Review – Stellar Blade

"I bring all the drama-ma-ma-ma"

Overview

Developer Shift Up Corporation
Publisher Sony Interactive Entertainment
Genre Action-Adventure
Platforms PS5
Release Date 4/26/2024

Formerly known as Project Eve, Stellar Blade is Shift Up’s debut AAA console title. Our review examines whether it’s worth the hype. I’ve always thought the setting and story looked interesting, so I’ve been looking forward to it for a few years. But I did not follow it very closely until the last couple of months before release, so I knew nothing about the growing hullabaloo.

If you follow gaming news, you’ve seen the controversies surrounding Stellar Blade. In the months leading up to its release—and immediately after—the outrage ramped up on both sides. For better or worse, it all put the game center stage and drew more attention than any standard marketing campaign could. The internet then dragged it into a culture war, and the game received equal amounts of criticism and support, primarily based on which side one stood. But how does the game stand on its own merits? Let’s dive in and see.

Planet diving

Content Guide

Sexual Content: The game makes use of jiggle physics. EVE has dozens of different outfits that you can unlock throughout the game, and some are more revealing than others, including but not limited to swimsuits, short dresses, and short skirts. Additionally, there is a “skin suit” option that, at a glance, almost makes EVE look nude due to the coloring. However, she’s still clearly covered even in that suit, and aside from the short beginning scene, one can easily play through the entire game without ever seeing it again. Other characters throughout the game have various levels of revealing clothing. But there is no nudity in the game apart from some anatomically correct nude statues of the sort one might see in an art museum. In one scene, a character is heavily implied to be naked, but nothing is shown. A male character is shirtless in one scene.

Violence: This is the only area where I think the game earns its M-rating. From the opening moments, the game is incredibly violent. Throughout the prologue’s battle, humans and monsters are killed in various ways. Throughout the story, characters and monsters are dismembered in multiple ways and/or explode, with generous amounts of blood.

Yep, not sleeping tonight.

Language: Occasionally, players hear d, s, ba, and g. There is one easily missable instance of f on a sticker on a desk. Aside from the sticker, the language is rare and more tame than most modern T-rated games.

Alcohol: Throughout the world, players will find cans of alcohol. You come across a few bars throughout the world as well. In one scene, a character calls the wine “the last gift a god ever thought to give” humans, mentioning Bacchus by name.

Are you…the Shadow Broker?

Spiritual Content: One of the central elements is the belief in a being called Mother Sphere, who is in the colony. The surviving humans on Earth believe they will be united to Mother Sphere when they die, as long as their memories make it to the colony. This belief is ever-present throughout the story’s events and character arcs. Many people reject Mother Sphere due to feeling abandoned by her. A prayer in the game’s lore adapts the Our Father prayer to the context of Mother Sphere. One side mission involves getting a stolen Buddha statue back for a shopkeeper. Players can later choose to have a Buddha statue as a decoration in the home base. Other significant themes are forgiveness and atonement for sins. This game also has many Biblical terms and references, which I will go into more detail later in the review.

Don’t find yourself someone who looks at you the way this Naytiba looks at EVE.

Review

Stellar Blade is a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk action game. The human race is nearly extinct due to a combination of Earth’s harsh environment and monsters called Naytiba that have taken over. This has forced the remnants of humanity to retreat to a space colony above Earth. You play as a woman named EVE, a 7th Airborne Squad member sent from the colony to eliminate the Naytiba and reclaim Earth. The primary objective to accomplish that mission is to destroy the creature known as the Elder Naytiba.

Unfortunately for EVE, it’s not as simple as finding and disposing of the Elder. To even get to it, she must first destroy four other Alpha Naytiba and take their alpha cores—their source of life—back to a man named Orcal, who built the city of Xion as a refuge to save people. Through machinery, Orcal can see the outside world in ways no one else can, and only he can track down the Alpha Naytiba. However, for his vision to expand further, he needs energy sources called Hyper Cells. Hyper Cells are also vital to saving Xion’s population. By helping Orcal, EVE can save humanity in two ways: directly by bringing them powerful energy sources and indirectly by destroying the Naytiba threatening them.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to get crystal-clear screenshots during battles.

