Just park your brain at the door and enjoy

Evolution has clearly got out of control — and needs to be reined in with violence — in Stellar...
Evolution has clearly got out of control — and needs to be reined in with violence — in Stellar Blade. Image: supplied
From: Shift Up
For: PS5

It probably needs a better name — not that we’re going to get one now — but the "Souls-like" game genre has been a thing for a while. Every so often a game comes along that is innovative and successful enough that it spawns a host of copies and becomes a game type in itself, and Dark Souls, with its Gothic setting, difficult combat, resource loss and ferociously tough boss battles certainly bits the bill.

Go through enough imitators though, and wider variations on the formula start to arrive. And so we get to Stellar Blade, a PS5 exclusive from South Korean studio Shift Up which asks "Hey, what if losing resources wasn’t such a big deal? And what if the combat was a bit more breezy? And what if the whole thing was less Gothic and more kind of ... sexy?". It’s definitely Souls-like, but also it isn’t. Told you we needed a better name.

It’s the future and, at the outset of the game, we’re straight into it in the middle of some sort of orbital invasion of the Earth that seems to be going very wrong for the invaders. This isn’t the good news you might expect, though; our protagonist EVE is part of the invasion. It turns out Earth has been overrun for some time by a species of monstrous beasties known as the Naytiba, who wiped out most of the humans that weren’t able to escape into space. EVE is part of the 7th Airborne Squad, the latest in a series of missions sent down by the human space colonies to retake the planet, and is tasked with eliminating the Elder Naytiba, the granddaddy of the species that holds the key to the whole shambling, betoothed-orificed lot of them. But as mentioned, things go poorly and EVE finds herself the sole survivor, left to achieve her mission with only the help of a few scraggly survivors that turn out to exist on Earth, huddled together in Xion, humanity’s last city.

EVE sets duly out to achieve her goal through hitting stuff with a sword (but it’s a future sword, mind). Naytibas of many shapes and sizes bar the way as EVE shuttles between both more linear levels and large, open areas with exclamation-mark-marked maps of various quests and side missions that can be tackled in your desired order (or simply ignored). EVE makes her way between camps that offer save points, upgrades and the chance to restock, but that will also respawn defeated enemies in the area when used, either by choice or after a player death.

It’s that Souls-like system, and it makes for the odd "Noooo!" death, but resources are largely retained, instant respawn items are readily available, and there’s no need to fight your way back to chests already opened or buttons already pushed, so it’s less punishing.

Those respawning enemies can hit hard, though. But this is the future, and EVE (and in fact, everyone else) is not so much your common or garden variety human being as a bio-engineered robot with access to some serious moves, so she can hit back almost as hard. There’s a deep system of combat here for those that want to muscle-memorise the flashiest combos, and although if you want to you can largely get by with randomly stabbing the square and triangle buttons on the offensive, it’s essential to get to grips with EVE’s defensive options of blocking, dodging, "repulsing" and "blinking" for the purposes of survival and opening up your Naytiba opponents — which come at you in a wide range of ways — to counterattack.

Entire new move trees are still being offered surprisingly deep into the game (thank goodness someone eventually thinks to offer EVE a gun — it’s the future!) and if you take the time to learn a few things, you can unleash some flashy chains that will dice most stuff in front of you. Satisfying.

Stellar Blade also offers some imaginative visual design; ruined cities, bleak deserts and futuristic digital cyber-vaults are all roamed by weird and gross Naytibas and interesting cyber-enhanced future-humans. The latter include EVE, whose design is a throwback to the era of video games in which all female characters were designed with the male gaze in mind, since it was assumed there wouldn’t be any other kind looking at them. Stellar Blade makes a big feature of collecting a huge variety of outfits for her that affect nothing, but cosmetic appearance, and land on a scale that runs from "daring" to "fetishwear". The game is so unabashed about its ’90s lad-mag style — there’s a slow-motion hair-flick about a minute in — that it almost somehow ends up in the territory of charmingly retro, but it won’t be for everyone. Nevertheless, if you ever wanted to fight a giant with an angle grinder for a head with a sword while wearing a swimsuit with a bunny tail on it, this is the title for you.

There’s a bit of a mystery behind the whole Naytiba situation to uncover as you put the miles in with EVE’s impossibly long legs, but story is not the main drawcard here — Stellar Blade is all about fun action and visual flair. Yeah you could linger on the flat characters and stilted voice acting, or how annoyingly easy it is to run past things you need to find to advance and miss them — or you could instead dive roll into a huge, crumbling vault in your latex catsuit to battle a giant amalgamated flesh blob that spits out body-bagged corpses that slowly crawl towards you before exploding. Sometimes, the lizard-brain just wants what it wants.

By Ben Allan

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