Stellar Blade Review – More Than A Pretty Face

Stellar Blade’s opening minutes are an apt encapsulation of the game ahead. A beautifully rendered but confusing cinematic sets up big sci-fi stakes. A splashy character intro moment focuses on the lead character’s sex appeal. A bombastic action sequence leads into a stylish and visually arresting boss battle. It’s truth in advertising from the very start, and developer Shift Up seems to be making a statement in those opening minutes: This is what we’re about – climb aboard, or jump ship – the choice is yours.

The extraordinarily versatile and rewarding action steals the show in the many hours ahead. Dedicated action gamers should have little trouble recognizing the apparent influences, from Nier: Automata and Bayonetta to the protective parrying of Soulslike games like Sekiro. Stellar Blade teeters back and forth between a fast-moving “stylish action” experience and a focus on enemy observation and tight timing windows for attack and defense. I found combat consistently challenging and exciting, with a steady curve of trickier enemies and bosses to balance against an impressive array of unlockable skills. Battle animations are smooth and varied, enemies are fascinating and grotesque, and the pace of any given fight has a film-like quality. It’s great fun.

While combat is critical, other action and exploration experiences round things out. Platforming can be enjoyable, with thoughtfully hidden optional secrets to discover. The jumping sometimes feels floaty, and it’s too easy to get caught on geometry in the environment, but it only rarely causes big problems. Other sequences, like grinding at high speed down a rollercoaster or slipping past a laser security grid, help to keep things fresh, if occasionally frustrating.

I enjoy the unusual pace and flow of the game, which gleefully meanders from linear strings of combat to moments of open-world side quest adventures and through brief excursions into horror-fueled infiltrations where your melee options are stripped away. Stellar Blade keeps the player guessing right up through a brutal sequence of final boss battles that aim to test everything you’ve learned so far. Even if there were times when things felt uneven, I was frequently just happy to be kept on my toes.

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The high-concept science fiction tale is convoluted and predictable, and the dialogue often suffers from translation troubles or perhaps just a questionable starting structure. Even so, the grand scale of this post-apocalyptic setting is gorgeous, and I was happy enough to puzzle past awkward conversations just to see the next momentous setpiece or beautiful backdrop.

In shaping the game’s style, Shift Up embraced a hyper-sexualized character lead, not to mention a similar treatment for virtually every other female character in the story. Eve is mostly a blank slate of a character, and it’s disappointing that we see so little character development throughout her lengthy adventure. But on the visual front, there are plenty of ways to play dress-up with her hair, jewelry, and clothes. Increasingly skin-baring or fantasy-fulfilling costumes are chief rewards for exploration and quest completion. Camera angles for cinematics and big finishing moves are often provocative. Call it sex-positive or call it exploitative, but it’s a notable thrust of the game’s presentation, and players should know what they’re getting into.  

The further I played into Stellar Blade, the more it surprised me with the depth of its action and the breadth of play experiences. The story never clicked for me, but the world-building, top-notch art, and silky animation certainly did. Even when certain devastating bosses made me curse, it was always because I made a mistake and was left eager to dive back in for another shot. I loved the gradual mastery I developed as I explored its many interlocking systems of combos and special moves. Stellar Blade is unabashed in its titillating approach to sex and violence, but unlike so many games that use those appeals as a crutch, it’s also a top-notch action experience that can easily stand with the big girls.

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