There are three possible endings, so I played through the game three times to experience all of them. I was concerned it would be a Mass Effect 3-esque fiasco, so I needed to see all of them before I could adequately write this. It would have impacted the final score because I can’t look past it when a game only gives the illusion of multiple endings and, in reality, recycles the same essential thing three times.

Blessedly, in this case, all three endings are distinct. Whatever ending you get, it is a satisfying way to end the game. Each one also opens the possibility for a sequel, and I’m curious to see which is the canonical ending.

I love this little robot.

Characters

My second playthrough was the only time I did so in English. The other two times were in Korean, and the difference in the acting had a noticeable effect on how I perceived the characters and their personalities. A common criticism I’ve seen has been for flat characters, and I agree, but only as far as the English dialogue goes. At best, the acting is decent. I’ve heard better, but I’ve also heard much worse. But I was also less engaged with the story and characters. Meanwhile, they had much more personality and charm in Korean, so I chose that for my first and third runs. The Korean actors seemed to have more passion for the project.

“No matter how bitter the truth that awaits me, I will press on.” – Clive Rosfield

There are three main characters, but EVE is the star of the game. She experiences trauma at the beginning of the game and goes on to deal with a lot more, both mentally and emotionally, as the story progresses. Because she was raised to be a soldier with only one purpose in life, she copes with everything by zeroing in on her mission. But she’s also funny at times and genuinely cares for people, going out of her way to assist them in any way she can.

“Negative, I am a meat popsicle.”

The other two, Adam and Lily, both grew on me quickly. Adam works with Orcal to help the people of Xion, and part of that is helping EVE with her mission. Lily is in engineering support and uses her expertise to craft upgrades for EVE’s equipment. Personality-wise, Adam is wise and mostly serious and acts as a guide for EVE, accompanying her via drone. Lily is a gem and provides a more lighthearted element to many things.

The other side characters are great as well. My favorites are Roxanne, Mann, and D1G-g2r. The first two are intriguing and mysterious in their ways, and D1G-g2r adds some comic relief without shoehorning in the humor the way Marvel movies do. The side quests involving the characters Su and Enya are notable and bring some touching, quiet moments to the story.

Lily is like a puppy: she’s too good for this world.

The atmosphere of the game is very bleak overall. Seeing primarily destroyed cities, the corpses of people trying to reach the safety of Xion, and the remains of Sentinels—Xion’s guardians—who died in the course of their duties all work together to craft a very depressing world. Despite that, there is an undercurrent of hope running through the game as many people press on, clinging to the hope of a better future.

Against this backdrop, players will glimpse what is happening under the skin by exploring Xion and the world outside. Memory sticks contain the memories of the deceased, and notes placed across the many locations show what’s happening in the background. Religious and political unrest are driving people from Xion, only for them to be killed by the Naytiba outside. The game deals with some heavy topics in this context, which they did well.

Don’t mess with the heavily-armed cyber-samurai.

Gameplay

Exploration

Scattered throughout the world maps are camps. They act as save points and opportunities to heal and restock. However, you must insert a vitcoin into the camp’s vending machine before using one. Vitcoins are used to purchase items in specific locations and can be hard to find. Thankfully, one always waits for you when you first see a camp. Bigger camps have pay phones for fast travel and workbenches to upgrade your equipment and craft new outfits called nano suits. Smaller ones are just the basics of a chair, vending machine, and kiosk to spend skill points for new abilities in the skill tree.

One thing that surprised me about traversal was the amount of platforming elements. It’s common to jump across platforms, swing from ropes, and climb cliff faces. It’s a little tricky at times, but overall, it’s better than most games like this that I’ve played. It makes exploring the world fun.

Orcal has such a great character design.

Some areas from later in the game, such as the Great Desert, have a lot of space between camps and more than a few strong enemies. But the game rewards exploration. Cans—which range from sparkling water to soda to alcohol—can be found in obscure places, and the more you see, the more rewards you unlock. Other reasons to look around are chests with new outfit designs or gear that will aid you in battle. Some require you to find passcodes hidden in the world, which can be challenging to sniff out. Others make you follow the sequence shown on screen, which I found to be reminiscent of Clefairy Says in Pokemon Stadium, just without the hammer.

