Stellar Blade is a challenging and stylistic gaming nostalgia trip

2024-04-01  Gaming

The Stellar Blade demo is here! There are many adjectives that could be applied to Level Up’s much-discussed PlayStation 5 exclusive - beautiful, unique, gruesome, and challenging, to name a few - but for me, more than anything else, the upcoming action-adventure title is a nostalgia trip to previous eras of gaming.

Back in the early 2000s, when I was a child, I didn’t have much of my own money for games. My purchases were gated by my parents, who knew nearly nothing about what was worth paying for, and my only gauge of quality was a review in the odd gaming magazine. Subsequently, box art and blurbs came into play, and there were some real wildcards in my collection that I asked for purely on a whim.

Sometimes this paid off - games like Operation: WinBack and King of Bowling 2 were off the beaten path, hardly classics, but a lot of fun with friends. It was this blind experimentation that also led me to more praised games that I just hadn’t heard of through friends, like Smuggler’s Run and early Final Fantasy entries. Of course, other times I happened across the occasional stinker, but these were few and far between, and the sunk cost meant I stuck with most of my purchases anyway.

The upcoming PS5 game Stellar Blade reminds me very much of that time and that category of game. It sits outside of the genres I usually play, comes from an until-now almost unknown studio, and with so much of the discussion surrounding its release focusing on its main character’s looks, there’s little information out there to help to determine its quality. The mystery surrounding the game stirred my intrigue when a demo was released going into the Easter bank holiday weekend.

A very different challenge

The Stellar Blade demo lasted maybe two hours, and I played it across three sessions over a couple of days. I’m an outsider to this particular subset of action adventure game, so a fair amount of dying and retrying probably padded out my playtime, but my point is that despite the challenge I kept coming back. I even woke up on Sunday thinking about booting it up, which is rare for a game these days.

The game’s structure added to my nostalgia trip. Stellar Blade is decidedly linear. You follow a path and beat the enemies to proceed. If you can’t beat a boss, you take a break and you come back later. Beyond an introduction to each skill you learn, there’s no handholding when it comes to strategy, and there’s no open world offering something easier to distract you. If you spend £70 on this game when it comes out on 26th April, there’s a chance you could be stuck at a single point for weeks until you figure out the patterns and - as the kids say - get good.

But all that potential frustration just increases the payoff when you do work it out, and that satisfaction comes in a beautiful package. Sure, Eve’s own model-scanned beauty has been much publicised, but the world also looks great, the monsters have a level of gruesome detail I could only dream of in past generations, and gameplay is underscored by an extensive original soundtrack (reportedly featuring 100 songs).

Overall, Stellar Blade’s demo gives an impression of a game crafted with a great deal of care and attention to detail. The aim here is obviously to create a very polished end product, with a fine-tuned difficulty presenting a significant challenge, but also a memorable experience consisting of a combination of visuals, audio, and gameplay unlike almost any other game being released at the moment.

Some tuning required

While there’s plenty to praise, there are a few rough edges here and there that could be tweaked prior to Stellar Blade’s full release later this month, which is to be expected given that it is by far developer Shift Up’s biggest project to date.

First, world traversal can sometimes feel a little clunky. Running around is just fine (and I dread to think how long it took to have Eve’s hair flow so naturally), but some of the more platform-like sections require a precision that doesn’t feel possible with the current controls. I don’t think I ever actually died to a misaligned jump, but I always felt like I was right on the edge of doing so, and maybe I got lucky.

Most of my other quibbles revolve around the defensive side of combat, and being an occasional dabbler in the genre, this may well come down to skill. Blocks and dodges in particular feel inconsistent. Sometimes they’ll be deemed “perfect” and you’ll avoid damage, while other times they’ll fail despite very similar input and timing, or Eve will take such a small sidestep that you don’t avoid the damage.

The biggest source of frustration for me was healing. During combat, you can heal by drinking a potion. However, this cannot be done while Eve is mid-animation. If an enemy chains its attacks, you can sometimes go from a significant amount of health to almost nothing, and die while spamming up on the D-pad to no effect.

But it’s worth noting - especially in the spirit of the type of game that Stellar Blade evokes memories of - that as I acclimatised to the game these quirks became part of the challenge. I learnt to work with and around them, rather than fight them, as I battled my way through the demo. Perhaps they just come with the territory.

A footnote on playable demos

While we’re down the gaming nostalgia rabbit hole, I feel a quick note on playable demos is warranted. In the PS1 and PS2 eras, distribution limitations meant that these were only available on magazine discs, but once Xbox Live (and broadband connections) became mainstream in the Xbox 360 generation, a good portion of releases allowed players to download a short trial to try them out before buying.

For me, the beauty of the downloadable playable demo is that I can sample a game that I would never usually play, at zero risk to my wallet. Would I have bought Stellar Blade without playing it beforehand? Not likely, and if I did, it would probably have been years down the line and at a heavy discount. But now that I’ve played it, enjoyed it, and confirmed its quality, I’m tempted to buy it at or near release.

Sadly, downloadable demos all but dried up during the lifespan of the PS4 and Xbox One. Not to get too conspiratorial, but this also coincided with an increasing number of bland and broken AAA games. If you’re a developer with a solid product and nothing to hide, I think there are big rewards to be gained from putting a snippet out there early for the public to get their teeth into before investing further.

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