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Stellar Blade Review – Early GOTY Contender

In this Stellar Blade Review, we are going to be taking a look at the hack-and-slash ARPG being developed by Korean studio Shift Up and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. With about 5 years of development, this game has managed to gain some attention with its flashy Bayonetta-style combat paired with a Nier: Automata atmosphere and an overall incredible feeling of pure style. So, has it lived up to the hype and shaped up to be one of PlayStation’s top games this year? Let’s check it out!

Stellar Blade Review – Playstation 5

Genre: Action Adventure
Developed by: Shift Up
Published by: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release date: April 26th, 2024
Platforms: PlayStation?5 Exclusive
Price at time of review: $69.99 – Standard Edition

Stellar Blade Review – Story and Setting

Setting & World

Stellar Blade unfolds in a post-apocalyptic Earth, a desolate wasteland with little remaining human life in the not-too-distant future. Earth was once a bustling hub of civilization and progress, but now it lies in ruins, a shadow of its former self after being overrun by alien invaders known as the Naytiba. These extraterrestrials forced the majority of humanity to flee Earth, who now live in colonies throughout outer space. You play as the protagonist EVE 07 (also known as Eve), a soldier of the Eve Defense Force. As a member of the elite airborne squad, she has been tasked with an impossible feat: to reclaim Earth from the clutches of the Naytiba.

Opening cutscene

The Sci-Fi setting portrayed in Stellar Blade is done well, blending the natural corruption of the Naytibas over the ruins of advanced technologies and human society. The people in this world operate under completely different cultural norms, worshiping an omniscient being known as Mother Sphere, living off of Body Cells rather than food, and possessing memory sticks that are offered to the Mother Sphere as a sort of memorial upon death. Shift Up succeeds here in creating an interesting world for players to explore, containing clues to the history of earth and the human race for those willing to look for them, overlaying a story that questions what it means to be human.

The last thing to touch upon about the setting is the large religious undertone in which everything takes place, with many allusions to Christianity. The most literal example is the somewhat biblically accurate angel seen hovering over a space station in the trailer. Other more metaphoric ones include the main characters being named Adam and Eve, and the main city sharing a close name with Zion, the City of Holiness in the Bible. There were a ton more metaphors and allusions to the bible that were very cleverly integrated the main story, managing to serve as an interesting dynamic without disrupting the overall plot. I could imagine people making a 30-minute analysis video on this certain aspect of the game, as there seems to be so much to unpack underneath the surface of just matching names and angels. 

Biblically accurate angel overlooming a space station

Overall the setting is well thought out drawing clear inspiration from Nier: Automata, while leaving plenty of room for worldbuilding with the mystery and intrigue surrounding how the Naytibas came to be, who Mother Sphere is, and what the Naytiba’s ultimate goal is. I found myself picking up every single memory stick, holy book or poster advertisement placed throughout the world to find out more, slowly unravelling all of Stellar Blade’s mysteries.

Story

Story-wise, the plot of Stellar Blade is not mind blowing, nor is it bad. There are many early game hints to things that will happen later in the game, foreshadowing events for those paying attention, so some of the big reveals were not surprising. However, there were some moments I was not expecting, making for a decent experience overall, even if the story is not the strongest part of Stellar Blade.

Oracle, a wise old man governing Xion

The characters of Stellar Blade are not fantastically written, but do serve their purpose to pull the story along, guiding you with information about the world, story and quests. They never seem to waver from their “alignment”, and tough decisions and harsh conditions never seem to shake their sense of resolve, making them less relatable then real people when faced with choices that question their morality. Additionally, the dialogue in the game is often very strange, not matching the flow of a normal conversation at all. I’m not sure if it’s due to translation issues from Korean to English, but it definitely left some conversations feeling “wonky” within the game. 

Overall, the setting and world building of Stellar Blade was well done with a convincing, very fleshed out world that made you want to know more, but the protagonists and other characters felt somewhat one-dimensional. Regardless, the story was good enough to serve the amazing setting, so it was still a very enjoyable experience.

