Stellar Blade – Review

Stellar Blade - Key Art

Stellar Blade is the first console game from South Korean mobile developer Shift Up. A PlayStation 5 exclusive, Stellar Blade is an action RPG in the vein of Bayonetta or NieR: Automata, and certainly borrows heavily from both series.

You play as EVE, a member of an off-world, cybernetic military force that has returned to Earth to liberate it from the monstrous threat of the Naytibas. These grotesque creatures appeared out of nowhere one day, causing the end of the world and the bulk of humanity to flee to the stars.

As EVE you will traverse ruined cities, scrap-filled wastelands and more than a few underground tunnels. A scavenger named Adam (see what they did there) is your “man-in-the-chair”, piloting a drone, providing advice, and someone for EVE to bounce off of.

Stellar Blade - Crew

The English voice acting is not great and neither is the dialogue. The performances are wooden and there are localisation issues peppered throughout. One particularly glaring example was Adam referring to an enormous crater in the street as a “crack”, but there are many other syntax or delivery issues that just make things sound unnatural.

You could say there are Soulslike elements, combat is challenging and deliberate, rest areas are the only place to replenish your healing potions and enemies respawn upon death. This is where the comparisons end though as there is no penalty for dying: no loss of resources or stats.

There are skill trees made up of things like “makes it easier to parry”. These were some of the first things I unlocked as they were right there and pretty cheap. I’m not a fan of unlocks that appear to just make the game less annoying, and the skill tree doesn’t get any more exciting from there.

Stellar Blade - Flip

For the most part, Stellar Blade is extremely linear. I was distinctly and frequently reminded of a particular style of PS3/360-era action game. In short, it’s clunky, obtuse and frustrating. Ruined buildings and arbitrary barriers are everywhere you look, and often it’s not clear whether you’re on the correct path or inadvertently about to go out of bounds.

Despite this malaise, there are moments in these early hours when Stellar Blade manages to show off its strengths. The combat has satisfying weight to it, and looting chests, and upgrading your damage, health and gear is fun.

The soundtrack is a real highlight, which I was pleasantly surprised by. It successfully illustrates the game’s vibe and the sheer amount and variety of music here is super impressive. I was reminded of the music of NieR: Automata to be sure, but there are also elements of Persona and Xenoblade’s soundtracks to be found here.

Unfortunately, because most of the tracks have lyrics and are on a rather short loop, the music can become grating in certain areas. This was especially irritating in the first half of the game, where I was painfully aware that I was listening to the same very short song over and over.

Stellar Blade - Xion

A few hours and a couple of boss fights later you will reach the city of Xion which serves as the games hub. It’s here you will return between main story missions to upgrade your gear, do some shopping and maybe pick up a few side quests.

It’s hardly a sprawling city, but it does a good job of being a place you want to explore and return to check in on. The various characters and shops, and side quests that play out there, are a quaint distraction. They are, however, simple, never amounting to more than ‘kill this Naytiba’ or ‘find this item’.

From here Stellar Blade alternates between more extremely linear levels and two much larger open areas. It’s during these early to middle sections of the game that I had the most fun. Exploring the wasteland and desert, completing simple traversal puzzles, combat encounters and side quests to unlock skills and upgrade gear is where the game gets a good rhythm going.

Stellar Blade - Wasteland

The open areas aren’t without their design flaws though. At one point I decided to explore a flooded facility. I dove deep underwater exploring tunnels eventually making my way to a dead end with a chest. A chest I couldn’t open because I didn’t have the code.

Eventually, I learned that this chest and the whole area were tied to a side quest I hadn’t started yet. This just begs the question, why give me access to this area if the only reason it’s there is for a specific quest? Why waste my time? It’s simply bad level design and it’s not the only example.

Before too long the main story drags you back to explore yet another sewer, subway or underground laboratory. The latter half of the game is full of level after level of a design philosophy the industry left behind generations ago. Some of these sections do attempt to shake things up, playing more like a third-person shooter than an action game. This is novel at first, but by the second and third iterations has lost its appeal.

Stellar Blade - Boss

There are several other quality-of-life issues. You can’t easily skip through dialogue, there is fast travel but it’s arbitrarily restricted, only certain areas and levels have maps and progressing past a certain point in the story completely locks you out of any further exploration. Even after hitting the credits, your only option is to start a brand new save, so trophy hunters beware.

Overall the story is OK. There is something to this world and its history, it deals with intriguing sci-fi concepts and features some spectacular skyboxes, backdrops and set pieces. The creature and boss design elevate what would otherwise be a stock-standard far-future aesthetic.

