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Stellar Blade review: Having its cake, and eating it

You're going to enjoy this triple-A action romp, if you overlook the rear-end and don't make an ass of yourself.

Stellar Blade review header that reads: "Nails the fundamentals of a solid hack'n'slash action game" - 4 stars
Image credit: VG247

Hey pal, grab a chair. Sit down a while. I've spoken to your parents, and they're worried about you, mate. They've been telling me that you're thinking about buying Stellar Blade on the PS5 - don't get up! It's okay, this is a no judgement zone, bud. Don't look embarrassed, it's just me and you having a conversation here. Now, let me tell you something...

Ignore those bozos. Stellar Blade is a downright shocker of a release. An uppercut to the "best games coming in April" videos who could not see past feeble aesthetics to the pack-a-punch action extravaganza behind Stellar Blade, like a fool hiker missing the forest for the trees. Stellar Blade asks a question that sat steadfast in even Plato's mind: "Can too much cake ruin a party?"

For those blissfully unaware of what I'm waffling about, Stellar Blade is a third-person action game made by South Korean developer Shift Up. With roots firmly buried in the mobile market, the studio is taking a Fenway Park level swing at a true triple-A experience. We're talking PS5 console release, shiny graphics, and money splashed all over the place.

Against all odds (and perhaps even your own expectations), the Shift Up team understands how to make an exciting action game. You, as Eve, are tasked with taking down monstrous forces overwhelming earth, the odds stacked against you. The Stellar Blade team's soaring success when it comes to nailing what the fundamentals of a good hack n' slash made my 24-hour-long playthrough a genuine delight.

Stellar Blade burn
Stellar Blade, on occasion, can be quite funny. | Image credit: VG247

The core to Stellar Blade's success is its combat. It's the engaging engine that keeps the whole thing moving. Eve explodes onto the game with a basic selection of normal and heavy attacks as well as a defensive kit that lets her navigate a way out of even the direst engagements. If it weren't for this well-crafted centre, Stellar Blade would be a middling experience.

It gets better over time too, courtesy of several major upgrades to your moveset. A kind of temporary boost mode with its own unlockable abilities and damage invulnerability provides that short-lived punch, in addition to a suite of ranged attacks for a safer approach to combat; all are lovingly crafted. At first, Stellar Blade challenges you to find gaps in enemies' attacks to survive. Near the end, you soar through them like electric. A dance of dodges and counter attacks, parries and devastating blows.

But it leaps to even greater heights thanks to some exceptional audio design. Combat in Stellar Blade is this audio/visual feast. The clank of a perfect parry and the synthetic swoosh of dodges add emphasis to your proudest moments.

The fighting is electric. | Image credit: Shift Up, Sony Interactive Entertainment

There are flaws too, however. Some people won't be a huge fan of the 'Simon Says' flow to combat that appears when you get good. Each attack has a clear answer and it's tempting to sit back and just wait for it. On one hand, a new player getting the hang of parry and dodge timings may struggle, especially as those two options are the go-to solution to almost anything that ails you. On the other hand, once you get used to it, one-on-one fights become simple. Save for the final few fights in the game, all content on the regular difficulty is a cakewalk.

It can also feel a bit slow. Not sluggish, but heavy. There's a second-ish delay when switching from melee to ranged attacks, meaning that weaving between the movesets isn't as streamlined as I'd ideally like. Also, the game forces you to use the D-Pad to switch between ammo types via a hold-down menu, briefly killing momentum. This is the only hype blocker in otherwise stellar (wahey) combat.

That's a permanent problem. The game's slower nature can be fixed with certain character upgrades - such as gears. These apply modifiers such as attack speed (a must equip in my opinion) which can turn the game on its head. There's also one particular ability you unlock in the game's later hours that achieves a similar effect. Both soften the edges of Stellar Blade's sharper issues, but if the action was 25% faster and some of that weight was added to the oomph behind Eve's heavy attacks and burst abilities, it would be damn near perfect.

