Stellar Blade review — A beautiful masterpiece

It’s truly remarkable how Shift Up, the Seoul-based studio behind Stellar Blade, were able to develop such a competent action adventure title for their debut into the genre. While they’ve already cut their teeth on a mobile gacha game, Stellar Blade marks their first venture into the triple A space. And while it’s clear they’ve taken some inspiration from From Software’s Souls-Borne titles and PlatinumGames’ Nier: Automata, Shift Up have created a ‘stellar’ single-player experience that features incredible, flashy combat, adrenaline pumping set-piece moments, all set in a melancholic, post apocalyptic world. 

You play as EVE, a massively overpowered heroine who’s mission is to wipe out the Naytiba, a destructive alien species who have driven humankind to near extinction and transformed the Earth into a barren wasteland. After her initial mission goes terribly wrong, EVE enlists the help of Adam, a scavenger from the last safe-haven on Earth, Lily, a charming yet naive engineer,  and the mysterious bionic prophet, Orcal, to hunt down the leaders of the Naytiba and reclaim Earth for humanity. Along the way, EVE also learns the truth about the origins of the Naytiba and the downfall of Earth, as well as the mystery behind a deistic figure known as Mother Sphere. 

Stellar Blade Demo - PS5 [GamingTrend]

Stellar Blade has an interesting story to tell and some thought-provoking themes to explore, but unfortunately the narrative often stumbles in its delivery. It relies heavily on exposition dumps, and many of the biggest twists and turns are delivered in the form of holographic messages that EVE and the gang stumble upon over the course of their journey. It also doesn’t help that for the majority of the game, the primary and secondary cast of characters – with the exception of Lily – don’t have a tonne of personality about them, and mostly serve as vessels to provide the player with exposition, or to guide them through the levels.  

That isn’t to say that the narrative isn’t without some great moments. There are some incredible set piece segments, and some twists that I didn’t see coming. There just wasn’t the character depth required to explore Stellar Blade’s deeply philosophical themes in a meaningful way. If you’re happy with a popcorn flick rather than an emotional rollercoaster, then you’ll do just fine. 

While the narrative chops don’t always hit the mark, the worldbuilding on show in Stellar Blade is impressive. Practically every item you find has tidbits of lore attached to it, whether that’s to provide further insight to the setting you’re traveling through at the time, or the history of the wider world. Everywhere you go, you’ll find the bodies of soldiers and civilians slain by the Naytiba, each of them containing memory-sticks that recount their final thoughts, or alluding to mysteries yet unsolved. There’s more than enough here for even the most ravenous of lore-junkies to sink their teeth into.  

Throughout our combined 50 plus hours (25 per person) with the game and experiencing two different endings, we traveled through ruined, derelict cities, sand-swept deserts, gruesome research facilities, and much more. As you might expect from a post-apocalyptic setting, virtually everywhere you go is barren and hostile, although there are some pockets of beauty to be found along the way. There’s also Xion, the last remaining settlement for humanity on Earth, and the only respite from the Naytiba. Xion acts as a hub area, with the usual array of NPCs, side quests, shops, and so on. While many sidequests are picked up from NPCs around Xion, there’s also a Notice Board where EVE can pick up smaller tasks in exchange for a reward, which often send her to points of interest around the world. 

Stellar Blade is not a true open world game, although there are a couple of open-world style areas that are decently sized and worth exploring. Thankfully, the smaller scope of these areas means that there isn’t much of the copy and paste style content that you’ll often find in larger open worlds. Most of the game’s side-quests send you to these areas, and you’re often handsomely rewarded with gold, blueprints to craft new cosmetic suits for EVE, and the currency required to upgrade your equipment and craft those suits. The suits in Stellar Blade look incredible and there’s a ton available for completing in-game activities, and it’s refreshing to see that so many are earnable through gameplay, rather than through microtransactions. If you’re a completionist, they’re a great incentive to complete all the side content. We did our fair share of side-quests and activities, but still had a lot left to do when we reached the point of no return. We expect a completionist playthrough on normal difficulty to take around 35-40 hours. 

