nose: Xion, Adam and Eve. Just go with it. You'll live.

I won't spend much more time on the story because I don't like to spoil anything. Instead, we'll parse through the heart of the game: its combat design, which is what you'll spend most of your time experiencing. One thing I appreciated about what Stellar Blade does that past games have done is add layers to Eve's abilities as she crosses integral paths of the story. She doesn't come fully equipped at the start. The story operates the same way. You don't really know what's happening when Eve is dropped to Earth, but pieces of lore help you figure it out.

A majority of Eve's work in battle will be with her sword, which cleverly transforms into a hair accessory when Eve decides to "sheath" it. She has light and strong attacks via the Square and Triangle buttons, respectively, and the rest of the striking branches from there. Holding the Triangle button leads to a "rush" attack, and of course, there are combinations. Churning through the game, one eventually gets used to having access to Eve's more powerful attacks, called "Beta" and "Burst" attacks, which require energy that can be built up through fighting aptitude, whether that's landing shots or eluding, parrying and blocking. Those can be activated with a combination of one of the shoulder buttons plus either Square or Triangle. Eve also ends up with the equivalent of a "rage" mode, where she can go berserk with unique and powerful attacks for a period of time.

To set it apart from its Bayonetta/Devil May Cry-style contemporaries, Stellar Blade's special sauce in combat is its implementation of some thinking from another genre: soulslikes, where the concept of weaponizing well-timed acts of defense has been refined into an entire game-combat design discipline. Stellar Blade's spin adds to its demand for impeccable timing for parrying; it makes use of color to add a nifty sense of visual "reading" of an opponent's movements to cue you to make a decision in a split second. Because this theoretically makes things easier, the game balances things out and speeds things up, especially when it comes to the combos during boss battles.

A series of perfectly timed parries will chip away at your opponent's balance, and there's a visual marker among the various HUD meters that'll tell you how well you're doing. Success in triggering a loss of balance leaves Eve's opponent open to "Retribution," which is a Triangle button press away from a cinematic super-combo that should either wipe out a significant piece of an enemy life meter, if not end that enemy altogether. The color system enters the picture whenever Eve's opponent preps to launch a heavy attack on their own — they can either flash red (be prepared to parry), yellow (get ready to dodge), blue (time it right, and you'll end up behind them) and purple (create distance and shoot the about-to-be-exposed weak spot). Eve's sword flashes the same color at the right time you need to implement the counter. Screw it up badly, and Eve's hurting. However, I found that I wasn't guaranteed pain if I messed up, as long as the mess-up made sense. If I dodged instead of parrying, I was probably OK. If I sit and block instead of jump out of the way when I need to … ouch.

I found myself getting addicted to this system pretty quickly. It was fun, and it added a music-game rhythm to epic battles that I wasn't expecting to enjoy so much. During especially tough fights, I started looking at the color flashes as an opportunity, instead of, "Oh crap." It's not unlike a batter vs. pitcher matchup: Whatcha gonna throw me? There are "instant death" attacks, which only certain boss characters had. If you don't shoot certain things during an enemy's buildup to that attack in time, you're done. Done.

I mentioned the ability to shoot things. At some point in the game, Eve encounters an engineer named Lily, who is able to upgrade Eve's flying companion drone (useful for scanning) into a cannon that attaches to her arm and can fire a variety of projectiles, ranging from straight slugs to laser beams. Some of the environments Eve finds herself in render her sword useless, so it's shooting only. I smile at the memory of encountering Lily because at that exact moment, I had thought, "These cyber-soldiers of the future don't have guns?" It added a much-needed page to Eve's already robust firepower portfolio. You'd have to get used to being in "aiming mode" whenever Eve whips out the gun, and she apparently doesn't have the fluid run-and-shoot speed one does with, say, Aloy of Horizon Zero Dawn fame.

The open-world aspect of the game is what I expected. Eve's adventures take her to several scenic places that range from a giant desert to torn-down city to a massive space elevator. The level of visual detail that's gone into these spots is staggering. I felt a little sad looking at the toppled books in an abandoned library. One boss fight takes place in a captivating garden with lotus blossoms everywhere. It was ominous. However, there's a linear nature to Stellar Blade's open-ish world. You are free to explore, but you probably won't run into whole new levels while you're out there. Many of the side missions are of the "go get this" or "go kill this" variety, but some of them have some extra emotional juice, and all of them are rewarding and boost Eve's thick (but pretty standard) skill trees.

Speaking of upgrading Eve, her attack power can be increased, along with the number of slots for various support, combat and healing items. She can also get her hair styled (once she helps out the stylist in Xion) and can also be put in a variety of different outfits other than the original suit. Some of the outfits range from fashionable and sexy to impractical, or even silly. I leave it to you.

As much as I enjoyed Stellar Blade, it's got a few small bumps. There's quite a bit of traversal and platforming, and the control of Eve felt just a little too loose to trust. This is most I've just fallen off s**t in a while, and thankfully, most of the time the fall would just lead to a screen fade, placement at a spot right before the jump, and a piece of my life meter missing. I appreciate the intention of changing things up to break up all the combat, but if I'm racing down a tube that has exposed instant-kill buzzsaw-like gears and other obstacles, I'd like the control to feel a little tighter so when I miss a jump and the life-saving rope at the end of the tunnel, I truly know it's my fault. I'll own that.

Also, the in-game GPS will probably throw off some people once in a while because it points out the objective and sticks to it — but not immediately where you should go next. The people this will affect will likely have been spoiled by overly friendly GPS systems, which have legit pointed to the exact door you need to walk through. Also, I've played on different difficulty settings, and I didn't care much for what appeared to be a significant and sudden difficulty spike during one of the later boss battles. There currently isn't an option to go back, explore and do side missions once you finish the story like in other games. Once you're done, you're pretty much done. Thankfully, there's at least a New Game Plus mode.

I did, however, play through Stellar Blade twice from start to finish. It wasn't just because of the combat or the story, but because it looked so damn good. I'm not saying that because of all the beautiful people in it — everything moves and looks either immaculate, terrifying, gross, majestic or awe-inspiring. It's one of the best-looking action games out there, and it's definitely worth your time … and some pain.

Score: 8.3/10

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