In Xion, there is a billboard where you can accept side quests. This is separate from and in addition to the side quests you get from talking to different people in town. Some of these are tragic; others are just plain fun. Each billboard request has a specific reward attached to it as well.

In the Great Desert, you unlock the ability to go fishing. It’s primarily just a fun diversion, but a few side quests involve catching specific fish for people. The fish themselves range from small to jumbo. When you see one, you get a certain number of points you can use to purchase items from a fellow named Clyde at the oasis.

Did I mention this game is gorgeous? This game is gorgeous.

Combat

At its core, this is an action game. It shares certain similarities with Soulslike games without feeling like a knockoff. The most significant comparisons are:

  • Healing items that refill.
  • Enemies that respawn when you rest at camps.
  • Bosses that will pummel you into jelly.

The combat itself doesn’t feel like a Soulslike, though. One significant departure is that Stellar Blade doesn’t have a stamina bar, so you’re not restricted to a certain number of attacks before needing to back away.

There were an embarrassing number of times I underestimated my foes and ended up dying to regular Naytiba. Whenever I thought my skills were improving, the game humbled me. There was no point in my first playthrough where the game became easy. It was easier when I revisited the early areas, but it was still not a cakewalk.

“Bad things happen in the desert.” – Matau

The bosses were something to experience. Quite a few of them were challenging, but not so difficult that I couldn’t beat them on the first try. Others took me a few attempts. Then, some were major skill checks, especially near the end. They were brutal and took several attempts at a minimum. However, none of them were unfairly hard. It was purely a skill issue, forcing me to adjust my equipment to suit my needs for that battle. I also had to slow down and learn the attack patterns.

Well, you’re big and gross.

The combat itself is incredibly satisfying and never gets old. As you unlock new skills and upgrade your weapon, you start to feel like a powerhouse. Destroying weak enemies feels even better. At the same time, though, the game gives you more difficult enemies. At that point, it starts feeling like it’s one unstoppable force against another, making everything much more enjoyable.

For offense, you can perform several different combos between the two attack buttons. As for defense, you have a few options. If you can time it right, you can perform a Perfect Dodge. If dodging isn’t your thing, you can block, though you still take damage. Blocking at the right moment means you will parry, and timing the parry right means performing a Perfect Parry, neither of which incurs damage. After enough Perfect Parries—yellow diamonds indicate the needed number under the enemy’s HP bar—you will stagger your opponent. At that point, you can use Retribution to deal significant damage.

I’m slightly reminded of the Big Sister in Bioshock 2, except this is much scarier.

You build up Beta Energy and Burst Energy throughout a battle through regular attacks and Perfect actions. When the gauges have filled enough, you can use Beta Skills and Burst Skills by pressing L1 or R1, respectively, along with one of the face buttons. Each skill has a purpose that provides an immediate advantage, such as destroying the enemy’s shield, knocking it backward, or helping to stagger. Using these skills wisely is essential, especially against bosses.

It’s easy to get a good grasp of the combat system, but there are also some more advanced techniques that players can learn. For the most part, it’s a straightforward system. What hooked me, though, is the challenge of it all. It’s easier to play than Soulslikes, but the challenge remains. The system is already rewarding, but throw in the occasional I’m-in-over-my-head panic of being surrounded by Naytiba, plus the rush of surviving such an encounter, and you have yourself a game with high replayability for the combat alone.

Picture taken mid-Burst Skill

Sound and Visuals

The soundtrack is all over the place in the best way. The music changes in the open-world sections depending on whether you’ve activated the region’s solar tower. The songs are repetitive and might annoy some players. It didn’t bother me, but I can’t speak for everyone.

Xion’s songs stand out to me in particular. When you first arrive, the music is sad and mournful. But after you retrieve the first Hyper Cell, the music becomes more rock. The later theme is one of my favorites on the entire soundtrack. When you’re near the character Roxanne, the music changes to something wonderfully reminiscent of Persona 5.

