If any of the Soulsborne games were a 2D side-scrolling run and gun, I’d probably enjoy them a lot more. Steel Assault is that tough-as-nails, trial by error kind of platformer, and its style is inspired by old-school, wallet-draining 90’s arcade games like Metal Slug, but also features influences from Contra. A few clunky mechanics and hard to distinguish graphics make Steel Assault tougher than it should be, but the high-wire difficulty, retro sounds, and short length more than make up for any downsides.
Arcade games typically increased in difficulty as you made it to later levels, but Zenovia Interactive chose to make jumping through levels and using tools in unique ways as the method to keep the challenge steady from beginning to end. No matter what stage you’re on, enemies pour on screen, surprising you by hopping out of buildings or leaping at you just as you approach the right spot, and you have to deal with craftily placed obstacles to avoid. You’ll see all the classic tricks used from the 90’s to keep you on your toes, but it’s your job to use whatever you have to avoid them and Steel Assault successfully places that responsibility in your hands. Your character responds instantly to your commands, making most deaths easier to stomach. Of course, taking damage and dying becomes frustrating at times but you’re never caught so off guard that you’re wondering how you got hit. As I learned from my mistakes and became more proficient using my tools, I took less damage and even some later stages felt easier.
There aren’t a lot of abilities and tools you use. You obviously have a capable gun, you can slide, and there are various power-ups you should grab that alters your weapon’s abilities, but the most interesting is the grappling hook, which functions more like a zipline. You can effortlessly fire it in eight directions to reach different heights, avoid traps, or you use it to place yourself in advantageous situations. At first, its use is pretty mundane since most opportunities to deploy it are boiled down to attaching it between two walls or moving between lower and higher floors. But it doesn’t take too long before you’re balancing those basics while attacking or dodging enemies and avoiding obstacles. One level auto-scrolled upward with green acid rising from the bottom and I had to figure out how to continually grapple-jump through a pair of parallel conveyer belts while shooting and dodging enemies. It felt great feeling my thumbs dance around my gamepad while adrenaline flowed through my body as I continuously tried, and failed, to pass that section. Most of the stages feel like that, but finishing one often felt like it depended on my execution, not struggling to figure out unpredictable enemy tactics. Sometimes the hook felt finicky though, which were the only moments something felt out of my control. A few times I connected to a platform and the grapple would break and I didn’t understand why, or I couldn’t connect to a platform I previously attached to. It was also wildly difficult to focus on making sure the zipline attached at both ends while I dealt with all the chaos on screen, which didn’t enhance the intended toughness Steel Assault was aiming for. I wish there were more creative uses for the grapple hook against bosses, as well. Many of them reduce its use to hiding from powerful attacks, so it makes some of the fights less exciting compared to the stages.
I love the throwback stage locations you’d see in so many classic beat ’em ups and run and gun games. You’re on the streets, you’re on the rooftops, in the sky, in jungles, and of course, there’s an elevator stage. They’re highly detailed with bright colors and dark shadows, but the graphics are too pixelated for my eyes. I frequently caught myself squinting to help ease the sharp edges, so I turned on the bilinear filter to smooth the pixels. That didn’t help much, either. Ultimately, it would have been nice if the character was a little larger or the camera was closer. On some stages, the background and the foreground blended too well. I had trouble figuring out what I could jump on. It’s exhausting using whatever mental energy I had left to figure out what was actually part of the level. There is a section where I had to jump on descending rocks to climb a waterfall. When I reached the top, I jumped and what looked like solid ground was just the background and I fell to my death.
Stages with water are unnecessarily exhausting, also. If you end up in the drink, you can hop out, but your jump diminishes each time you hop out, and, particularly in the acid, it’s easy to rack up damage. It was best to let myself sink and let the water spit me out, but it was always frustrating in the heat of the moment as I’m fumbling jumps out of the water while trying to kill enemies. It felt hopeless once I fell in because I knew I wasn’t getting out most of the time. Thankfully, if I died, checkpoints brought me back to reasonable spots. But I won’t call them gracious because they set you back far enough that you have to go through some of the tough gauntlets of enemies again. It’s also particularly annoying that you have to wait through a cutscene every time you die to a boss.
There are several aggressive difficulty modes. Each difficulty appropriately changes the number of enemies and how much damage they deal. Normal mode, which is the second hardest default difficulty, was enough of a challenge for me. Expert mode turns the damage all the way up, and there is the brutal Arcade mode which is Expert with no checkpoints. You can play on easier modes that reduce enemies and damage, but Zenovia Interactive smartly cut and included just enough enemies in each difficulty so that it doubles as a tutorial and you can work your way to the toughest difficulties – Arcade being the standard. Plus, you’re encouraged to replay the whole thing over and over since it’s so short. It took me about an hour and a half to finish Steel Assault the first time, so while it is punishing, it’s short and predictable. It begs me to play again and master its intricacies, and I happily oblige.
Anthony Shelton hosts and produces the Gaming Trend podcast and creates opinion videos occasionally on YouTube. He carries some of the strongest opinions among the staff and is generally harder to impress. But if impressed, he sings developers' praises just as loudly. He typically plays everything except horror and most RTS, but genres he gravitates towards are platformers, FPS, racing, roguelikes, fighting, and loot-based games. He has quit Twitter and uses Threads. Follow him at iamashelton.
Steel Assault brings back the arcade feel with tremendous accuracy and care. Its brevity nicely complements its difficulty, and the grappling hook is a great addition with unique uses, though it feels unreliable at times. The graphics could use less pixelation and better distinction between the foreground and background, as well. But if Steel Assault were to cost 50¢ per play, I probably lost $20, and I don't regret it.