Review: Stellar Blade Is a Thrilling Action RPG with Stylish Combat
Image via Shift Up

Review: Stellar Blade Channels NieR: Automata’s Stylish Combat

Originally announced in 2019 as Project Eve, Stellar Blade has had an interesting development cycle. Initially a multi-platform release, the project eventually landed as a PlayStation 5 exclusive with a new title. As a result, it has become one of the console’s most anticipated games. Thankfully, Stellar Blade was worth the wait, as it’s one of the best action-RPGs released since NieR: Automata.

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Before we dive in, I want to address the elephant in the room. In the lead-up to the launch of Stellar Blade, there has been a lot of discourse around EVE’s design. If you are uncomfortable with the character’s portrayal, there is a good chance you won’t enjoy this game. It features a lot of (optional) revealing outfits and suggestive camera angles. Shift Up tells a good story in Stellar Blade with thought-provoking themes, and EVE is a great protagonist who I ended up really liking after spending 50 hours with her story. The game also offers a wide variety of fashionable outfits you can equip that lets you customize how you want EVE to look, so there are options other than sexy. That said, I just wanted to give everyone an idea of what to expect before jumping into this.

Stellar Blade Review EVE Design
Image via Shift Up

The best way I can describe Stellar Blade is that it’s like if NieR: Automata and Bayonetta had a baby. If that sounds awesome to you, then you will likely love the game. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, Stellar Blade’s story centers on an earth that has been invaded by monsters called Naytiba. As a last stand, EVE is sent down to defend humanity from the brink of extinction. Like entries in the NieR series, the game plays with many familiar sci-fi themes, such as when we consider androids to be “alive” and what it means to be “human.” However, the game wastes no time throwing you into the action the second EVE lands on earth, as you are slashing down enemies with swagger the second the story begins.

One of the best things about Stellar Blade is its fast-paced combat, which strikes a perfect balance between risk and reward. At its core, gameplay consists of a mix of close-quarters action with EVE’s blade and ranged attacks with her drone gun. As you land combos, you build up energy, which allows you to unleash devastating Beta attacks. However, you can also fill up your Beta meter each time you successfully pull off a Perfect Parry or Perfect Dodge. These are timed defensive moves that counter an enemy’s attack back at them, which leaves them temporarily stunned. As a result, you will need to know when to be defensive or go on the offensive, as it can literally turn the tides of battle.

However, where combat really comes together in Stellar Blade is when the Blink and Repulse systems come into play. During combat exchanges, enemies will eventually launch into powerful attacks that can’t be blocked. If you press the right button prompt, EVE will Blink through the enemy, allowing you to unleash a barrage of attacks at their back. Conversely, if you Repulse, you will kick the enemy in the face and send EVE flying backward away from danger. This also gives you a small time window to whip your drone gun out and attack their weak spot (which is highlighted with a glowing yellow aura).

Stellar Blade Review Combat
Image via Shift Up

All of this blends together in a seamless flow of attacks, which at times feels more like a “dance” than a fight. Think of the epic sequences in a John Wick movie, and you will get an idea of how it looks. Stellar Blade succeeds in making combat stylish while also making sure gameplay is deep and challenging. But I won’t lie; it does feel badass to see EVE kickflip off an enemy, then drive her sword down their throat. For all the chaotic energy that combat brings in Stellar Blade though, it’s also really smooth and gives you a lot of room to chain attacks together in unique ways once you get the hang of it.

Stellar Blade is also a really difficult game. You can’t just hack and slash enemies while standing still, or you will get destroyed. Naytiba are aggressive! Like a Darks Souls game, you will get punished if you don’t move around. I even briefly tested out the game’s easier “story mode” difficulty, and you can get torn to shreds in seconds if you fall out of step in combat. Stellar Blade is so challenging that I almost thought I wasn’t going to be able to beat it after dying for the 30th time to the story’s final boss. But like a puzzle, I was eventually able to overcome the final showdown after swapping out my Gear. Stellar Blade has an interesting character loadout feature that lets you install gear such as chips and exospine parts into EVE’s Nano Suit, which in turn alters her stats or performance.

For example, you might equip a gear chip that adds 300 points to your shield or a chip that makes it easier to pull off a Perfect Dodge or Perfect Parry. But to give you an example of how this feature can be used strategically, let’s talk about my one boss fight loadout. (There will be no story spoilers, I promise). Initially, I had a gear chip equipped on EVE that sped up my Beta energy’s charge time. However, I had a second chip in my inventory that refilled my Beta Energy based on the total amount of damage I received after being hit. Since one boss boss was dishing out an eye-popping amount of damage with each attack, this essentially allowed me to keep my Beta bar filled at all times. This one little change to my loadout made a massive difference in a battle that initially seemed impossible. So, if you are looking for fast-paced combat with strategic depth, Stellar Blade has that in spades.

