When FromSoftware unleashed the Dark Souls series upon the world, it left a tremendous impact on the gaming community. Gamers across the globe were hooked on its macabre atmosphere, intricate level design, and excruciatingly difficult but rewarding gameplay. In fact, its impact was so huge that it inspired an entire sub-genre of action RPGs called Soulslikes. These games aim to recapture the magic of FromSoftware’s iconic dark fantasy games while adding their own spin on the gameplay formula.
Today’s subject, Steelrising, aims to tackle the Soulslike genre with a steampunk aesthetic. The developer Spiders, best known for their open-world RPG Greedfall, have graciously sent us a preview build of the PC version of Steelrising. This build offers a taste of the first few hours of the game plus the first major boss fight.
Personally speaking, I have only become a fan of FromSoftware’s games in recent years after playing the Dark Souls series and Elden Ring. So, I was interested in checking out Steelrising to broaden my horizons and see whether Soulslikes from other developers can stack up or surpass the challenging gameplay and breathtaking scenery of FromSoftware’s classic titles. So, without further ado, let’s examine the inner workings of Steelrising and see what it has to offer.
What is Steelrising?
Steelrising is an action RPG set in an alternative dark fantasy re-telling of the French Revolution in 1789. Unlike the real-life event, which saw the public revolt and overthrow the monarchy, the rebels here are being crushed by King Louis XVI’s army of mechanical soldiers and monsters called Automats.
These soulless killing machines were designed by Eugène de Vaucanson, an ingenious engineer who created the Automats to aid humanity. However, When Eugène heard the king was using them to oppress the masses, he revolted against him and was quickly imprisoned for his defiance. In addition, King Louis XVI confiscated Eugène’s most advanced Automat to date, our main heroine — Aegis.
Aegis is an Automat initially designed for entertaining the court with dance performances. After being confiscated by King Louis XVI, he integrated weapons into Aegis’ body, effectively turning her into a weapon. She was then sent away to guard his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, currently residing in Château de Saint Cloud, for her safety. Marie, on the other hand, doesn’t feel safe. She feels like a prisoner, left alone to grieve for her missing children and contemplate the fact that her husband has become a megalomaniac.
Getting an idea from one of her handmaidens, Marie decides that the time for action is now and gives Aegis an assignment. She must go to the capital city of Paris to look for Marie’s children who went missing during the revolution, rescue her creator Eugène de Vaucanson, and discover the true reason behind King Louis XVI’s madness.
A violent trip to Paris
Our preview opens with a character creator where we get to determine Aegis’ looks and what her starting class will be. Selecting a class doesn’t set in stone what Aegis’ playstyle will be, as the player can adjust her character stats later on if the starting class doesn’t gel with them.
After giving Aegis a gold chrome finish and choosing the “Bodyguard” class to equip her with a massive hammer, we leave the mansion to begin our mission. We make our way out of the mansion grounds and into a nearby village where we can take a boat to Paris. Although before we can do that, we must deal with the patrolling Automats blocking our path to the boat. Like most Soulslikes, combat involves reading your opponent’s behavior and learning the opportune times to strike them down without getting hit.
You will also have to manage your stamina bar during combat, which is consumed every time you perform a dodge move, an attack, or a jump. Steelrising’s twist to this combat system is a gameplay mechanic where Aegis activates her body’s cooling system to restore all her stamina instantly when it runs out instead of waiting for it to come back naturally.
However, there is a catch. You will build up a Frost damage meter every time you activate the cooling system. When it gets full, Aegis will freeze on the spot and will be unable to avoid incoming attacks until you button-mash your way out of that state. You also have a short window to activate the cooling system; if you miss it, you will have to wait longer than normal for your stamina to recover.
This small addition adds a fun “risk and reward” layer of strategy to the combat system. If you are willing to run the risk of freezing yourself, you can become a whirlwind of destruction that never tires and leave piles of scrapped Automats in your wake. Which is fitting considering Aegis was originally a dancer; therefore, her dance moves are incorporated into her fighting style.
As we smash our way through the Automats, we come across a Vestal. Vestals are safe havens/shops where we can restore our health and replenish our healing potions. We can also spend currency called Anima Essence here to upgrade Aegis’ stats or buy new weapons and items. Be careful with Anima Essence when traveling. If you die in battle, you will have to retrieve them from where you last fell. And If you die a second time before getting them back, they will be lost forever. To make sure that doesn’t happen, we will need to buy some weapons from this Vestal.
Steelrising has a plethora of weapons for Aegis to wield in battle, each with its unique movesets and techniques. There are slow, hefty wheels that can send enemies reeling and parry incoming attacks. Deadly steel fans that can quickly build an enemy’s “Immobilization” meter, which can stun them when filled. And, guns that shoot alchemical bullets that can freeze Automats solid, set them on fire, or short-circuit them.
My preferred playstyle throughout the preview was the Body of Work hammer/Charville 1789 Musket Shield gun combo. It was incredibly satisfying to freeze Automats in place using my ice gun, knocking them to the floor with my hammer and finishing them off with a sky-high jump attack. These are only a few of the eight weapon types you will find scattered throughout Paris, and I can’t wait to find them all.
