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Stellar Blade is more than a pretty face, but it’s no Nier Automata

Stellar Blade takes its cue from landmark action-adventure games of the past decade, but bland characters and world design dull its shine.

In an episode of Arrested Development, Michael Bluth opens a paper bag labeled ‘Dead Dove: Do Not Eat’ and is taken aback when he finds a dead dove inside. His surprise quickly turns to resignation. “I don’t know what I expected,” he admits. If I had to condense my experience with Stellar Blade into a single digestible meme, it would be this clip – except the dove isn’t dead, just aggressively horny.

Stellar Blade impressions: Eve looks on in judgment, her trusty drone by her side.

Currently a PS5 exclusive, Stellar Blade joins Lies of P and Dave the Diver in a growing pool of South Korean videogames that target international audiences with gorgeous visuals and a single-player experience. However, while Neowiz delivered us puppet Timothée Chalamet on a Belle Époque platter, Shift Up has done us one better. You see, I’m a simple gamer girl. I see a beautiful woman and I’m pretty much sold. You cast that beautiful woman as the protagonist in a blatant homage to some of my favorite PS3-era action-adventure games, and I’ll be waiting at her doorstep with flowers and chocolates. Throw in a soundtrack that marries dreamy K-pop with heavy metal, and, well, you get the idea.

Of course, you don’t need to be a genius to see the one-to-one parallels between Stellar Blade and Nier Automata, but that’s by design. I assume the role of Eve, a squad-based soldier sent from an off-world colony to reclaim post-apocalyptic Earth and save the remnants of humanity from a hive mind of hostile lifeforms. You have definitely heard this one before. However, Shift Up makes no attempt to hide its influence; instead, it adapts elements of Yoko Taro’s acclaimed story in much the same fashion as many soulslike games appropriate FromSoftware’s bleak world presentation. In that respect, Stellar Blade is more than just a shallow imitator; its combat alone does enough to diversify itself.

Stellar Blade impressions: Orcal invites Eve, Adam, and Lily into his domain, one of many biblical illusions.

However, while its heavy-handed biblical allegory flirts with lofty ideas, Stellar Blade’s characters and plot aren’t quite developed enough to escape the shadow of its progenitor. What’s more, the story it does tell is so joyless in its delivery that it’s difficult to care – and believe me, I desperately want to care. Instead, I’m forced to look further afield to get my narrative kick. Thankfully, I find it in Stellar Blade’s flavor text, from excerpts of erotic robot novels to political zines that purport to deliver ‘THE TRUTH.’ Here, I find the nuance I’ve been looking for, as the devoted prayers of the Mother Sphere’s faithful are juxtaposed with frank religious skeptics. Still, even these scraps of lore pale in comparison to the existential depths Nier Automata plumbed years before.

Most egregiously, I struggle to feel anything towards protagonist Eve whatsoever. She is, for all intents and purposes, a doll that I can dress up and ambulate through Stellar Blade’s world. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very partial to a strong, silent, fish-out-of-water protagonist, but Eve’s contributions largely amount to clarifying plot developments or prompting other characters to deliver exposition. Her relationship with her close allies is lukewarm at best, and her single-minded focus on mission objectives leaves little room for building connections. The lighthearted banter between Adam and Lily is this trifecta’s closest brush with real camaraderie, but these moments are always cut short by Eve ordering them to “knock it off” – which doesn’t dispel the overall impression that our main protagonist is a terminally constipated killjoy. Sure, the fate of humanity is at stake, but given the copious jiggle physics and latex leotards, I think Eve could afford to unclench for a one-liner or two.

Stellar Blade impressions: Eve retrieves an upgrade from a fallen corpse in the field.

It’s nigh on impossible to make it through any online discussion of Stellar Blade without being forcibly subjected to someone’s take on Eve’s physical appearance, so here’s mine. Eve is not the first female videogame character with hypersexual proportions and she won’t be the last. From Street Fighter’s Chun-Li to Overwatch’s Widowmaker, videogames are replete with unattainably beautiful women. As both a woman and lover of women, I have no issue with this. The problem is, I can’t unsee Eve as a horse. The musculature of her thighs and rump; the swish of her ponytail; the hoof-like point of her heelless stiletto shoes, often accentuated by outfits that illuminate the soles of her feet with a neon horseshoe. Eve is so exaggerated that she falls into an equine uncanny valley, and you don’t need to squint very hard at her while she’s running to see it. I’m sorry. But if I have to live with this, so do you.

Stellar Blade impressions: Eve expertly lands a counter during combat, visualized as a burst of orange light.

That said, if a horse could wield a sword with as much poise and flair as Eve, tentacle monsters would be the least of our problems. Stellar Blade’s combat is by far and away its standout feature, marrying the slow and careful cadence of soulslike combat with hack-and-slash spectacle. It does take some perseverance; the delay between input and animation is more pronounced than the likes of FromSoftware’s Sekiro, and consistently landing those perfect parries and dodges is a learning experience. However, a brief stint in Training Mode was all it took to help me find that rhythm, and from that point onward, Stellar Blade’s combat successfully propelled me through stagnant side-quests and predictable plot twists. It certainly helps that the full breadth of Eve’s abilities is unlocked relatively early on, transforming her into a balletic Beyblade of empyrean death by the time I reach the mid-game. I hit my parry timings and I’m rewarded with beautifully choreographed executions, which offer up more of Eve’s personality with a single hair toss or sword flip than I’m afforded anywhere else.