Unfortunately, due to EVE’s almost complete lack of character traits or arc whatsoever, the aforementioned clumsy dialogue and the ludicrously sexualised designs of most of the women in this game, I found it impossible to care about anything in the narrative.

Stellar Blade - Lily

Now, to address the elephant in the room. The designs and outfits of the women in this game are absurd. Their boobs and butt jiggle with every step like they’re water-filled balloons and more than a few of EVE’s unlockable outfits wouldn’t be out of place in a game designed from the ground up to be pornographic.

To be clear, women being sexy is not the problem here, but the objectification in Stellar Blade is undeniable and inescapable. An example to kick things off: the reward for finding every collectible is a lacy, black lingerie outfit for EVE. If you go to the screen that displays these collectibles, there’s even an image of Eve in this outfit just so it’s 100% clear that the developers want you to ogle their protagonist. They know exactly what they’re doing, and who they’re doing it for.

With any of EVE’s outfits that feature a skirt, you will by default be forced to look right up it. It doesn’t matter if you’re just walking around or if EVE is being particularly acrobatic in a cutscene. Upskirt shots appear to have been a key design element.

Stellar Blade - Orcal

Every woman in the game’s chest bounces around like jelly on a plate if they turn their body even a little, meaning that even in cutscenes that are supposed to be sombre there’s no escaping the ridiculousness.

The juxtaposition of the clothes and general appearance of the men in this world is particularly egregious. Men get to be all shapes and sizes, wear baggy jackets and pants or be significantly altered cybernetically. Outside of one named character that springs to mind (Roxanne), the women of Stellar Blade are in skin-tight, glistening, jiggle-suits or are otherwise diminutive, child-like and cutesy.

Some of EVE’s outfits work. Even if they don’t make practical sense, they at least dial back the absurdity several notches and she still looks great in them. This proves Shift Up is capable of intricately modelled and tasteful character design, but only as an alternative to the most dehumanising outfits you’re likely to ever see in a non-porn video game.

Stellar Blade - Squat

Outside of these design elements, the game’s narrative and camera don’t overtly sexualise EVE. She isn’t leered at or harassed by other characters and the camera doesn’t spend half the game flying between her legs like in Bayonetta. To be clear I don’t think the solution here is to have characters in the world also objectify her, it just makes it even more obvious that the sole intent is to excite the (presumed male) player.

EVE’s looks are completely disconnected from her character, because her only defining trait is a generic “I’m the hero and I want to help people”. There is never any suggestion in the text that she enjoys dressing this way, or that it’s important to her to be perceived as attractive. She exists merely as a blank template for the male gaze. The developer’s intent could not be clearer: this is for the boys.

This is a shame because games headed up by superhuman warrior women are few and far between. Some women may see the jiggle and the outfits, roll their eyes, and enjoy the game regardless, but how many are put off entirely? Made, yet again, to feel unwelcome in their hobby. Additionally, as someone who is part of the presumed target demographic, I think it’s worth mentioning that I find this sort of pandering genuinely alienating. I don’t like it when games treat me like I’m some slobbering caveman constantly in need of eye candy.

Stellar Blade goes so far beyond titillation or dogmatically and cynically targeting a certain type of gamer. The sexualisation is so over the top, so brazen, so shameless, that I can only deduce that to dehumanise and objectify women was the point.

As an industry, we need to do better. Stellar Blade is a PlayStation 5 exclusive and has been presented front and centre at several big PlayStation events. There is undoubtedly an enormous marketing budget being deployed here, with K-pop artist Bibi even releasing a song tie-in. The online discourse surrounding this release is already toxic and plagued by the same, tired arguments that have been trotted out for decades by the worst kind of gamers. We’ve seen all of this before.

Of course, there is a long history of sexualised women being a games collectible or reward. A turning point I recall was when The Witcher was released back in 2007. For every sexual encounter Geralt ‘achieved’, the player would receive a pulpy, pin-up style Romance Card.

Stellar Blade - Adam

In the years after that game’s release and as the franchise gained popularity, the industry seemed to generally agree that that sort of thing wasn’t OK. That’s not to say all of gaming’s (or even just The Witcher series’) problems relating to the treatment of women evaporated overnight, but it at least felt like a step in the right direction.

Almost twenty years later Stellar Blade arrives doing the same stuff. Worse, arguably, as it’s EVE herself, the protagonist and your avatar in this world, who is being objectified. Gaming has long since moved on from being a boy’s club. Stellar Blade needs to get with the times.

Rating: 5/10

Stellar Blade was reviewed on PS5 with a code provided by Sony.