Stellar Blade review: A debut that rises above the noise to flourish

Stellar Blade review: A debut that rises above the noise to flourish

Stellar Blade is the first console game from South Korean developer, Shift Up, but does the PS5 exclusive feel like a first rodeo from the studio or is it ready to stand with the likes of Bayonetta and Nier Automata’s 2B as gold standards in the action genre? 

Stellar Blade has certainly had an interesting ride since its public reveal. The PS5 exclusive, originally titled Project Eve, was first announced back in 2019. Since then, the sci-fi action-adventure game’s main protagonist, Eve, has sparked what could charitably be called, spirited debate.

That was largely down to Eve’s divisive, eye-catching design, which was modeled after the famous South Korean model – Shin Jae-eun. Director Hyung-Tae Kim also made headlines when he revealed his team paid “extra special attention” to Eve’s backside – an area that won’t come as a surprise given the team’s appetite for creating provocative female characters in its mobile titles Destiny Child and Goddess of Victory: Nikke. 

Stellar Blade is definitely filled to the brim with fierce action sequences, fanservice outfits, as well as, yes, jiggle physics. However, the key question is – is it more than that? Does its Soulsborne combat and semi-open world environments manage to move the needle of the genre, or is it all purely surface-level titillation?

Stellar Blade: Key Details

A familiar story packed with not-so-subtle references

Stellar Blade takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where Earth has been overrun by mysterious creatures called Naytiba – grotesque, fleshy beings that have brought humanity to the brink of extinction. The remnants of civilization have been forced to abandon Earth and establish a Colony in outer space. 

It’s here where humanity aims to launch its grand counterattack and remove the Naytiba threat for good by using Angels – deadly androids that have been created for the sole purpose of eliminating this alien threat. 

This is where Eve comes in. As a member of the 7th Airborne Squad, you must piece together the mysteries surrounding the Naytiba, and discover how and why humanity found itself endangered. If this all sounds reminiscent, it’s because it is. I often found myself drawing parallels between Stellar Blade’s narrative and Nier Automata’s, which should come as no surprise considering Director Hyung-Tae Kim revealed that Yoko Taro’s android epic was a major influence. 


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Stellar Blade review: A debut that rises above the noise to flourish

Stellar Blade’s story is packed with references to other media.

Even Nier’s composer, Keiichi Okabe, has lent his hand to Stellar Blade’s excellent soundtrack, blurring the lines even further between both games. There are also sprinklings of Battle Angel Alita, Blade Runner, and biblical references thrown in for good measure, with characters often questioning the philosophical notions of what it means to be human. 

While Stellar Blade’s multi-ending narrative never delivers the same impactful beats and heartfelt moments of Yoko Taro’s epic, it does feature plenty of mystery and some nice reveals that kept me invested – particularly when it came to the outcomes of the local inhabitants of Xion and Eve’s companions Adam and Lily. 

Sekiro-style action befitting Soulsborne greats 

While I enjoyed Stellar Blade’s story, even if it did feel like overly familiar territory, it’s the game’s Soulsborne-style combat that sets it apart from being a mere Nier clone. While you’d be forgiven for thinking Stellar Blade’s gameplay would follow similar hack-and-slash trappings of Nier Automata and Bayonetta, it’s more akin to FromSoftware’s Sekiro in that boss fights are more like a rhythmic dance where learning tight parry windows and perfect dodges is the key to success. 

Even just fighting the game’s rank-and-file enemies, you have to be careful and look out for opportunities to counter your foes’ attacks with well-timed parries that deplete their Balance meter. Once this bar has been reduced to zero, Eve can follow up with a deadly Retribution Attack – a flashy move that sees humanity’s hero plunge her sword into her fleshy foe for devastating damage. 

These unique finisher animations look incredibly stylish and can even instakill enemies, rewarding those that master an enemy’s attack patterns. I was often in awe over just how brutal and sleek these moves look, and I found myself perfecting the parry window of each Naytiba just to see what fatal finisher the devs had cooked up. 

Stellar Blade review: A debut that rises above the noise to flourish

Stellar Blade’s bosses would feel right at home in Soulsborne games.

The same finesse has also gone into Eve’s Beta and Burst skills, special moves that can be activated once you’ve built up enough energy by landing light and heavy attacks. For example, the Shock Wave Beta skill releases energy from Eve’s Sword that damages and stuns. This makes it particularly useful for locking down agile bosses, such as Stalker who relies on lightning-fast claw swipes to slice and dice human enemies. Meanwhile, the Tempest skill from the Burst skill tree sees Eve charge up for a brief period, before unleashing a storm of blades, shredding through enemy shields and health bars in the process. 