Stellar Blade gears
Try out some of the ranged ones too! It's easy to ignore 'em, but they're good! | Image credit: VG247

Having sunk a lot of time into Stellar Blade, I felt that it ultimately offered little challenge to me - it's quite easy to make yourself an unkillable powerhouse with just a little bit of investment and treasure hunting - but that's what the game's hard mode is for. You unlock this after hitting credits and I believe that is where those of you looking for an opportunity to really push yourself will find the most enjoyment. The base game feels like a style simulator. The hard mode is that blood and bone, big-brain action game I was hungry for.

You want to know one of the best parts of Stellar Blade? The music. I'm 100% serious. The trio behind the soundtrack deserve a round of applause, drinks, and bonuses. The game weaves between plasma-charged electronic high BPM beats, to growling metal battle bangers, back to electronic tracks with a splash of classical choir, then to a chill melody that accompanies you as you venture across the barren wastes of earth. The whole package is outstanding. The best track? You're not ready for the best track.

All I'll say is this - I sat in the pause menu during the penultimate boss fight just to hear the boss theme play on repeat. I went on with my day, headphones pumping a genuine game highlight from my PS5 controller into my ears. You should be as excited for the Stellar Blade release on Spotify as you are on the PlayStation.

Stellar Blade four alpha cores
I was plugged in for a good handful of boss fights down to soundtrack alone. Kinda like this guy! | Image credit: VG247

There's a hub, of course. Xion is the last major bastion of humanity and your one-stop shop for any haircuts, tips, and bounty board missions you may wish to acquire. It's also where the vast majority of side quests can be found - tucked away neatly in the alleyways and hole-in-the-wall shops. It's a techno slum baby, with its own collection of broken vending machines and even a dead cat to set the tone. There are a few secrets here and there, scattered around, but for the most part it's just a place you rush in and out of.

The world itself is different and provides multiple reasons to travel back and gorge yourself on its fruits. Stellar Blade is split between two major open maps with various linear missions sandwiched between them. When it comes to the open worlds, you could probably run from one end of the biggest area to the other in a matter of minutes, sure. But you'd be missing out, as both are sprinkled with a cavalcade of collectables, side mission objectives, and chests filled with various currency and upgrade materials.

As a rule of thumb it's the linear levels where the majority of story is found, presented to you through cinematics in a form you can't exactly wall run past. Whereas the open world is where you're left to your own devices, to backtrack endlessly looking for goodies you may have missed.

When you're sprinting across the open world the drone can fall back behind the camera as to be unseeable, forcing you to slow down to see if it flashes. Straight up useless - if you get to the end of the game and are keen for a collectable hunt just Google a guide. I spent hours searching for the last two cans in the game and obviously collapsed in anguish when I found them tucked away in an area I'd passed a million times.

Stellar Blade can!
I love the poses Eve does when she finds an energy drink buried in trash. Pure rat behavior. | Image credit: VG247

Stellar Blade is a pure sci-fi post-apocalyptic world. It's got that depression juice with all the pulp still inside, buildings submerged way underwater, a lone guitar in a sewer, dead bodies strewn around. Hark sailor, there be no happiness here. The result is a somewhat dire world, ample in lovely scenery but scarce of friendly life. Packaged around that is straight up galactic sci-fi goodness, in which vast pale warships essentially shoot ODST drop pods filled with models directly into saw blades in a dire forever war.

You know what I really like about Stellar Blade? Smart asset reuse. Yeah, it's a nerdy thing to point out but the dev team was really smart when it came to keeping the world full of stuff to explore without needlessly breaking the bank on unique models. Do you really need fifteen different destroyed buildings buried in the sand? No. You can even see the entrance to one of the linear missions gated off within the second open world map! I had these nice little "aha, I recognise you" moments playing Stellar Blade, which again, is dorky. In this era of high development costs and bloated demands, I think you should celebrate teams who take a smarter approach.

Hilariously enough the same cannot be said for puzzles, which the Shift Up team seem more than happy to create, use once, then throw to the wind. Two mathematics puzzles, thrown in to torture those who didn't do well in school, and even a riddle. These are fun little surprises, but I have to wonder if Shift Up just has a puzzle guy barricaded away in a cupboard somewhere, creating puzzles endlessly through the night.

I'd also like to shout out the enemy design. Stellar Blade has more enemy variety than I had expected to be honest! It's this neat box of chocolates packing flavours you may not expect - there's a decadent mix of organic and mechanical foes for you to feast on. Special shout out goes to boss design - where you can tell the Shift Up team really had a lot of fun. They get truly funky with it - and paired with that lush soundtrack I mentioned earlier - you've got some real winners here.

