Stellar Blade review – no thinking, just slashing

Stellar Blade review - no thinking, just slashing

Stellar Blade has a fair bit of weirdness, but its killer tunes and vibey, flow-state combat – plus a transformative hard mode – are enough to leave you entranced.

I don’t know if there’s a universal winning formula for a great action game out there, but Stellar Blade sure has tried its hardest to reverse-engineer one. Like Bayonetta? Here, take an English lady zipping about in heels, annihilating monsters to a delectable soundtrack. Dark Souls fan? Rest at this camp to refill your potions, and better brush up on those parrying and dodging skills! You like God of War? How about a dozen different finishers that would make Kratos blush. Melee combat not for you? Have a gun.

Stellar Blade review

Developer: Shift Up
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platform: Played on PS5
Availability: Out 26th April on PS5

Turns out, cherry-picking from the last 15 years of video game action and pumping it into a single campaign of relentless hacking and slashing is fun. Really fun. The type of fun that turns “just one more hour” into “when did it turn 2am?”. Part of the appeal with Stellar Blade is just the sheer breadth of options: parrying, dodging, counter-attacking, dashing, ambushing, throwables, multiple ammo types for your gun, nine special abilities, and a dozen combos combining light, heavy, and air attacks. Add over 60 enemy types – the monstrous Naytiba – to slay, most with their own unique attack patterns, and Stellar Blade is far deeper than its flashy visuals imply.

To ease you in, only a few of these attacks are initially available to our protagonist, Eve, mirroring her rookie status as one of the cybernetically enhanced members of the 7th Airborne Squad, a super soldier group that operates from Earth’s orbit. Eve is fresh off a failed mission to eliminate the Earth’s supersized Alpha Naytibas, the monsters responsible for the planet’s apocalyptic demise, and as you journey through city ruins and dusty wastelands in search of these Alphas, you steadily unlock her powerful new skills. Exactly how you want to devastate each poor Naytiba you cross is up to you from here. Investing in the Ambush perk could turn Eve into an assassin, for instance, or maybe you’d like to get better at timing your parry? Perhaps guns are more your speed, so sure, unlock those targeting missiles and watch enemies blow up like a fireworks show.

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Here’s a Stellar Blade trailer to show it in action.Watch on YouTube

There are specific ways you need to deal with some Naytiba, like the Test Subject, a wriggling body bag that explodes if you get too close. Or the Skulling, which attaches itself to a new body if you don’t kill it quickly enough. This can make for some quick thinking and a change of tactics as you explore both open areas and the more linear levels, but a lot of the time it’s your choice. With the addition of Exospine and Gear implants, you can build an Eve that suits your particular Naytiba-hunting playstyle, each as bloody and glitzy as the next.

That said, while Stellar Blade is deep, it’s rarely stressful, thanks to a very manageable difficulty level while playing on the default normal mode. For all its combat options, the focus here is on that delightful feeling of just tearing things apart while looking cool. It’s almost always viable to simply opt for your favourite, most flashy moves for instance, rather than targeting a specific enemy weakness, or taking advantage of parrying and dodging. At times, this can venture into being a little too easy. Once you’ve sussed out that most common enemies can be killed with just one or two blasts of Eve’s special Beta ability, is there any reason – beyond looking stylish – to do much else? There’s certainly downtime between using skills where you need to be careful with what you do next, or where an enemy might turn the tables and one-shot you if you don’t parry or dodge in time. And starting a fight with multiple baddies is usually a recipe for instant death. But once that Beta energy is charged back up, it’s bye-bye Naytiba.

Image credit: Eurogamer/Shift Up

Eve with her drone in Stellar Blade looking across a sandy desert wasteland.

Image credit: Shift Up

Eve standing with her drone beside her looking out from the rop of an open, unfinished building at a decimated city landscape in Stellar Blade.

Image credit: Eurogamer/Shift Up

Eve with Adam and Lily in the cockpit of the Tetrapod ship in Stellar Blade.