When you’re not busy stringing together light and heavy attack combos to unleash Beta/Burst skills, you’ll be able to poke enemies from afar with Eve’s blaster. Just like the game’s melee-focused abilities, this ranged weapon can be upgraded and tailored toward your playstyle. Early on in my playthrough, I opted to put my Drone upgrades into leveling up the Charged Blaster Rail, which sends out a powerful beam of energy when fully charged. If you’re not a fan of the Blaster Rail, you can always turn your attention toward the shotgun, homing missile, and rocket upgrades. 

If that wasn’t enough, Eve can enter Tachy mode, a special powered-up state that increases her attack power and mobility, while giving her invulnerability for a brief period. This is perfect for those clutch moments in boss fights where you either want to press for the kill or avoid an otherwise fatal hit. 

Deadly yet accessible 

Stellar Blade’s over-the-top combat often reminded me of popular battle anime like Demon Slayer and Jujutsu Kaisen, with special moves feeling like a spectacle to pull off. This was especially true when all these systems came together in a brutal crescendo, and on subsequent playthroughs I felt sorry for my otherworldly opponents – even if they had shambled straight out of a H.R. Giger painting. 

Shift Up has gone above and beyond when it comes to creating a stylish combat experience that not only looks great but also runs smoothly as well. During my 35-hour playthrough using the game’s performance mode, I only encountered one noticeable frame drop when running around the Great Dessert, and that was after I purposely corralled a horde of enemies together for some quick Crescent Slash kills. 

Stellar Blade review: A debut that rises above the noise to flourish

Stellar Blade comes with plenty of accessibility features to make combat easier or harder.

You may be reading this and feeling like you’ve been bombarded with keywords, but fortunately Shift Up eases you into all these mechanics. This is largely done through the game’s brilliant training mode, which is accessed through Eve’s skill tree and is a godsend for anyone who wants to practice the game’s combos and various skills in a safe environment. If you still find yourself struggling, then you can always unlock skills that make it easier to parry and dodge. 

Failing that, Stellar Blade does come with three difficulty options, with both Story mode (easy mode) and Normal mode being selectable at all times – you’ll need to beat the game if you wish to test your skills in Hard mode though. To that end, Stellar Blade feels much more forgiving than any Soulsborne game I’ve played, and that’s great, especially for any player who is concerned about accessibility. 

Stellar customization options

While Eve herself can’t be leveled up in the traditional sense, you can upgrade all her combat and survival skills. Various Exospines and Gear attachments can also be socketed into Eve’s system, which serves to enhance certain attributes like her crit rate, melee/range attack, defense, skill power, and more.

During my first playthrough, I opted for a build that reduced the recharge time of Beta and Burst skills, giving me more opportunities to spam my most powerful attacks. While there’s not as much depth as Nier Automata’s Chipset system, there are enough Exopsines and Gear attachments to make it your own. Sadly, the same can’t be said for Eve’s weapon choices. 

Those looking to wield more than just a sword will come away disappointed. In fact, it’s one of the biggest letdowns with Stellar Blade. The lack of interchangeable weapons feels like a missed opportunity entirely, especially given how the game’s bosses wield everything from razor-sharp katanas to hulking hammers and spears. It would have been great if Eve was given a similar kickass arsenal, or if she could craft weapons from boss drops. 

Stellar Blade review: A debut that rises above the noise to flourish

Stellar Blade features plenty of outfits for Eve and Co.

One area you do have a great deal of input over is how you want Eve and her crew to look, with 30 outfits being unlockable for free. The majority of these revealing cosmetics are purchased through the game’s vendors after maxing out their affection meter. Other outfits like Eve’s Swimsuit are rewarded after completing specific sidequests and can be found in the game’s overworld. 

But before you go looking through Eve’s Wardrobe, you might want to consider drawing your curtains and locking your doors. If you live in a shared household, then good luck as Shift Up has certainly pushed the boundaries on these clothing options, particularly when it comes to Eve’s Ghost in the Shell-inspired Skin Suit. 

Beautiful environments brimming with collectibles

Stellar Blade review: A debut that rises above the noise to flourish

Stellar Blade is home to plenty of beautiful environments.