Stellar Blade Gameplay Review

The gameplay of Stellar Blade takes inspiration from a lot of modern classics, meshing together a Semi-Open world from God of War with stylish combat from Bayonetta that has a heavy emphasis on parry focused gameplay like Sekiro or Lies of P. To start, lets go over the best thing about this game; the Combat and RPG aspects

Combat and RPG Aspects

The combat of Stellar Blade was undoubtedly the main focus of the game, featuring a simple yet impressively stylish system. At its core are skill trees, which act as the main progression for combat featuring 5 different trees with their own unique combos, passives and abilities. You begin the game with all 8 basic combos already unlocked in the skill tree, which starts off as a bit overwhelming as there was no clear tutorial for them. However, the game accommodates this by allowing you to test any skill by hovering over it in the skill tree, and entering a practice range where you can get an idea of the button inputs.?I cannot stress enough how nice this was!

Training mode showing button inputs and how to execute skills

Once you get the hang of parrying, you end up using these combos as a way to spice up the gameplay rather than out of necessity. You don’t just want to defeat your enemies, you want to completely whoop their asses by parrying everything, using a variety of combos and finding openings to use powerful attacks. The combat only gets better as you get further into the game, with new purple and blue enemy moves which can only be countered with certain skills, more combo options, and the other 2 locked skill trees which also play a large role in combat (one including a very motivated skill). However, even with these extra options, those 8 beginning combos are basically your bread and butter for the entire game, so combat does get a tiny bit stale towards the end. 

The RPG aspect comes from the various gear components and exospines you equip onto Eve. Gear components will give some noticeable bonuses such as bonus fixed damage on combo attacks, extra crit rate, and some more complex ones like extra damage output in exchange for increased incoming damage. The Exospines have a large impact, sometimes adding unique passive abilities like a chain damage attack activated on crits, charging your burst meter more on Level 4 combos, or making it easier to perfect parry and dodge. There are gears and exospines specifically designed for the 2 locked skill trees as well, so there is something for every playstyle. The other way you make Eve stronger is by finding Weapon Cores to upgrade her signature weapon, usually from bosses, and finding Tumbler Expansion Modules to get more heals.??

Eve using a very motivated skill

Altogether, the RPG aspects for progression are very simple, making it digestible for people who aren’t interested in worrying about their “Build”, while still managing to have a decent range of customization. However, I do wish there were more “unique abilities” found on gear to further mix things up, since I’m one of those players who prefers more complexity in this area.

In terms of enemies, there are 48 different Naytibas you can face in normal combat, each with their own distinct movesets. For example, a hammerhead horse Naytiba that charges at you, a living barnacle using its body as a shield, or war machines from before the war infected by Naytiba contamination. However, the true standout moments are unquestionably the boss fights. Stellar Blade is at its absolute peak during these encounters, with heavy metal or dubstep blasting in the background while you parry a barrage of attacks then follow up with brutal energy skills and stylish combos. I always found myself wanting to utterly demolish the boss rather than barely scrape by, especially with the last boss, who has become one of my favorite final bosses in gaming.

Defeating one of the first bosses

Semi-Open World Exploration 

Moving on from combat, let’s delve into the actual content of the game. You will be following a main quest while also finding multiple side quests throughout the main city of Zion, and sometimes out in the open world sections such as the Wasteland. Some quests feature recurring characters that have their own stories, however most were quite surface level. Every time you unlock a new area, new quests will pop up for that section, encouraging you to explore areas more thoroughly rather than gunning for the main quest.?

Requests board in Xion

In the linear area sections, the level design is good, featuring many sub-areas where you can discover special rewards if you explore thoroughly. However, while on the main quest, the progression in these areas was sometimes bogged down by stale puzzles, or sections where you weren’t allowed to use your main weapon. These sections likely try to encourage the player to use the ranged weapon more often, but it just made the game into a pretty boring third person shooter. Thankfully, these sections were few and far between and didn’t take up too much of the game.

The open world sections are quite small when compared to the massive worlds of some games like Assassin’s Creed, but in exchange the map didn’t feel super empty and had a decent amount of explorable content. A lot of this was simply getting chests or finding some platforming sections, but there was also an unexpectedly in depth fishing game, and some puzzles around the map that weren’t mind blowing, but can still be an enjoyable experience for any completionists. In terms of rewards, I was always excited to see if I would get new Gear Components and Exospines from chests, as well as new outfits for Eve, new body cores to increase her stats, or the collectible soda cans.

Collecting fancy energy drinks

On that topic, the outfits were one of the main highlights of Stellar Blade as well, with over 30 options for detailed costumes as well as earrings, eyewear and hair styles on top of that. The freedom of customization is surprisingly fun, and there are quite a few… bold outfits to say the least, as promised by Shift Up before launch. Unfortunately though, they didn’t deliver on the outfits for Lily and Adam, as I only managed to find 1 outfit for each of them in my entire playthrough, despite doing most of the content.

