Once the cogs click into place, Steelrising is more than just Bloodborne on PC – hands-on preview

It was my own fault I got mauled by the mechanical tiger.

There’s no wonder the muddy streets of these forsaken Paris suburbs are deserted, it’s not even safe for me – Aegis, Marie Antoinette’s personal clockwork bodyguard – and I’ve got a bag full of swords and a gun that shoots ice bullets.

So as I naively rounded the grimy corner into a head-on ambush by a wind-up spearman with limbs like Jack Skellington but without the sense of humour, was I really surprised when a pair of mechanized big cats appeared behind me to complete the trap? That’s the MO of these kinds of ‘punishing’ games, isn’t it? Invite you to a trial, then laugh at your error.

Caught in a web

French studio Spiders feels a bit like the game company we’d all make if we got the chance, producing both dense, lore-driven RPGs and ambitious, feature-packed homages to their favourite games without a hint of cynicism.

After the Bioware-a-like Greedfall, next on the plate is the much-loved Souls series, and more specifically in the case of Steelrising, Bloodborne.

It’s become a really rote cliche to say something ‘is the Dark Souls’ of something else, but Spiders has taken the unusual step of officially attaching the “souls-like” genre label to Steelrising – something mid-tier and larger studios tend not to do.

Whether that’s for fear of being unfavourably compared to and overshadowed by the Real McCoy, or to avoid alienating more casual players who might never have even heard of the series, is a matter of opinion. But for those in-the-know, it quite neatly sums up everything you can expect from Steelrising; dark fantasy, tough, bullish enemies with powerful-but-rigidly-exploitable attack patterns, and a dense, interconnected world dotted with checkpoints that make the baddies respawn.

But while much of the gameplay is derivative by design, one place Spiders always delivers is in the scenario and background worldbuilding. Steelrising takes place in an alternate version of the French Revolution, where the Clockwork King’s army of automatons controls the population with a literal iron fist.

You play as a masterpiece of the same oppressive technology, a Swatch watch battle bot in a french maid outfit, sent initially to seek your creator and find out what’s really going on.

Aegis squares off against a clockwork machine enemy in Steelrising

The ‘clockpunk’ setting works on a lot of levels, giving you a solid conceit for a near endlessly upgradable and customizable character, but mostly lets Spiders’ developers run wild with enemy visual and mechanical (no pun intended) design.

Mechanical masterpieces or monstrosities?

In-universe, not all of Steelrising’s wandering army of machines were initially designed for combat. For every bipedal robot wielding a conventional weapon, there might be what is essentially supposed to be a lamppost stomping around, jury-rigged to slam its solid metal braziers onto anything dumb enough to walk past.

In a relatively short space of time, I came up against quite a few different (and differently horrible) machines, and the intricate gears and near-magical contrivances will surely lend themselves to some truly grand Souls-style bosses.

However, even though the enemies themselves have a unique flourish, how you go about reducing them to scrap feels instantly familiar. The relatively slow-paced, third-person action pulls not just from the core Souls series, but the whole pantheon, including notable other Souls-like games too.

Aegis using the grappling hook in Steelrising

On top of the more typical hallmarks there’s the grappling hook and expanding shield from Sekiro, the in-air combos too, as well as a mechanic where a well-timed button press when your stamina is depleted refreshes the whole bar – similar to what they have in Team Ninja’s Nioh series.

Lest you think I’m being unfair, the obvious inspirations extend to the world and quest design too. As you make your way through the deserted, Yarnham-like streets of a fallen Paris you’re constantly unlocking gates and shortcuts which circle back to your checkpoints. Plus, you can even find side quests where you speak to citizens hiding behind a closed door and deliver them items.

This is one of the sillier examples of where things slip fully into homage territory – the only reason that’s in there is because it was in Bloodborne – and it just feels like it was lifted wholesale without context.

Parisian medley

With that said though, despite a lack of originality in a lot of its constituent parts you could easily make a compelling argument that Steelrising’s innovation is in smooshing all of these disparate elements together.

As you unlock more powers, collect more weapons, and more of the game’s systems become available to you, the ‘Bloodborne we have at home’ meme supermarket-own-brand jank quickly wears off, and Steelrising finds its feet as an intense, tactical action game in its own right.

An electrical attack against a clockwork lantern-thrower in Steelrising

Once you accept the similarities as a given and stop getting hung up on the differences, you can come to appreciate the whole reason Spiders is even making something in this genre: the grinding, moreish combat loop is so compellingly rewarding once the cogs click into gear that it’s the kind of game you could play, engrossed, until well after the clock’s stuck 12.

On release though, balance will be absolutely key to stretching Steelrising’s core ideas out over a full runtime without falling into capricious and frustrating trial and error. But with the battle-tested fundamentals pretty much spoken for already, it all lies in the execution, and whether bugs and other janky gremlins grind too many gears.

Steelrising is due for release on September 8, 2022 on PS5, Xbox Series X and PC. It’s Spiders’ first game since being acquired by French publisher Nacon (formerly Bigben Interactive).

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