Stellar Blade Review Boss
Image via Shift Up

Speaking of combat, Stellar Blade handles EVE’s level progression with its Skill system. There are a total of five skill trees, which you can max out if you complete side quests. The Blink and Repulse moves I mentioned earlier are a part of this skill tree, so leveling up EVE has a major impact on gameplay and makes progression feel worth it. You even get access to new Beta Powers, as well as basic combat moves such as Rush. The skill allows EVE to instantly teleport across the level and slam into enemies with her sword. If you aren’t happy with how you’ve invested your Skill Points, the game has an item that lets you reset each skill tree branch.

Combat isn’t the only thing that is stylish in Stellar Blade, as the game features many outfits for players to collect and unlock throughout the campaign. While some might not be a fan of all the designs, there are some really cool Nano Suits for EVE to track down. Outfits can be as silly as a stuffed animal costume to a fashionable jeans and a leather jacket combo. There is even an outfit that pays homage to Bruce Lee’s iconic yellow jumpsuit (or the one the Bride in Kill Bill wore, for those younger readers). At least for me, turning EVE into a fashionista gave me an incentive to complete side quests and explore every inch of the map. The game even has earrings and glasses you can equip! I just wish that Shift Up had also put this effort into your weapons, as you are stuck with the same blade and gun for the entirety of the game.

As far as length goes, Stellar Blade can be beaten in 25 to 30 hours if you rush through the game and only tackle main story missions. This could vary depending on which difficulty you are playing on and, of course, the player’s skill level. I completed most of the game’s side quests, and my final playthrough clocked in at around 50 hours. But I’m also not a pro at action-RPGs by any means, and I would even consider myself more on the “novice” side in terms of my skill level. So take that into consideration when considering my estimates. The main campaign largely takes place across six regions (plus a few extra areas). Two of these locations are open-world maps. From a post-apocalyptic city overgrown with wildlife to a sprawling desert with sand dunes stretching across the horizon, every section of the game is varied in its design.

Stellar Blade Review Levels
Image via Shift Up

With regards to traversal, each level map is broken up by fast travel points and campsites that can be used to refill your health and potions. Shift Up doesn’t make it easy for us, as enemies will also reset whenever you rest. Fast travel points are accessed with phone booths, and campsites are unlocked with vending machines. One of the things I absolutely love about Stellar Blade is all the little details Shift Up put into the game, such as EVE flipping a coin in the air before inserting it into a vending machine to unlock a camp. Even saving in the game is relegated to EVE kicking her feet back and sitting down on a picnic chair, and it just oozes charm.

Now, let’s get to the game’s plot. While not groundbreaking by any means, the story of Stellar Blade touches on some interesting themes about humanity and what people are willing to do to survive in the face of an existential threat. If I had any complaint about the tale Shift Up is telling, it’s that some of those themes aren’t explored enough in side quests and early chapters. Stellar Blade characters aren’t as fleshed out as ones in similar games such as NieR: Automata.

If you are reading this and are like this guy keeps mentioning NieR: Automata in a Stellar Blade critique too often, hear me out. It’s hard not to compare the two games. There are so many similarities that Stellar Blade, at times, almost feels like a direct homage to the Square Enix action-RPG. Like 2B, EVE is part of a space colony organization with a mission to save humanity. Both protagonists are sent down to a ravaged earth to fight off invading creatures. EVE has a floating turret companion that acts as a gun for ranged combat, while her sword is her main means to attack. Both games start in a similar overgrown post-apocalyptic city, and the next big level after it is an open-world desert section. Both touch on themes about androids having feelings and memories and whether they should be considered human. Sound familiar? Heck, even the music in Stellar Blade is so similar to NieR: Automata that I had to take a double-take.

Stellar Blade Review Saving Camp
Image via Shift Up

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as NieR: Automata is one of my favorite games of all time, but the similarities between it and Stellar Blade are so great that it’s hard not to compare the two. For me, the world that Yoko Taro created is so weird and interesting that it can sometimes make Stellar Blade feel a bit more vanilla in comparison. This is especially true when it comes to the side quests. Some of them involve interesting stories that give us a brief insight into a side character. However, the vast majority of them can be boiled down to simple fetch quests. Don’t get me wrong! I still had a blast completing them because combat is so much fun and I wanted the EXP to unlock more Skills. But in this regard, I just feel like NieR and NieR: Automata had much more thought-provoking side quests and more fleshed-out world-building than Stellar Blade.