Image credit: Shift Up

The one exception to this is boss battles, where the increased length and spectacle often forces you to dig deeper into Eve’s arsenal to survive until that point. They’re bigger, badder, have far more health and shields, and are usually armed with attacks that can’t be easily parried or dodged. But even then, there’s another helping hand here in the form of WB Pumps, an instant revive that can be used multiple times across each phase of an Elite or Alpha Naytiba encounter. Late-game battles aside, it’s a very easy way to just nope out of harder encounters. Maybe it wouldn’t feel like such a hack if WB Pumps weren’t as easily obtainable, but they’re often dolled out as a reward for completing side quests, and it feels like Gold is thrown at you for breathing, so why not just stock up at vending machines when you can?

Even Eve’s abundant use of her special abilities and the generous supply of WB Pumps don’t spoil the fun, however, because in many ways the magic with Stellar Blade is the breeziness of it, and how easy that makes it to slip into that hack-and-slash trance. It’s nice to actually feel like the killing machine all the cutscenes make Eve out to be.

At the same time, Stellar Blade’s hard mode offers an almost transformative shift in how the game’s played. Where normal is a hack-and-slash splatterfest, hard is a challenging game of taking stock of each and every enemy, even the common ones. Eve’s optional attacks aren’t so optional anymore, as relying on special abilities and revives is nowhere near as viable as it is on normal. It’s like playing a new game, and it’s a real achievement that both of these approaches feel so good in their own ways. The only issue is that hard mode doesn’t unlock until you’ve completed the main story. I love a good brain-off hack-and-slash and a more cerebral Soulsborne offering in equal measure, but if you don’t, it’s frustrating that you can’t just jump into your preferred way of playing from the beginning.

Even readying her blade to use against a Naytiba boss in Stellar Blade.

Image credit: Shift Up

The Orcle in Stellar Blade, an elderly man with lots of cybernetic implants and wires attached to him.

Image credit: Shift Up

Even posing with her sword and head down on the ground in front if a Corrupter Naytiba enemy she just killed in Stellar Blade.

Image credit: Eurogamer/Shift Up

Either way, Stellar Blade’s default breeziness works well with its emphasis on exploring, as there’s a familiar rhythm to it that encouraged me to investigate every inch of an area. The wonderful soundtrack sure helped to carry me along too, as each region has its own theme that changes as the story progresses, with tracks ranging from soft pop songs and piano numbers to over-the-top sci-fi scores that make a perfect accompaniment to obliterating enemies. Music during boss battles is also a treat, injecting some intensity, even if the difficulty doesn’t. The last few big fights are some of my favourite moments in Stellar Blade, in large credit to both ridiculous spectacle, and their accompanying themes.

With its ease on the ears and manageable, hazy exploration, I found myself really enjoying Stellar Blade’s exploration loop, even if the environments did blend into one sandy apocalyptic look in the end. Why wouldn’t I go and take out that group in a suspicious-looking corner when it’s probably just going to be a few sleek button presses to take them out? Rinse and repeat, song after song, and oh dear, is it 2am again? Stellar Blade lives off a vibe. No thinking, just slashing. Your enjoyment on normal mode might come down to how deep into this melodious trance you go, but I was certainly mesmerised by it.

That said, I don’t think Stellar Blade’s autopilot vibes appeal quite as much if you’re just mainlining the story, as apart from the combat, there’s not much else to get out of it or its one-dimensional characters. You’ve seen this one before: an apocalyptic end to Earth overrun with monsters, super soldiers sent to dispatch them, Humans using technology to evolve, gathering together in a plucky town to survive the wastelands, introspection on what it means to be human, and a fetch quest to fill your time until ending revelations. It’s yet another example of riffing on those that have come before without adding much of its own.

The Beta ability Skill Tree menu in Stellar Blade showing four types of attacks to be upgraded.

Eve attacking a trio of common scorpion-like Naytiba enemies in Stellar Blade with blood splatter covering them.

Menu view of enemy logs in Stellar Blade showing a picture of the Brute Alpha Naytiba.

Eve using her drone gun to shoot at an Elite Naytiba enemy in Stellar Blade.

Image credit: Eurogamer/Shift Up

In many ways it’s back to the 2000’s with Stellar Blade, which can at times feel more like a remaster of your favourite game of yesteryear than a step forward in anything it’s emulating. Invisible walls, questionable voice acting, platforming quirks – and oh boy, those quirks. I love that there are a bunch of optional environmental puzzles to solve while exploring the two open areas, but it’s not so delightful when Eve does her best retro Lara Croft impression and jumps off into a pit in the opposite direction. Again. And again. The awful platforming isn’t exclusive to side activities, as you need to navigate some infuriating courses during the campaign too, and it’s not something to learn by practice, either, as there’s no logic to it. Sometimes Eve auto-grabs a ledge, sometimes she doesn’t. The swinging rope never lines up to a smooth leap. Double jump is either required to progress, or Eve will jump too far to her death, and wall running feels like it was designed to personally torture me.