Most of the in-game areas are linear levels, although each of them offer good exploration opportunities. There’s a wealth of collectibles and upgrade materials to be found off the beaten path, often guarded by enemies, a puzzle, or a light platforming sequence. They’re well designed spaces that take advantage of EVE’s acrobatic move-set, and each sprawling level is packed with unique gameplay mechanics and set pieces. While there’s a lot of emphasis on combat, there are also moments where you’ll need to maneuver through rotating razor blades, scale dilapidated buildings, traverse rooms laden with security lasers, and other platforming challenges. There’s more platforming and light puzzle elements in Stellar Blade than we initially expected, and they help keep each new area fresh, exciting, and surprising. Jumping, climbing, and interacting with the world can feel a little floaty at times, but never enough to cause any significant frustration. 

Despite Shift Up’s commitment to regularly mixing up the gameplay, Stellar Blade does suffer from pacing issues from time to time. We found ourselves rolling our eyes at the amount of times we reached a door, only to find we’d need to hunt down some Fusion Cells to restore power to it, or search some corpses in the area to find a passcode to the door. Additionally, it’s a shame that the final hour or two of the game basically boils down to a boss gauntlet, lacking the variety that’s so well implemented into the rest of the game. It leaves the climax feeling a little rushed, as though there wasn’t enough time to create a more fleshed out conclusion. 

We would say Stellar Blade’s combat is most similar to none other than FromSoftware’s Sekiro, to a less punishing degree. However, it’s not as fluid and responsive as Sekiro. Stellar Blade is not a Souls-like game whatsoever, as there’s no stamina-based combat, a “soul” currency that drops upon death, or a robust role playing experience where you level up attributes such as strength or dexterity. We say it’s akin to Sekiro’s combat as there is an emphasis on defensive maneuvers such as perfect dodging and parrying as opposed to attacking. EVE has one blade that sticks with her throughout the entire game that she can upgrade after collecting enough materials. She’s able to equip different modules on her exoskeleton that provide different passive skills such as critical rate increase or decreasing enemy field of view. Defeating enemies grants experience that can be used to unlock nodes in a variety of skill trees.

Starting off, you have your basic attack and heavy attack that can be strung together to create combos. It’s not as in-depth and complicated as a Devil May Cry or Bayonetta game as you can mostly get by with just the light attack. You have a block that can be used to mitigate enemy attacks at the cost of a regenerating shield and your raw health points. Timing it right before an enemy attack lands will result in a perfect parry that will negate all damage and slow down time a bit to allow you to retaliate, as well as decrease the enemy’s balance meter. Parry enough times and the enemy will become groggy, allowing you to perform a Retribution attack that does major damage. You also have the ability to dodge, which is more of a side step, with the chance of perfect-dodging an enemy similar to how the parry works. 

If you played Sekiro, you’ll be familiar with the Mikiri Counter, which must be used for certain unblockable and undodgeable attacks. There is something similar here as well: Blink for grab attacks and Repulse for fatal attacks. The button inputs are the exact same, either a forward tilt on the analog stick plus the dodge button, or a backward tilt. 

Now that we’re done with the basics of combat, let’s talk a bit about the various weapon skills that are up EVE’s sleeve too. Two separate bars can be seen on the in-game HUD: one for Beta Energy and one for Burst Energy. Beta is charged from regular attacks and can be expended to perform weapon arts like the triplet or shield breaker. Burst is charged from perfect dodging or performing Blinks and can be used to perform even more devastating blows during combat. Don’t forget about the trusty drone that Adam/Lily maneuvers during gameplay as well, as it can be transformed into a ranged weapon of various uses too, including a rifle, shotgun, or even a homing missile launcher! The developers know exactly how to keep gameplay fresh by inserting gun-only sections that forbid you from using melee attacks against enemies.

The overall combat in Stellar Blade feels slick and satisfying, especially when you get into the ebb and flow of enemy attack patterns. It just clicks after a while! We initially thought the movement was a bit stiff and awkward when we played the demo, but quickly got used to the game’s systems. A fluid combat system combined with intense cinematic sequences mid-battle that prompt you with a few quick time events in addition to fantastic enemy designs makes this game a must play for action game enthusiasts. There’s an impressive amount of enemy variety too, each portraying their own unique and grotesque configurations that reek of eldritch influence.

