Sorry, Stellar Blade, I harshly misjudged you

Stellar Blade review
Image: supplied.

When Stellar Blade first appeared on my radar, I contravened the classic adage: don’t judge a book by its cover. Put off by its hyper-sexualised aesthetic (‘ass’thetic?), I dismissed it as a game made to titillate, not to meaningfully engage with. Instead, Stellar Blade is a satisfyingly weighty action game that liberally borrows proven gameplay elements to great effect.

Now, titillation and good storytelling aren’t mutually exclusive. Particularly when it’s rooted (heh) meaningfully in the narrative or when the character has agency over their depiction. I’m not convinced Stellar Blade provides its porcelain doll-like protagonist, EVE, much chance to show why she’s adorned in a skin-tight outfit ill-suited to battle. Regardless, she absolutely kicks arse.

Stellar Blade gameplay
Given no time to acclimatise, you’re thrown immediately into battle. Screenshot: Chris Button.

Stellar Blade isn’t one to explicitly provide much explanation for anything, really. Not that it matters too much in the thick of battle.

Part of a platoon of futuristic battle maidens, EVE heads up the fight for humanity’s future, teaming up with the dregs of a human resistance along the way. Earth isn’t in a good way, with its inhabitants forced to take refuge among the stars due to monstrous beasts known as Naytibas.

Thrown into the thick of a full-scale assault against these Naytibas, you’re not given much of a chance to appreciate the full extent of the stakes at play. Most of Stellar Blade’s context comes from journal entries left by fallen soldiers and occasional cutscenes.

When you get to swing EVE’s ponytail sword through denizens of ugly opponents, that’s when the real fun begins.

Familiar territory

By now, it’s considered reductive and hack behaviour to use the Dark Souls games as a shorthand comparison for other games. However, it feels warranted when discussing Stellar Blade. From its methodical combat to the restorative rest spots that revive nearby enemies, and even looping between semi-linear locations, there’s a lot of familiar DNA here.

Fighting enemies consists of light and heavy attacks interspersed with parries and dodges. They all feed cohesively into one another, producing a nice rhythm to each fight. Foes will take you down if you overcommit offensively and hack away with no strategy. Stellar Blade punishes you for poor swordplay.

Conversely, it handsomely rewards you for skilful combat. Succeeding in battle requires reading the flow of each encounter and reacting accordingly. Timing multiple parries to perfection lets you unleash a brutal retribution counterattack, enough to down weaker foes or take a sizable chunk out of a boss’ health bar. Likewise, well-timed dodges not only avoid devastating strikes but also let you land your own salvo in return.

Stellar Blade upgrade menu
Being a game in 2024, of course there’s an upgrade tree. Screenshot: Chris Button.

Stringing together combos of blows, parries, and dodges feels great. Compounding your good gameplay is a range of special attacks that deal even more damage. These moves consume energy upon use, recharged with each subsequent basic manoeuvre. It creates a nice feedback loop, making you feel more powerful when playing well.

It also helps that EVE moves with a considered weightiness that elevates the impact of taking down a massive behemoth. She may be svelte in appearance, and a nimble acrobat, but she strafes the battlefield like a warrior – not a weightless video game character seemingly filled with helium.

You also gain more abilities and gear along the way, further adding layers to the already substantial combat. This even includes a drone that doubles as a gun. It’s as ridiculous and fun as it sounds.

Stellar Blade brings K-pop to the Souls-like

Even though many of the game’s character interactions border on awkward and stilted, it does possess an odd charm. As if the revealing bodysuit wasn’t enough, EVE speaks with a proper Keira Knightley-like English accent, further placing her as a fish-out-of-water character among the gruff American voices employed by most other characters. Her interactions with others are often amusing, often because she doesn’t pick up on social cues, regularly responding with abrupt perplexity.

Stellar Blade boss fight
Image: supplied.

Before Stellar Blade, I’d never played a Souls-like game to K-pop tunes. I have now, with Stellar Blade’s desolate Earth exploration scored by an eclectic mix of gentle, ethereal, and occasionally melancholic melodies reminiscent of Nier Automata.

Tonally, Stellar Blade is a game of constant mishmashes. Heavier beats accompany boss fights, juxtaposing the comparatively gentle music featured throughout most of the game. The setting is a bizarre blend of sci-fi and biblical fantasy, where a heel-wearing heroine starkly sticks out from everything else.

Maybe that’s why I like Stellar Blade. It brings together many disparate parts and combines them with its own distinct personality. Plus, it makes hitting big monstrosities with a sword feel really good.

Stellar Blade is available on PlayStation 5 starting on 26 April.

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