In addition to our main Game of the Year Awards 2022 (opens in new tab), each member of the PC Gamer team is shining a spotlight on a game they loved this year. We’ll post new personal picks, alongside our main awards, throughout the rest of the month.
Good grief, another two-bit Dark Souls clone. Save the Nioh series, I won’t even touch them anymore. The Surge? Meh. Mortal Shell? Couldn’t cope with it. What else is there? I’ve forgotten them all. All except one, really: Steelrising.
If someone tries to tell you that Steelrising isn’t a clone, they’re having a laugh. It’s all about deliberate hand-to-hand combat, constant stamina management, foes that hide behind corners, and tight, interlocking level design. It has scant, well-earned checkpoints, and it rewards exploration. It’s developed by Spiders, the French studio responsible for Greedfall, Mars: War Logs, and a bunch of other RPGs. I daresay they considered Steelrising a canny business move because Soulsborne is all the rage. But the studio had its work cut out for it: while I admire Spiders and other purveyors of ambitiously complex eurojank, it never seemed like a good idea for them to take on something so action-focused.
But Steelrising transcends its status as a clone. For one, this speculative rendition of late 18th century Paris is bizarre, atmospheric, and utterly unlike anything else I’ve seen in a modern blockbuster videogame. As far as Soulsbornes are usually concerned, there are two possible modes in which to tell a story: fantasy or sci-fi. Other kinds of stories or settings simply do not exist, and presumably, if someone told developers of Soulsborne games that other kinds of stories do exist, it might trigger an LSD-level epiphany.
Of course, Steelrising is vaguely sci-fi, but it doesn’t lean on the identikit vibes of most sci-fi blockbusters. It’s a reimagining of the French Revolution, except the bastard king of France, Louis XVI, has an army of hectic automatons at his disposal. How do the masses win liberty, equality, fraternity, when murderous robots are here to stop them? I don’t know, actually —I kinda zoned out of the story after a while. The playable character is an automaton too, her name is Aegis, and she’s a guard for Queen Marie Antoinette. Aegis is smarter and stronger than most of the other robots, thank goodness, because it’s her job as the robo-slave to the monarchy to go and do the bidding of the ruling class. A revolutionary, she ain’t.
The story was OK—as far as I can remember—but it’s the setting that has stuck with me. I have played about two dozen videogames in 2022, and barely remember any of them. I didn’t especially love the moment-to-moment experience of playing Steelrising—the combat is competent, but nowhere near as graceful as Nioh or Elden Ring—but I was completely engrossed in its slightly skewed take on revolutionary Paris. I endured this otherwise OK game, because it has genuinely engaging world building. It is bravely distinctive: it dares challenge the notional “average gamer” to dream in colours absent from the palette of most other games.
The enemies weren’t heaps fun to fight but I loved watching them. Those lumbering, robotic anti-revolutionaries move with a deliberate uncanny gait that’s reminiscent of that traumatising childhood classic, Return to Oz. The robots in Steelrising are genuinely discomforting, in a way I haven’t really experienced since those dang androids in Alien Isolation.
There aren’t many games that I’ll play through because of their setting alone, but Steelrising, I did. Divorced from its brilliant art direction and world concept, it barely scrapes over the line as a competent Souls clone, but it reminded me that a long time ago, before I became a middle aged man with a job and not much spare time, I would happily endure a scrappy game if the experience it offered was unique. Stuff like Bad Mojo, or Strife—both are very weird, flawed, ambitious games that offered a strange and distinctive view on their respective genres.
Steelrising is better than both of those, but it hits the same barely articulable spot, where a studio sets about making a game in a very familiar genre but decides: we’re going to indulge our whims and screw you all. It’s for this reason that Steelrising will likely stick with me for longer than anything else I played in 2022.