Another thing I should mention is Stellar Blade has a few mandatory dungeon sections in the main story campaign. For some reason, the game takes away EVE’s blade, and you are forced to use your gun for the entirety of these hour-long sections. In place of the fast-action combat are platforming challenges, which can sometimes become a bit frustrating considering the most enjoyable thing is the breakneck gameplay. While overall traversal is fun and snappy, trying to land on a tiny platform that moves in the sky can be difficult when the game adds forward momentum to your landing.

I can’t count how many times EVE fell to her death in my game after I successfully landed on a platform, only to slide off while in motion. This is especially a problem when double jumping, as the game will sometimes pull her to the side for some reason, completely botching your attempt to reach a long-ranged section with a dash. But I will also say that these sections make up a very small portion of the game’s story, so it’s not enough to really hurt the overall experience. Interestingly, I never had a problem with platforming when in the open-world levels. So, it might be an issue with the dungeons being more closed-off.

Image via Shift Up

While I wish some of the elements mentioned above were fleshed out more, Stellar Blade really makes up for this with the second half of its campaign. The story really takes off in the final chapters and allows its thought-provoking themes to develop. In particular, it has one of the most epic endings I’ve experienced in an RPG in some time. Specifically, this is a multi-ending story, which works really well considering the game’s narrative. I don’t want to get into any spoilers, but let’s just say the ending is one of the most “anime” things I’ve seen and left me desperately wanting a sequel.

Finally, let’s talk about performance. Stellar Blade is an absolutely gorgeous game with beautiful graphics. I constantly wanted to pause my game to take screenshots, as every frame could be a wallpaper. Whether it is glowing neon lights from futuristic city advertisements or the glittering sequins on EVE’s unique outfits, the game’s art style is stunning. Thankfully, Stellar Blade’s performance also delivers as it has a consistent frame rate that never drops, despite how chaotic combat gets. The game also features a Graphics, Framerate, and Balanced mode. Whichever mode you pick, the graphics are beautiful. However, Shift Up has definitely made sure to give players the option to hit 60 FPS without any compromise.

When I look back at my time with Stellar Blade, I see a new franchise that is full of promise. While it might not have the best side quests or side characters, it’s grounded by excellent gameplay that is challenging and fun. EVE and Lily are interesting main characters that I really connected with, and the game’s story sticks its landing in the final act. If Shift Up can build on everything they did well with Stellar Blade and make a sequel that fleshes out its lore and world even more, we could have something really special here. Still, Stellar Blade is a great first step that action RPG fans won’t want to miss.

Image via Shift Up

Stellar Blade is a thrilling action RPG with stylish combat and nail-biting encounters that offer players a real challenge. While the game tackles familiar sci-fi themes, it’s anchored by lovable protagonist EVE and her sidekick Lily. While it doesn’t surpass NieR: Automata and Bayonetta, fans of those beloved games should check out Stellar Blade as it’s a good companion title that will scratch the same itch.

Stellar Blade will be available on April 26, 2024 on the PlayStation 5.

9
Stellar Blade

Ravaged by strange, powerful creatures, Earth has been abandoned, and what is left of the decimated human race has fled to a Colony in outer space. The future of humanity hangs in the balance in Stellar Blade, an all-new story-driven action adventure on PlayStation 5 Review copy provided by company for testing purposes.

Stellar Blade is an excellent action RPG with stylish and challenging combat.

Food for Thought:
  • I recommend unlocking the "stealth" based skills first if you are a novice to the action RPG genre. This will allow you to take out enemies instantly while exploring the map, giving you some breathing room.
  • If you are struggling with combat, try to master "Perfect Dodge" and "Perfect Parry" as quickly as possible. They are essential to using Beta attacks.
  • Side quests are the quickest way to earn Skill Points and Gold. So don't avoid all of them, as they can really boost your character's power.
  • If you want to unlock all Nano Suit outfits for EVE, then you will need to complete citizen quests. These are different from the general side quests on the community board.
  • Make sure to save at Camp's whenever you pass by one. If you die, the game will put you next to the last camp you activated. Also make sure to interact with all Phone Booths as they are fast travel points.

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Author
Brent Koepp
Based in California, Brent is an Editor at Siliconera and has been a journalist since 2010. When he's not playing JRPGs or catching 'em all in Pokémon, you can find him spending time with his wife and two dogs.