Challenging The Bishop of La Cité
Steelrising isn’t just about combat, though; there is also a heavy emphasis on exploration. The first few hours in the village were fairly linear, with a few inaccessible side routes that either required keys or special tools to access. When I arrived in Paris proper however, the game truly opens up with massive areas to explore and teeming with secret items to collect. There are also plenty of doors that can lead to shortcuts, making travel between each newly discovered Vestal much easier.
Paris was also full of inaccessible paths that needed tools to unlock. Thankfully, one of these tools is in the possession of the first major boss of the game, The Bishop of La Cité, and it was not about to hand it over quietly. Up until this point, I thought the Automats in Steelrising were easy to deal with, provided I was smart enough to take out one at a time and not provoke an entire squadron.
The Bishop of La Cité, on the other hand, was anything but easy. This mechanoid monstrosity had a ton of health, a high tolerance to my ice gun so I couldn’t freeze it without using stacks of ammo, and it could hit like a runaway train. This Bishop also had a rather nasty attack, using a unique book that doubled as a grappling hook to reel Aegis in like a fish and slam her into the ground.
Fortunately, thanks to the sturdy stats of the “Bodyguard” class I chose at the start of the preview, I was able to endure having the book thrown at me and continue my assault. As I whittled the Bishop’s health down using every attack and item in my kit, the boss started to overheat and go into a berserk rampage as a last resort. It grew buzzsaws underneath its sphere-like lower body and then charged at me to slice me up while leaving a trail of fire in its wake.
I had to finish this Automat off quickly otherwise, it would set the entire arena ablaze, and I wouldn’t be able to escape being burnt to a crisp. When I finally managed to stun the boss, I excommunicated this Bishop from existence with one last fully charged swing to the cranium, killing it. It was a great boss fight with an equally great reward as I got my hands on its grappling hook for my efforts.
With this new tool, I could go back and explore places I couldn’t reach before, giving me that addictive backtracking element that I adore about Soulslikes. The grappling hook can also be used in combat, attacking Automats at mid-range to inflict electrical damage on them. What’s even better is that there are crazier gadgets you can find later in the game. If this is the kind of gameplay loop that Steelrising is aiming to achieve, I can’t wait to experience more of it when the full game comes out.
A loose cog in the machine
As much as I enjoyed my time in Steelrising, there is only one issue that I found in this preview — the performance. I was running this game using an Intel Core i5-9400 CPU and an NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2060 GPU, and the frame rate slowed to a crawl even on medium settings. I had to set the graphics options to the lowest settings possible to maintain a stable 60 FPS frame rate. So for those with lower-end machines like mine, this might give you some impetus to upgrade.
On the bright side, the art direction of Steelrising still shone through even on the lowest graphics settings. Seeing all the clockwork parts on the Automats jitter and move in erratic, robotic mannerisms and the gothic atmosphere of the war-torn streets of Paris really sold me on the game’s dark steampunk setting.
The minimum system requirements for the PC version of Steelrising haven’t been announced at the time of this preview. Judging from my playthrough, it’s clear that low-end hardware will not be enough to run this title adequately. My RTX 2060 is, of course, outdated compared to the best modern graphics cards like the RTX 3060 Ti, RTX 3070, or RTX 3080. The game is also slated for Xbox Series X|S as well. Depending on how the recommended specs fall post-optimization, hopefully, those with more up-to-date rigs will be able to experience Steelrising’s superb art direction at its best graphical fidelity.
A very promising Soulslike adventure
Despite performance issues on my lower-end machine, I very much liked what I have seen of Steelrising thus far. The steampunk aesthetic is engrossing, the combat system is simple at first but evolves over time, and it has a gratifying amount of challenge. And the most important aspect of any Soulslike for me, the exploration, is on point in Steelrising, with many dangerous locales to traverse and secrets to uncover.
The story also has me invested since I can’t remember the last time I played a game that delved into this tumultuous period of history, even if it is a romanticized re-telling with killer robots. Aegis herself is also an interesting heroine. She is the only Automat I’ve encountered who displays human emotion, albeit in a minimal capacity due to her robotic nature. I’m interested in seeing how Aegis’ character develops as she journeys farther into Paris and interacts with members of the resistance holding out against the Automats.
If you’re into dark, gritty, challenging action RPGs, I highly recommend you keep an eye on this title. And if you’re a casual fan of RPGs who wants to experience the story, but you’re intimidated by the difficulty of Soulslikes, Steelrising has you covered. This game features difficulty options where you can disable losing Anima Essence upon death, reduce the amount of damage you take, improve stamina regeneration, and reduce the penalty of the cooling system so you can play Steelrising however you want.
Steelrising is set to be released on Sept. 8, 2022, for Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 5, and PC via Steam. I will definitely be checking this game out come September, for I feel it has the potential to be one of the best Soulslike games out there.