Stellar Blade is more than skin deep


Eve, the protagonist of Stellar Blade, strikes a superheroic pose in a white vinyl jumpsuit, her long metal sword at her side and her long black ponytail swinging behind her
Image: Shift Up/Sony Interactive Entertainment

In this sexy but sexless game, the combat is the star

As I sat down to write this review, I saw that Stellar Blade developer Shift Up had officially announced that the game would be “uncensored” in all regions. Predictably, there was much rejoicing from folks who had been drawn to Stellar Blade protagonist EVE’s shiny buttocks like moths to a flame. To be honest, I can’t blame them; she’s a shockingly attractive virtual person, a trait she shares with pretty much the entire cast of the game, who are all either incredibly hot, badass cyborgs, weird fleshy monsters, or a particularly delectable combination of two or even all three elements. However, as someone who had finished the game earlier that afternoon, I couldn’t help but laugh my sadly unshiny butt off.

While Stellar Blade does feature tight and sometimes revealing clothing, and its protagonist EVE boobing breastily all over the shop, it’s as safe and sexless as the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, the fan art and fanfic will be fantastic, but there’s no fan service on display here. I’m actually kinda glad, because now that we’ve got all that junk behind us, we can get to the review and say that Stellar Blade is mostly a darn good time.

Stellar Blade is a flashy character-action game like your Devil May Crys and Ninja Gaidens. There’s a bit of Soulslike in there, but only to the same extent as pretty much every action game these days. Yeah, it’s got checkpoints, respawning enemies, and parrying, but that’s not enough for a whole genre, y’know? The game Stellar Blade is highly reminiscent of, and not just because it’ll launch a thousand cosplays, is Nier: Automata: You’ve got a beautiful balletic blade-wielding badass of a cyborgy-androidy persuasion who descends from space to rid a post-apocalyptic wasteland of rampaging nasties so that all the nice humans can be safe. Oh, and she’s accompanied by a hauntingly lovely soundtrack full of soft, ethereal vocals.

EVE, the protagonist of Stellar Blade, sits in a chair in one of the game’s resting places, which looks like an abandoned coffee shop
Image: Shift Up/Sony Interactive Entertainment
EVE, the protagonist of Stellar Blade (left), looks solemn as her robot companion (right) tells her, “Right. Hold on, let me take a look at the map data.”
Image: Shift Up/Sony Interactive Entertainment
A close-up shot of one of the monsters in Stellar Blade, a humanoid-like being covered in a dark maroon carapace
Image: Shift Up/Sony Interactive Entertainment

It’s not just the surface elements that Stellar Blade cribs from Nier, but also a willingness to play around with genre in order to keep things fresh. For example, not too far into the game, EVE’s little drone gets an upgrade that allows it to serve as a firearm. For the most part, I didn’t find it a hugely impactful addition to her arsenal, outside of clearly signposted “shoot the glowing thingy” moments. However, certain laboratory-like locations have some kind of electromagnetic field that disables EVE’s hi-tech electro-sword and the drone’s scanning capabilities, while leaving the shootybang protocol intact. Add some mutant monstrosities to the mix, and all of a sudden it’s gone a bit survival horror.

Not all the experiments are so successful. The traversal is generally smooth and enjoyable, but it’s marred in a few places by some interminable precision platforming and even a section where you have to dodge from cover to cover to avoid instant artillery-based death. Even with the occasional misfire, I was glad of the variety, as I’m not convinced that the core combat could sustain the game on its own.

That’s not to say that it’s bad; in fact, it’s a heck of a lot of fun. Stellar Blade starts with a familiar weak attack/strong attack/dodge/parry setup that it absolutely nails. Everything is fast and responsive, and you can string together some impressive-looking combos with the two attack buttons. Pull off a perfect parry enough times and you’ll leave your foe open to a finishing move that will kill most enemies and take a good chunk of health off a boss. Shortly after introducing unblockable attacks that have to be dodged, the game adds a couple of variations to combat. A blue flash means you need to press forward as you dodge, while pink requires pulling back on the stick instead. The former causes you to do a ninja-like dash behind your opponent, leaving them open to attack, while the latter causes you to do a sweet flip-kick and opens up a weak spot for you to shoot at.

A misshapen but still somewhat humanoid monster lumbers through the wilderness of Stellar Blade, its head replaced by bulging blobs lit up by a strange green glow
Image: Shift Up/Sony Interactive Entertainment

As well as the basics, you have a set of special moves that can be performed by holding down the L1 button and the corresponding face button. These cost points drawn from a limited resource pool, which regenerates as you take and deal damage and, like the core moves, can be upgraded with skill points as you level up. Also available are healing items and a small selection of grenade-like weapons.

The problem is that by the time you’re a few hours into Stellar Blade, you’ll have seen everything the combat has to offer. The tantalizingly obscured skill trees on the menu screen get you all excited when the first one is revealed to be the gun drone, but the other two eventually turn out to be another set of special moves, just keyed to R1 this time and with their own energy pool, and a sort of super mode you can activate for short bursts. They’re fun to use, but they don’t bring anything new to the table. There are no new weapons to collect, no different combat styles, and the gear customisation falls squarely into “number go up” territory, rather than changing up how you play.

As a result, Stellar Blade can sometimes feel like a bit of a slog. Enemies are delightfully varied in their appearance, but the tactics you use to defeat them don’t need to be altered much. There are sections that go on for way too long, including a dull dungeon crawl through a sewer, where it feels like the game is throwing large numbers of bullet-sponge enemies just to slow you down. It’s a shame, because when the combat shines, it’s absolutely exhilarating, and most of the boss encounters are fantastic. Thankfully, the last few sections of the game are nice and pacey, alternating big boss fights and exposition without too much corridor-trudging and mob-killing slowing down proceedings.

EVE, the protagonist of Stellar Blade, wearing a schoolgirl uniform and black thigh-highs, looks up at a ceiling full of hanging pink flowers. She says, “Wow! The atmosphere here is so unique!”
Image: Shift Up/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Story-wise, I ended up pleasantly surprised. It’s 99% standard sci-fi guff for sure, but I’m a sucker for that stuff. There’s so much foreshadowing and hinting at what’s really going on that I was prepared for the big reveals to be whimpers rather than bangs, but some clever misdirection kept a few things genuine surprises. The last few hours of the game were some of my favorites, which I feel is an impressive achievement, as Stellar Blade was getting rather stodgy by that point.

My playthrough clocked in at around 24 hours, having done most of the side quests in the first open-world area but barely touching the second. Stellar Blade is one of the rare games that I feel more positively toward now I’ve finished it than I did halfway through. The rip-roaring opening and rollercoaster of a final act make up for the padded middle that, combined with a lack of combat variety, stops the game short of true excellence. But otherwise, it’s an impressive console debut that suggests a very promising future for Shift Up.

Stellar Blade will be released April 26 on PlayStation 5. The game was reviewed on PlayStation 5 using a pre-release download code provided by Sony. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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