Back to the narrative, and I can see how the deadpan line delivery and questionable writing could be just as painful for some – but here Stellar Blade actually does a weird 180 for me. Somehow, the stiffness adds an unintentional charm, letting me forget about my latest failed jump for a while. In fact I can’t remember the last time I laughed at a game so much. Everybody sounds like they were told to tone down any emotion to almost zero. Eve’s personality boils down to her saying “Okay” or “Alright” to everything. Environmental notes contain such classics as “Are we the real monsters?”, and there is zero camaraderie between Eve and her two companions, Adam and Lily. They’re all just there, waiting for their next scene, acting like they’re taking part in an apocalyptic pantomime with a particularly good budget. It’s so silly it’s bad, but it’s so bad it’s good.

All this surprisingly endearing weirdness only adds to my annoyance that Stellar Blade’s become the latest game to be sucked into a misogynistic culture war. For those blissfully unaware, the quick summary here is that some have decided to make it their mission to vocally worship Eve’s unrealistic chest and behind, lamenting the ‘unattractiveness’ of other women in modern games. Back in their day, you see, their polygons were sexy. There was none of this diverse range of faces and body types that they decree looks ugly.

The Exospine selection menu showing Eve to the right and her spine highlighted through her.

Eve flourishing with her arms and blade in the air after jumping from a boss Naytiba seen in the background in Stellar Blade.

Image credit: Eurogamer/Shift Up

Look, I don’t completely believe that Eve was designed solely to cater for men. Developer Shift Up’s ongoing mobile game, Goddess of Victory: Nikke (AKA Butts, The Game), makes a huge amount of money by selling characters in costumes that make Eve’s outfits look like churchwear, and Nikke has a large female fanbase, at least in its Japanese and South Korean markets. This clearly works for Shift Up, so I get why in Stellar Blade they’ve included plenty of sketchy costumes – and made possibly the worst implementation of ‘jiggle’ physics I’ve ever laughed at. Don’t you just hate it when you’re standing still, but your breasts are still hopping about like there’s something horrifying waiting to burst out?

It comes across as sleazy, yes, but apparently that works for more than just men. In one sense, it makes me think who am I to judge, really? I sleep with birdmen in Mass Effect. And yet at the same time, I can see the design history this type of oversexualisation has had in gaming, when it was indeed made with men solely in mind, so I get some of the criticism. It’s an unwelcome reminder of how gaming used to treat its women as objects to ogle.

Stellar Blade accessibility options

Colourblind presets and filter intensity. QTE auto success toggle. Motion sickness adjustments. Motion blur and camera shake sliders. Subtitle size and background adjustments. HUD size adjustment and background option. Hint and tutorial systems. Auto loot toggle. Camera and aiming sensitivity sliders. Can turn off adaptive triggers. Ranged aim correction. Auto lock-on when attacking.

At best, this all amounts to an embarrassing look for video games – the exact type of conversation that makes them seem just as juvenile and shallow as some outside of the industry still believe. Of course the gamers are debating boobs, what else would they be doing? At worst, however, it’s incredibly toxic ‘discourse’ that’s turned Stellar Blade into a lightning rod for harassment. You can like Stellar Blade’s sexualisation without going on a hate campaign against all other types of women in games, and women working in the games space, but then admitting that would make too much sense.

What I’d much rather discuss is whether the feelgood hack-and-slash normal mode, or the more intentional, punishing hard mode is your preferred way to play. Or if everybody else found the extremely odd dialogue just as funny. How about that extravaganza of boss fights near the end? The music! There’s a lot to love about Stellar Blade, and I want it to be remembered for its moreish combat and bizarrely appealing lack of personality, not this warped internet presence. I’m hopeful of that – as for all its weirdness and quirks, that magic flow-state combat loop is what’s stuck in my mind.

A copy of Stellar Blade was provided for review by Sony Interactive Entertainment.

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