Stellar Blade meaningless choice lol
I'm sad to report that saying no doesn't immediately trigger credits. How could you say no, anyhow? | Image credit: VG247

Finding hope, even in this worldwide death fiesta, is the message established early on in Stellar Blade. Eve, left stranded from her comrades on this derelict earth, is faced with an insurmountable task. Along the way, she'll meet people in just as bad a spot as her, if not worse. If a cyber torso splayed up in a bar is the sole source of music on earth, why is she able to stay positive? Where does that hope come from? Voila - the reoccurring question that threads Stellar Blade together.

For Eve's part, she's not bad. I think the whole game suffers a little bit from voice direction issues - some lines are said in an odd fashion by otherwise good voice actors - but even then the arc of Eve going from a random solider in a absurd uniform doing sick flips on monsters to an actual human with a personality is a steady and rewarding process.

I wish the characters had time to sit down and actually communicate more. Early in the game you literally crash for a while on a couch and look out over the sunset, providing this nice cinematic conversation between Eve and Adam (get it) as they discuss the world around them. This was great - but you could count the number of times this happened on one hand, and that's not for lack of seats or opportunity. Eve touching a piano for the first time, seeing a fish swim around in water - that's where the sauce is. That sauce is scrumptious, but reduced to a meager portion rather than flowing over the game.

Stellar Blade conversation
I wanted more of this! If there is a Stellar Blade 2, this kind of chat should be widespread. | Image credit: VG247

Is it time to address the elephant in the room yet? Go on, sure. The developers of Stellar Blade - Shift Up - made a little ol' game called Goddess of Victory: Nikke. While actually quite good, it's also essentially the horny little brother of Time Crisis - a great game drowning in boundless buns. From this bountiful venture, Shift Up has leaped to Stellar Blade, but has by no means left their love for the bakery at the door.

There's no way to shy away from it and it's made fairly obvious from looking at the game for even a minute. Eve is packing plenty of cake, and the game is more than happy to reward your exploration and completionist tendencies with progressively more lewd outfits. Some of them are tasteful. Some of them are a bit much for my taste, to be honest.

This, as you can imagine, has spurred on a discussion on objectification of female bodies in games, and drawn comparisons to various other releases over the years including Bayonetta and Nier Automata. Whereas Bayonetta embraces her sexual side in-game through actions and flirtatious dialogue that some see as empowering, in Stellar Blade, you are basically dressing up your doll in skimpy outfits. If that's a deal-breaker for you, then I'm afraid it's comprehensively strewn around Stellar Blade from corner to corner.

Stellar Blade costume example
This is one of the more revealing examples. It's very Kill la Kill, without the themes of Kill la Kill to back it up. | Image credit: VG247

Aside from costumes and Eve's ass being bang smack in the middle of the screen, Stellar Blade is quite on-point. You haven't really got characters being creepmasters or weird pervy morons. The only character who flirts with you, at all, is a lady called Roxxane. I was able to slap on a punk rock outfit I really liked and just enjoy the action and narrative. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Stellar Blade, ultimately, is a pleasant surprise. It is a better action game than I expected, with better art, audio, and action than I had hoped for. As far as first attempts at making an action game go it's a damn good effort. I don't know what Shift Up's sale expectations are for Stellar Blade - the part of my brain that reads video game industry news on the regular is worried that they'll compare the income they get from Nikke to the profits they'll make from Stellar Blade and decide it's not worth it. I hope they decide against that. There is gold in these hills.

Improvements can be made to the Stellar Blade formula. Make it a bit smoother, a bit faster. A tweak here, and tweak there. A greater emphasis on character interaction, maybe a few new weapons here and there? Wilder build upgrades that really push the game to its limit? I don't know about you, but I think that's a recipe that would make Paul Hollywood blush.

If you can stomach that pesky cake-carrying elephant, Stellar Blade is well worth your time. It's not perfect - there's room for improvement, sure - but having experienced Shift Up's first venture into a triple-A console release I'm along for the ride from here on out.


Stellar Blade launches on April 26 for the PS5.

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