Steelrising keeps the vital, generous spirit of the great Double-A games alive
Around these parts there is no higher praise than “double-A”. It may sometimes be a reflection on the budget, but never on the skill and craft and imagination of the developers. A great double-A game is often a quirky affair built around immediate pleasures and often delivered with a twist.
One of the things I’ve only realised recently is how double-As like to find a groove to settle in en-masse. For a while this was “third-person shooter with a gimmick”, so you got Fracture and its terrain deformation, or Red Faction with all those walls coming down. Then we had open-worlds, whether you were a Saint or in a UFO, and endless cover shooters, with stuff like – well, there were a lot of cover shooters indeed.
I am pretty sure that in a previous era Steelrising would have been a cover shooter. That sounds mean and I absolutely don’t intend it that way. What I mean is it’s a Soulslike today in part at least because Soulslikes are the perfect contemporary style for double-A development. You get a framework that is recognisable and satisfying on which to build out your specific double-A charms. I hadn’t noticed until I suddenly looked around how many double-As are opting for the souls approach.
In the case of Steelrising those specific double-A charms come down to the setting a lot of the time, which offers an automaton spin on the French Revolution that sees you heading for the barricades to defeat the ruling classes and smack around all kinds of brass and bronze horrors. Its lovely, off-beat stuff, from the fact that you meet Marie Antoinette before the credits have really faded, down to the fact that you play as a sort of balletic china doll, teetering along on spindly legs, but with twin swords ensuring you’re capable of unleashing proper horror on anyone you meet.
I will be honest: a surprising amount of the early fun comes from seeing how the familiar From Software systems are repurposed – what counts for a bonfire here, and what you’re collecting instead of souls. Over time, though, that all faded. Steelrising became its own thing, offering its own delights.
Delights like a hazily lit eighteen century world straight out of a painting by Claude Lorrain, where the outskirts of Paris have streets of mud rutted with tracks and chateaus become tumbledown traversal puzzles. That’s a delight in itself – Steelrising puts a lot more emphasis on platforming than many Soulslikes. It’s a little clumsy, but it’s well-intentioned and ambitious. I like the feeling of picking up my compass, noting that the spot I’m aiming for is not just on the horizon but hovering above it, and wondering how I’m going to get there.
Combat is clanky, thumpy fun, enlivened by the odd balletic move that brings to mind a fleeting memory of PN03. What I really like are the comprehensive assist modes, which mean you can really tailor the challenge to get what you want out of the game.
Steelrising is everywhere this week, and I’m glad to see it thrive. It will live on, I think, as a warm memory of one of those great double-A games that kept the knockabout spirit of the industry going through the years in which small, ambitious teams face a lot of challenges.