Boss battle songs shine the brightest. Each boss has its theme, and while they’re all great, one of the later sections had my favorite succession. From one boss to the next, the music went from metal to Asian-influenced techno-pop to opera. The soundtrack hit all the right notes for me. And don’t get me started on the final boss themes, or we’ll be here for a week. To summarize, Stellar Blade has epic battles with equally grand songs accompanying them.

Adam looks like he just told a bad joke.

The visuals are spectacular. The human characters are slightly stylized rather than overly photorealistic but still look like real people. The environments are gorgeous and have an impressive amount of detail. The most significant areas to explore are deserts, but plenty of places have more to them, and it’s quite a sight.

The Naytiba are grotesque. Shift Up worked with a movie monster designer, and it shows. They’re spectacularly disgusting and horrific. It’s not a horror game, but the Naytiba would fit right in in one. They’re scarier than the monsters in most horror games. Belial, which shows up later in the story, is one of my favorites. From my perspective as a fantasy fan, it’s a cool enemy. It has a great design and exciting implications for a backstory; fighting it is fun.

The level of polish on this game is incredible. The attention to the small things never ceases to impress me. The game is visually stunning, from intricate designs on the nano suits to details in the environment. It’s not uncommon for AAA games nowadays to be plagued by issues on release. Cyberpunk 2077 is one infamous example. But it’s not just a recent problem, either. Assassin’s Creed: Unity was notorious for its bugs when it first released. Final Fantasy VII: Remake also had graphical issues when it was first released, specifically with doors and piles of debris. Not to mention Bethesda games up to the present day. Shift Up doesn’t have the resources available to these more prominent companies, yet they released a game with superior quality on the first try. I don’t recall encountering any major bugs across three full playthroughs.

What in the Dead Space nightmare fuel is that?

More Under the Surface

Stellar Blade is notable in other ways, too, particularly spiritually. Biblical terminology is everywhere. The three main characters are Adam, Eve, and Lily (which may or may not be a reference to Lilith). The home base is called Xion (pronounced “zion”). Adam calls Orcal Xion’s prophet. People call the members of the Airborne Squads “angels.” The central theme of the game is salvation. Additionally, other names that appear are Providence, Abaddon, and Belial. Several characters discuss wanting forgiveness, healing for their pain, and to atone for their sins.

Many characters suffer crises of faith, while others desperately hold on to their beliefs. Some characters push through their doubts and move forward, while others succumb and abandon their faith. I’m always in favor of realistic portrayals of wrestling with one’s beliefs, and I think Shift Up pulled it off well here.

Stop being so awkward and face each other.

My favorite part of the spiritual aspect of the game is how Christian it is. Granted, as the religious context is Mother Sphere’s religion rather than any real-world religion, the messaging isn’t one-to-one. But there are a lot of parallels nonetheless. If you look beneath the story’s skin, there are elements of the Gospel everywhere. This game told it better than explicitly Christian games ever do. The symbolism throughout the game is marvelous and adds a much deeper meaning to the story overall.

Two more things drive the point home further. Xion has vending machines with “I ♥ †” scratched into them. Furthermore, if you know where to look among all the graffiti on the walls, you can see “Jesus saves” written out. I’m not saying Stellar Blade is a Christian game per se; I don’t know the personal beliefs of anyone on the development team. But the Gospel is summed up right there for all to see. I love it.

Now, About That Controversy

Sexualization and objectification are the main points of the controversy. It makes sense. A character with a good body and is stylish and acrobatic while fighting enemies while wearing a skintight suit (or, optionally, just underwear) can be problematic. But enough about Spider-Man. Let’s get back to Stellar Blade.

Seeing the content guide makes the game sound worse than it is. Plenty of outfits are not revealing, and all but one are purely cosmetic. The skinsuit is the one exception, and it disables your shields. This means the only outfit that impacts your stats gives you a self-imposed handicap rather than an advantage. I would argue that this game is no worse than the Tekken series. It seems to me that what has been derided as sexist here is rooted in hypocrisy.

Getting some serious Akira vibes from this view.

