Stellar Blade on PS5 has flash and fun but is mostly dull

During the opening moments of Stellar Blade, the protagonist, Eve, runs along an enemy-infested beach while huge explosions shake her every step. Though the moment is  enhanced by impossibly pretty graphics, there’s little action you directly participate in, with the sequence serving as a basic combat tutorial. I think that opening serves as a good example of my Stellar Blade experience: style over substance. Stellar Blade is very flashy with its action sequences and very pretty in its graphics but suffers from a bad case of repetition. Worse still, it’s lacking any kind of interesting story or characters.

Stellar Blade’s combat has been likened to Elden Ring developer FromSoftware and other soulslike games, and the comparison is apt. Blocking, dodging, and reading your enemy to learn its patterns will win you the day. Meanwhile, wailing on things and taking damage to the face is a surefire way to die a lot. 

My hope that as the game opened up, Eve would, too, went unrewarded

However, in soulslike games, you’re essentially dropped into the deep end in the first minutes. Everything is lethal and every encounter requires all of your combat faculties or else you will die. But with Stellar Blade, it on-ramps you slowly, starting you off with hard-hitting but relatively simple enemies that go down easily, more like an action RPG than a soulslike. That mismatch made my first hours impossibly dull, and I very seriously considered quitting altogether as the game’s story and characters weren’t enough to keep the combat doldrums away.

It was during the first open-world section that I began to lose interest, but I stuck with it.
Image: Shift Up

Stellar Blade’s story is unremarkable. Eve, a soldier hailing from a space colony, has been sent to Earth with the mission to rid it of naytibas, nasty monsters that have overrun the planet, killing most of the population. The big revelations about what Eve is, who the monsters she’s been sent to destroy really are, and the motivations behind the entity she worships can easily be deduced. Meanwhile, Eve is an emotionless soldier, which is fine; there are a lot of those in video games. But my hope that as the game opened up, Eve would, too, went unrewarded.

Ultimately, I didn’t give up on the game, as combat improved dramatically later on. Enemies, even basic ones, got frustratingly hard to the level I would expect in a soulslike. Instead of just breezing through areas, I had to consider my enemies and their arenas and pick my battles accordingly, often to amusing effect. Late in the game, when faced with a trio of enemies that would have killed me had I faced them head-on, I used the terrain to drop down on them using my “death-from-above” ability that kills automatically. Once the game gets going (which can take anywhere from five to seven hours depending on how much time you take doing sidequests and exploring), regular enemy fights are much harder and much more engaging than some bosses.

Another nicely done aspect of combat is that the game requires you to evaluate each fight individually. That last bit sounds obvious, but I have to explain: Stellar Blade progresses along a predictable pattern, with special encounters and bosses frequently repeating. 

Also, the platforming sucks and there’s way too much of it

As an example, there were two separate fights against similar-looking soldiers guarding similar dungeons (more on that in a moment). The first fight went simply enough. But the second time, even though I was essentially fighting the same enemy again, I got my ass handed to me. I was so confused, wondering why I kept failing then when I hadn’t before. It was only after I slowed down and took the time to actually watch what my enemy was doing, blocking and dodging as needed while not being greedy with my attacks, that I finally beat it. It was the best fight thus far, one that successfully replicated the euphoria I feel when taking down a tough enemy in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice or Elden Ring.

Go to dungeon, beat boss, pick up hyper cell, ad nauseam, ad infinitum.
Image: Shift Up

It was, however, extremely odd to experience the game unfolding in a predictable pattern like it did. At the beginning of the game, I thought it was really interesting when I got punted into a dungeon where my sword stopped working, forcing me to use the gun weapon I had just unlocked. The dungeon had this gloomy Dead Space vibe, taking place in a blood-smeared underground lab where the monsters jump out from blind corners. It was a cool if tonally dissonant moment — a game within a game kinda like the rail shooter / bullet hell sections in Nier: Automata. But the good vibes of that novelty were somewhat diminished when I found myself in that same kind of dungeon, with my sword mysteriously kaput again. It’s like Stellar Blade is constructed out of the same four blocks: a linear dungeon; a hubworld; a desert-themed open world; and an underground lab, with the developers arranging them essentially in that order until the final area. The dungeons and the sandy open-world sections at least look different, but it still felt too weird the way the game put me on a looping track like that.

Also, the platforming sucks and there’s way too much of it. Eve will frequently fail to snap to the proper surface, resulting in her missing jumps or falling to her death while the boundaries of hazards are often poorly delineated. Unlike combat where you at least learn something when you die, platforming in Stellar Blade felt more like muddling your way through awful, much-too-long sections until you finally figure out exactly what the game is asking you to do.

Stellar Blade has a lot of “but.” I can’t say that I hated it, but I can’t say that I liked it either. I really enjoyed the combat, but it was only after way too long and broken up by a bunch of small, tear-your-hair-out platforming sections and poor design choices. I’d recommend it to friends but only if they promise to stick with it when it starts to drag in the second area. Stellar Blade frustrated and bored me, but I kept playing anyway.

Stellar Blade launches on April 26th on PlayStation 5.

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