Stellar Blade’s semi-open world environments are some of the best I’ve seen on PS5.  You’ll find yourself trekking through scorching hot deserts, skating along the dilapidated structures of flooded city ruins, and walking through creepy metro stations that would feel right at home in Capcom’s Resident Evil series. During the latter section, the game removed my melee weapon and forced me to use Eve’s blaster to shoot the shambling sacks of flesh that roamed the blood-soaked hallways. 

Reading the above, you might assume Stellar Blade’s environments fall prey to the usual lifeless trappings of the post-apocalyptic genre. Sure, there are your usual ruins and ramshackle towns to boot, but there’s also plenty of beauty to be found throughout this world as well. One of the most visually striking areas had me walking through a space station that featured traditional Chinese moon gates, where purple wisteria flowers elegantly hung from the ceiling. The wooden hallways then led me to a beautiful garden with a cherry blossom tree at its center. 

Each location is begging to be explored too as Shift Up has crammed its environments with a treasure trove of collectibles and chests. These little loot boxes often require access codes, which are found on the skeletal remains dotted around the game’s environments. Some chests can only be opened by solving riddles, while others feature small shooting minigames and quickfire button inputs to access their contents. 

With the tantalizing prospect of unlocking new outfits, upgrades, deadly pieces of gear, or crumbs of lore, I often spent hours scouring each location. Fortunately, backtracking is painless as Stellar Blade features Dark Souls-style Bonfires that enable Eve to fast travel between locations, upgrade skills, replenish healing items, and even chat with her comrades. 

Stellar Blade review: A debut that rises above the noise to flourish

Locations like Xion are packed with detail.

You’ll certainly need to get used to hopping between locations if you wish to find all 49 soda cans that Shift Up has hidden throughout the game. Finding all of these beverages will reward you with items and an exclusive outfit. There are also the usual RPG sidequests, with Eve being able to fulfill requests through the in-game bulletin board. These quests are your typical affair, and task you with killing X amount of enemies, gathering items, and tracking down missing persons. 

There’s even a fishing minigame that can net you a fair amount of gold, depending on your commitment to becoming Earth’s greatest android angler. While you can complete Stellar Blade without ever interacting with any of these extras, the environments are appealing enough to warrant the hunt for collectibles –especially when using Eve’s parkour abilities to wall run and jump between highrise sections of the map. 

With Stellar Blade putting such a heavy emphasis on unlocking new outfits for Eve, I was disappointed to find that I could no longer access any of them upon starting a new game. While there is an exclusive suit given to those who beat the game, it’s a small consolation prize and does little to sweeten the prospect of having to unlock every suit from scratch. 

I can understand not being able to keep Eve’s skills for fear of trivializing combat, but the removal of cosmetics when starting a new game is baffling. Perhaps even more damming is the lack of loadable save states, which means you’ll need to play through the game from the very beginning if you wish to see all the endings. Hopefully, Shift Up can add New Game+ at some point in the future to address these issues. 

More than just a pretty face

Stellar Blade review: A debut that rises above the noise to flourish

Stellar Blade isn’t afraid to subvert player expectations.

Stellar Blade manages to rise above being just a fanservice affair. Yes, it comes packed with enough fanservice and revealing outfits that would give Dead or Alive a run for its money, but the thing is, when you peel all that this back, you have an incredibly comprehensive experience that delivers razor-sharp gameplay, fluid combat animations, and some beautiful environments to boot. 

Stellar Blade may be Shift Up’s first foray into console gaming, but this PS5 exclusive has the look and feel of a quality AAA title produced by a team that has been pumping out polished games for decades. With its expert blend of Soulsborne-style combat, flashy character animations, and brilliantly grotesque bosses, Stellar Blade manages to stand firmly alongside the very games that inspired it. 

While its overly familiar narrative may not touch upon anything new and its lack of New Game+ may stop it from gaining full marks, this is one game Nier Automata and Sekiro fans will want to pick up on day one. If this is Shift Up’s major debut, then I can’t wait to see what Director Hyung-Tae Kim and his stellar team cook up next. 

The verdict – 4/5

Stellar Blade has landed a critical hit, successfully slicing through the crowd of well-established action-adventure game giants. If you’re a fan of sleek and stylish combat, with sprinklings of Soulsborne and Nier Automata vibes, you’ll feel right at home when playing Shift Up’s triumphant console debut.

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