Music plays such an important role in our lives and we’re always on the lookout for great soundtracks in the video game medium. We were incredibly impressed to see that music plays an integral part of the game, as it really captures the post apocalyptic and melancholic theme. EVE can be seen asking Adam what the piano and guitar are in an abandoned base and he jokes that they were used as instruments (no pun intended) for humans to try and mate with each other. It was heartwarming to see EVE try and learn more about how civilization was before and how important music was to humans. We were really getting some heavy Nier vibes from the various background tracks in-game, especially the ones with a human chorus in them. Well we were right because part of the soundtrack is actually composed by none other than Keiichi Okabe, the artist behind the Nier titles!

Shift Up did an outstanding job with the performance optimization of this game on the PlayStation 5. Clocking in at a mere 30.45 GB, Stellar Blade’s 20-30ish hour campaign will have you immersed in a truly next-generation experience. The DualSense controller is taken full advantage of as the controller speaker is utilized regularly to deliver feedback from your parries and incoming radio messages. There’s also the usual vibrations and rumbling from normal gameplay in addition to adaptive triggers when shooting. Aside from that, while not necessarily a negative thing, the load times are serviceable but nothing to write home about, taking around 9 seconds to load in from a fresh launch. 

Unfortunately there wasn’t New Game Plus available at the time of review, but great news for fans as it will be available day one at launch! Regardless, there already is a ton of replayability baked into the base experience already, with tons of collectibles to find and optional side content to complete. EVE also has over 30 cosmetic outfits to craft, all of which can be acquired in game without the inclusion of any microtransactions. 

Three graphical options are provided: performance, balanced, and resolution. You’ll want to stick with performance if you prefer buttery smooth and locked 60 frames per second gameplay with visuals capped at a native 1440p with non temporal upscaling. Balanced mode hovers around 50-60 fps and uses temporal reconstruction for upscaling the visuals to 4k. Finally, resolution mode locks gameplay to 30 frames per second but renders the game at a true 4K resolution. It’s a bit of a shame that such a beautiful game doesn’t come with a photo mode at launch, but the developers have hinted at a potential future patch down the line from player feedback.

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Even though this isn’t a FromSoftware game, Stellar Blade can prove to be difficult if you’re not careful. But if you’re looking for a chiller time, the game does offer a slew of difficulty options that can make the game easier and harder, should you choose to do so. 2 modes are offered when booting up a new game: story and normal. A hard mode is unlocked after beating the game once, but at any time in the game, you can choose to unequip EVE’s current suit and have her default “Skin Suit” active instead. This disables shields entirely, so do so at your own risk if you want to see her curves a bit better. 

On the topic of accessibility, the game offers an impressive suite of options including puzzle hints, in-depth tutorials, auto loot items, and even quick time event auto success. Of course the standard features are there as well, such as subtitles and their respective size, background, and speaker name, as well as tweaking the HUD size and enabling colorblind mode. Unfortunately you cannot rebind controls, but there is a handy layout map for you. To all you Souls or Sekiro veterans out there that prefer light attack mapped to R1, Stellar Blade has it mapped to the square button sadly. If at any point you need a refresher on anything, the game has got you covered with its extensive manuals filled with tutorials for combat, combos, skills, ranged attacks, items, and exploration. I also did find items to be quite miniscule on screen as they’re represented by glowing dots but thankfully there is that auto pick-up feature you can turn on.

An avid enthusiast of both tabletop and video games, finding endless joy in exploring different realms of entertainment!

Kristian (or Kris for short) is a copywriter by day, button presser by night. Based in the UK, Kris loves any game that allows him to swing a sword, fire an arrow, or sling a ball of fire, but ultimately he's not too fussy. On the rare occasion Kris isn't writing or gaming, you'll probably find him in the bath with a good book.



Stellar Blade

Review Guidelines

Despite not vibing too well with the demo, we were utterly in love with Stellar Blade by the time the credits rolled. Shift Up has done a tremendous job with their first triple A project and sets a high bar for modern action role playing games. There are some pacing issues, and the narrative's delivery stumbles, but the game as a whole is near perfect: the themes, the visuals, the music, the combat, the exploration, the world, and the technical performance. A modern masterpiece.

Henry Viola and Kristian Longden

Unless otherwise stated, the product in this article was provided for review purposes.

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