EVE does wear skintight suits and bikinis if the player so chooses, and she is acrobatic when she fights. However, you can also select a wide range of outfits that allow her much more coverage, such as jeans and a biker jacket. If playing as a character showing a lot of skin—or opting to play as a character in their underwear—is all it takes to mean they’re being sexualized and objectified, then sure, EVE is. But unless the scantily-clad likes of Spider-Man, Kratos, and Link are criticized for their various states of undress, I must confess I’ve never heard even one soul complain. We have a double standard on our hands where men are allowed to dress however they want with no backlash, and women don’t have the same privilege. In this case, I might add that a privilege was granted by the players and journalists.

You can even find new looks for the drone, it’s brilliant.

I don’t believe those male characters are inherently sexualized and objectified, and I don’t think EVE is either. I don’t support the objectification of anyone, men or women, and there will always be those who do so, especially on social media. That said, I don’t see anything as inherently objectifying in this game, nor do the women I’ve asked. I have many reasons for thinking this, but let me explain my primary reason.

Bayonetta, a series beloved by many players and critics, is what I think of when it comes to this issue. The series’ gimmick centers around the titular character blatantly incorporating her sexuality into everything she does. Combined with innuendos like the finishing moves called “climaxes” and the animations that accompany them, Bayonetta is an unashamedly sexualized character.

That is far from the case with Stellar Blade. EVE is not overtly sexual in her words or actions, nor does she have exaggerated or unrealistic proportions. There are no innuendos, and the camera does not spend copious amounts of time focusing on various parts of her body. Social media has completely blown it out of proportion.

“Man, you’re ugly!”

The controversy (d)evolved from this issue to censorship in gaming overall. Much of that has to do with a few nano suit redesigns, but there are other aspects to it as well. The first controversy started because of EVE’s appearance, which I’ve addressed. While I believe the second is also overblown and misunderstood, and there could be a debate on whether the game is genuinely censored, there is too much nuance and missing context to pontificate further.

Cinematic boss kills are one of my favorite things.

To conclude this section, I do not believe either controversy is justified. How they’ve been portrayed is far more problematic than the game itself. To reiterate what I said before, Stellar Blade is no worse than Tekken, which is rated T. It’s no worse than Final Fantasy games, most of which are also rated T. This is a small part of the game that’s been made into a big issue unnecessarily. Causing a kerfuffle about one peripheral aspect of the game means missing out on everything else the game offers.

As always, players should practice discernment and never violate their conscience for a game. But it’s good to be aware of how something is, as opposed to how partisans in a culture war portray it. A game must stand and be judged on its own merits; a political agenda, no matter which side it’s on, is not enough to save a game or make it good.

I could look at this game’s visuals all day.

Conclusion

This was the first game I got the platinum trophy for before writing this review. Doing so allowed me to experience almost everything the game had to show, and it was worth every moment. I had expected to like this game, but I had not expected it to click with me so much. Indeed, mulling it over while writing this helped me realize several things about the story I hadn’t caught earlier.

Shift Up has created something extraordinary here. This is easily one of my favorites of this console generation and is my Game of the Year. I believe this game even managed to snag the number two spot on my favorite games of all time list. It seems strange, as the game is only a month old at this time. But it hooked me right away and hasn’t let go even slightly. Every aspect of the game was incredible to me.

I was worried about appearing too frivolous with how I score games. But in the end, I decided honesty was the best route and gave it the score I deemed appropriate. A stellar game deserves a stellar score. Now, excuse me while I play through it a zillion more times.

Every now and then it’s good to take in the sights.

The Bottom Line

 

Stellar Blade is a masterpiece, and one of the best games the PS5 has to offer.

 

10

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David Koury

I'm a writer and aspiring fashion designer residing in the wasteland called Nevada. Also, I'm trying to juggle learning both Korean and Japanese.

1 Comments

  1. Nico Darian on June 22, 2024 at 7:32 pm

    Hard agree, I haven’t felt like this , playing a new game, for many years, it’s like the golden gaming days… and the only reason there was very loud anti opinions about this game, is they refused to bow down to SBI or any of their extortion techniques.. in the end we all won!

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