In summary, the gameplay of Stellar Blade heavily leans on its extremely well crafted combat system and its solid, though not super complicated progression which keeps things fresh. You get a good variety of enemies to go crazy on, and the boss fights are undoubtedly the highlights of the gameplay experience.

Design, Visual & Audio

In terms of Design, Visual and Audio, Stellar Blade excels with its style and atmosphere. Starting with the combat, combos are fluid and satisfying with parries having a very satisfying SFX, and many of the abilities acquired having over the top, amazing animations that make you want to keep spamming them over and over. 

The visuals are crisp and clear, opting for stylized 3D animation which works especially well with designing the Naytibas, who later on have some crazy designs that make some of them look straight out of Dark Souls. Environments are similarly well crafted, with Eidos 7 in particular successfully creating a great image of a destroyed human civilisation, engulfed by greenery and overrun with Naytibas. Late into a game, theres another environment that becomes much more Sci-Fi and asian themed, so look forward to that.

Ruined city of Eidos 7

Audio-wise, the soundtrack was already praised with just the OST from the demo. The main theme is a catchy Korean techno beat theme, the camp theme very much reminds you of Nier: Automata and there’s even some heavy metal for the some bosses. The rest of the game keeps up with this quality, bouncing between several different genres depending on the mood, making you hyped for a big boss fight or immersed in the open world exploration. The only complaint I would have is that there wasn’t enough; more soundtracks for the open world areas would have been a great addition.

However, even with all the positives, there were still a few minor issues. The game had a few bugs here and there, with the most annoying one being object collision when moving things for puzzles. Boxes and carts would get stuck on random pixels, and moving these objects was almost never smooth. Furthermore, the voice acting was mediocre, and many of the voices in the game did not match the character at all in the English dub. In cutscenes, characters had noticeably exaggerated movements that looked like they were trying to break their neck, which was also an immersion killer at times.

Bug where you couldn’t move an object

Performance-wise on the Balanced setting, I maintained 60 FPS almost the whole time, dropping only slightly in the main city once it was more populated further into the game. However, there is a Performance mode you can change to if you want a smoother experience in this area, but is not necessary during general gameplay outside of it.

All in all though, these flaws are completely overshadowed by an OST I would actually listen to outside of the game, great environment design and fantastic animations in combat.

Pricepoint, Game Length & Replayability

Stellar Blade is not a lengthy experience, and does not feature the replayability of similar games like Nier: Automata or DMC 5. I did almost every single side quest in my playthrough, and thoroughly explored open world areas to fill out around 90% of my Data Bank, yet ended up with around 40 hours of playtime. This wouldn’t be a problem if there was some kind of boss rush mode at the end, but there isn’t any endgame content. You will unlock a hard mode and a new outfit after finishing the first playthrough, and there are 2 possible endings, but that’s about it.

It’s really a shame since a boss rush mode would be the perfect way to round off this game, since the bosses are phenomenal and I would love to fight them over and over again. I think something like the Bloody Palace from DMC5 would be the perfect fit for the endgame content in a game like this, but sadly we probably won’t see that.

However, it has been confirmed that Stellar Blade will be receiving a free DLC update in the near future which includes a New Game+, and even without this the 40 hours was still more than enough for me.

Final Thoughts

Stellar Blade came out of nowhere as one of the most anticipated games of 2024, and I believe it has managed to successfully live up to most of that hype. It’s not a perfect experience, with confusing dialogue, strange voice acting and some slow parts in the main quest, but the fantastic OST, stylish visuals and the boss fights manage to overshadow all of that, while at the same time providing some of the best combat in modern gaming.

If you like Sekiro, Lies of P or DMC 5, you will most definitely appreciate Stellar Blade. Gameplay is king in this genre, and Stellar Blade delivers a fun rewarding experience that is not to be missed.

8.8

Great

Story & Setting 9
Gameplay 9.5
Audio, Visual & Design 9.5
Replayability & Length 7.5
Pricepoint 8.5

Summary

Stellar Blade is a fantastic addition to the Action genre, with intense flashy combat, amazing boss fights, and the best “outfits” in modern gaming. If you enjoy games like Nier: Automata, Devil May Cry 5, or Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Stellar Blade is a day 1 buy, even if it has less replay value.

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