Stellar Blade impressions: Eve dressed in one of her many provocative outfits, this one characterized by black latex and red LED lights.

I take a ‘fashion Souls’ approach to character customization, so I’m thankful Eve’s expansive wardrobe doesn’t come with stats or modifiers that box me into one outfit. Instead, I’m free to equip whatever strikes my fancy, so long as I’ve got the blueprints and materials to craft it first. This selection includes nods to various pop culture fashionistas, from Sailor Moon’s school uniform to Ariana Grande’s oversized sweatshirts. The design choices for some of these outfits are frankly ridiculous (a light-up mons pubis is a recurring motif) but it’s hard not to be endeared by the likes of Eve’s default outfit, which pairs a classic diving suit silhouette with an Avril Lavigne tie and a lace modesty panel. Other outfits are just run-of-the-mill lingerie and bondage playsuits – the kind that titillate teenage boys but are ultimately tame enough to appear on mannequins in department store windows. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these outfits, though several fall foul of the classic ‘the-clothes-are-wearing-you’ fashion faux pas. It’s also quite hard to take any cutscene seriously when everyone involved is oblivious to the Playboy Bunny in the room; instead, it taps into the same vein of comedy as watching city guards fight Thomas the Tank Engine in Skyrim.

Stellar Blade impressions: Eve looks out at the vast apocalyptic wastes of the Great Desert.

No matter your preference while playing dress-up, Eve is a bright spot of hot pink, electric green, and deep crimson superimposed against a muddy backdrop of grey and brown. On the one hand, this contrast is thematically appropriate. In the eyes of Xion’s human population, Eve is an angel in both form and function – a divine soldier sent to Earth by the will of the deific Mother Sphere. On the other hand, it only emphasizes how derivative Eve’s surroundings are by comparison. Stellar Blade’s major locations are all analogous to Nier Automata, from nature’s reclamation of Eidos 7’s crumbling concrete to the vast expanse of the Great Desert. I enjoy picking my way through Stellar Blade’s dense metropolis but eventually grow bored of running between points of interest in the desolate sandboxes that come after it. It doesn’t help that there’s not much to find aside from loot – barring the odd existential drone in need of rescue, of course.

Stellar Blade impressions: Su asks after Enya's wellbeing in a cutscene at the beginning of their side quest.

That brings me to Stellar Blade’s side quests, which are as nondescript as the tertiary NPCs that dispense them. Don’t get me wrong, there are some obvious standouts. I am charmed by the relationship between amputee android Enya and her devoted bodyguard Su, while junk merchant Kaya’s enduring love for her lost sister is all the incentive I need to aid her in her search. However, these characters are the highlights in a miasma of side quests that so often end with the discovery of a corpse – whether that’s a dead cat, soldier, or spouse. Sure, it’s reflective of the harsh realities of life on a post-apocalyptic Earth, but it also feels like a missed opportunity for more substantial worldbuilding. Instead, “may their memory live on forever” becomes an ironic refrain, as Eve pays her respects to the dead and moves swiftly on. Naturally, the benefit to completing these side quests is the rewards, which leave me flush with materials, skill points, and outfits, but it all feels transactional when there’s no emotional investment to go along with it.

While Stellar Blade’s environmental design leaves me cold, the Naytibas patrolling within them are a sight to behold. Many of these designs are delightfully psychosexual, like the exploding body writhing towards me in a PVC body bag, or the endless amalgamations of vagina dentata on legs that I can plunge my sword into (ahem, ahem). This hive mind of writhing tentacles and innuendo occasionally gives way to some excellent boss designs. I won’t spoil the rug-pull encounters Stellar Blade has in store, but suffice it to say the Alpha Naytiba encounters leave one hell of an impression and all but demand a boss rush mode. Likewise, bog-standard enemies aren’t just basic trash mobs but challenging encounters in their own right. Some lie in wait behind walls and doors while others patrol in packs, offering the staple soulslike challenge that rewards good positioning and reactivity.

Stellar Blade impressions: Eve brings an enormous hammer down on a mighty Naytiba boss.

Eve might be a deadly battle dancer, but she’s surprisingly difficult to wrangle outside of combat. Her turning circle is wider than those glorious gams might have you believe, and I have to constantly reorient myself with chests, ammo stations, and other interactables to trigger the prompt to use them. I’ll admit, Eve runs far better in heels than I do, but that imprecise movement makes Stellar Blade’s platforming sequences an exercise in frustration, especially when it comes to more elaborate wall-running. She also has a propensity to automatically climb onto any knee-high obstacle she happens to come into contact with, which doesn’t pair well with the sheer amount of garbage that litters post-apocalyptic Earth.

Despite my criticisms, I have to commend Shift Up for all they have achieved with Stellar Blade. It’s no mean feat to produce a contemporary character action game that’s this slick and polished right out of the gate. It’s certainly a step up from Goddess of Victory: Nikke, though it’s only a matter of time before Eve sashays her way onto that waifu-riddled battlefield as well. Despite my best intentions, I didn’t play Stellar Blade for the plot. You know it. I know it. But I did play it for the combat, along with the boobs, butts, and everything in between, and on that score, Shift Up certainly delivered – wrapped in latex and tied with a bow.

Gagging for more? Of course you are. We’ve picked out the best Stellar Blade skills to prioritize when you’re just starting out in the space game, as well as some news concerning a possible Nier Automata sequel tease. Alternatively, if you’d prefer to stick to the near future, our list of upcoming PC games should be your next stop.