Stellar Blade Is an Earthbound Bore

Games Reviews Stellar Blade
Stellar Blade Is an Earthbound Bore

Stellar Blade makes a mistake seen too often from would-be blockbusters: it tries to do way too much. It does one thing pretty well, and fortunately it’s the thing the game starts with. But it keeps adding new things to do and remember, lifting ideas from various genres and tossing them out without much skill or inspiration. It’s desperate to be a modern “AAA” videogame, and it’s so worse off for that.

At the start Stellar Blade feels like a sincere and unpretentious homage to action games from the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 era—which means it feels like a PlayStation 2 game with a camera that doesn’t suck. You’ll hack and slash like Devil May Care or Ninja Gaiden on easy mode, quicktime your way through some boss fights, and even scatter up a dangling train car like you’re reliving Uncharted 2. The only way to tell this is not a high-def remaster of some forgotten old button-masher from a studio doing its best to ape Platinum Games is a checkpoint system straight out of From’s playbook, complete with defeated enemies returning from the grave whenever you peace out in your makeshift camp’s lawn chair for a few minutes. For the first couple of hours Stellar Blade is an acceptable enough B-movie of a game that doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously or demand anything from its players outside of reflexes.

Its early corridors are mostly linear. Occasionally they’ll run into open spaces that’ll trigger either a boss fight, a search for a specific item,  or some kind of puzzle so simple and obvious that it’s an insult to puzzles. (That’s a positive thing—who doesn’t love a big dumb videogame puzzle you can solve in 30 seconds?) This all happens in that trusty videogame backdrop of a bombed-out sci-fi megacity, with a liberal dose of Biblical references and cyberpunk guff propping up a po-faced story that only pops up when it really needs to. At first Stellar Blade is refreshingly limited in its scope and ambitions, and I honestly admire that.

Stellar Blade

This is the kind of game where a character comes upon a giant sign reading “plaza” and then says “looks like this used to be some kind of plaza.” I love that. No notes.

But then it starts trying, without really trying, and that’s when Stellar Blade loses its edge. It tries just enough that it becomes bloated and boring, but not nearly enough to become interesting. An adequate, old-fashioned action game turns into a subpar RPG into a series of empty open worlds into a lackluster survival horror game, like somebody’s constantly changing the radio and every song on every format is a loser. These decisions aren’t canny parodies of these genres, like you’ll find in No More Heroes, but seem like the result of haphazardly checking features off a list. You’ll have a central town to walk around and do side quests in because that’s what RPGs do. You’ll have to climb a tower to effectively open up the next territory you enter because open world action games make you climb towers. Instead of squarely focusing on the one thing it’s passable at—combat—Stellar Blade wants to do a little bit of everything.

That combat works because it never becomes too complicated even as it grows increasingly complex. Stellar Blade is good about pacing out its new combat mechanics, and has a convenient training mode you can pop into whenever you’re at a camp. It’s fast-paced like the old action games that influenced it, but with the parry-and-dodge focus of a From game. Gradually you’ll unlock a gun with multiple types of ammo, and eight different special attacks that can be unlocked on a skill tree and that are charged up by parrying or dealing damage. It doles all of this out in a way that doesn’t become overwhelming, and it might be enjoyable enough to keep you playing despite the game’s many flaws.

Stellar Blade

Hopefully that combat does resonate with you, because you’re not going to get any relief from the story. Do you like stock character types, flat voice-acting, and witless dialogue? You’ll dig Stellar Blade’s story. Eve, the blank main character who is routinely called “Angel” by the soulless citizens she meets, is aided by a dude named Adam (nudge nudge) who I think is supposed to be a charmer because he kind of smiles a lot while delivering exposition. They get help from a semi-dressed engineer who could be either 13 or 30 (it’s impossible to tell) and whose name is Lily (Lilith?). Within minutes of meeting each other characters are talking about “typical Eve” and acting like they have a deep, long-running friendship. Nothing about these relationships feel real; all of these characters are about as deep as the lid of a fountain drink.

The one noteworthy character is Clyde. His whole deal is that the world sucks so we might as well spend all our time fishing. I would like to have the option to play this game as Clyde.

Stellar Blade is ultimately so frustrating because it does do one thing well, and it’s the most important thing a game like this should do: combat. It starts off as strongly as it could because its earliest moments focus almost exclusively on running around and killing things. Once you reach that central city, though, and meet its interchangeable strawmen, and start to sally forth into its tiny open worlds, even the greatest combat would be hard-pressed to keep you playing. If only Stellar Blade fully committed to the year 2006, instead of trying to cram in the most popular stuff from every year since.

Stellar Blade was developed by Shift Up Second EVE Studio and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. It’s available for the PlayStation 5.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.

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