The first moments of Steelrise felt surprisingly doable and fun for a soul, a game genre that often begins with tough challenges and a kind of “go figure” vibe. But once I hit the second card, I encountered an enemy that made me reach the gathe “assist mode” of me. You might think that switching to an “easy mode” lets me go through the rest of the game, without thinking. But that was not the case. Far from there. The game remains challenging, but there was room to learn with a more patient pace. With this mode enabled, the game doesn’t constantly send me back to a spawn area, drained of my experience points with time wasted on loading screens. The mode offers variable difficulty options, allowing me to grow where the game wants me to be. Steelrise does not dethrone the masters of the genre. But it sure as hell shows at least one way they can improve, and with a pretty cool aesthetic.
Steelrise is the latest title from French developer Spiders. It’s a soulslike where you play as Aegis, a clockwork “automaton” who must do battle with other similar creations in a steampunky alternate history twist on the French Revolution. The studio is known for story-driven RPGs such as 2016’s The Technomancer and 2019 Greed.
Previous Spiders games, while perhaps generally similar to something like a Mass Effect, usually march to the beat of their own drum. With Steelrise, I wasn’t initially thrilled to see the studio pursue another game’s model so closely, only to predictably fall short of the incredibly strong standard FromSoftware has set in this genre over the years.
If you’re a hardcore Miayazaki fan who doesn’t have time for copycats, Steelrise won’t attract your attention. Despite an imaginative premise and excellent character design with digestible RPG mechanics, there’s just something missing here. It also struggled to maintain 60fps on PC for me, which made the experience harder than it should be. Yet all the boxes have been checked: the enemies are tough, you have to level up to respect their health and attack power, when you die you lose your XP and return to the last spawn point with all enemies having been refreshed, tasked with reclaiming your nameless souls. You’ll continue to unlock new shortcuts and ways to navigate twisty maps as you progress. You get the picture.
But “support mode” is the place to note and talk.
This mode is a set of options that allows you to modify various functions of the game. You can modulate the damage you take, reducing it to 0% if you wish (you will still take fall damage). You can also choose to retain your XP when you die, adjust your stamina regeneration rate, and affect the “chill” timer you’ll get when performing too many actions in a row. If any souls like to consider adding difficulty options, Steelrise is a clear model of how to do it.
Those who bristle at the thought of alleviating the difficulty of a soulslike are likely worried that the core experience will be watered down or lost, or simply miss the genre’s purpose. Many might worry that this is the virtual equivalent of pulling guns out of a shooter or jumping out of a platformer. But Steelrising’s assist mode doesn’t take you away from the core gameplay. Rather, it lets you get a different perspective on it so you can actually get better at basic attacking and dodging skills and potentially learn how leveling up can change those dynamics.
The option I found most used was to reduce damage to 0%. This meant that the first enemy that really gave me trouble, an automaton that throws giant steel balls around chains attached to its arms, could teach me its moves instead of beating me to death and forcing me to restart every time I failed. He went from a giant asshole to a sparring partner.
He still kicked me on my ass every time. But I could stand up and say, “Okay, when it moves like that, I have to step aside.” I learned where the openings were, how fast I should press my attack. I was able to build muscle memory into my response to this kind of enemy, and I didn’t have to walk all the way to the damn spawn point and face all the holy enemies again for the learn. I would love for there to be a “fake health bar” so I can get an idea of how much damage they do to know “well I would be dead by this point”. The assist mode helped me understand the language of the game and prepared me for when I’m ready to pull off those training wheels, defeat those enemies, and feel accomplished in the way I got myself. improved.
The other difficulty options can also adjust what kind of game it is. Having XP with you means death plays a different role in the game. Stamina regeneration can make the game a bit faster. Admittedly, when you activate any of these features, there are certain achievements that you cannot unlock. But it’s good ! In fact, it really preserves the overwhelming difficulty the developers were aiming for. It makes the game as it was intended as something you can aspire to, without being punished so often for not meeting its requirements.
I love challenges and difficult experiences in video games and elsewhere. I like to see my own improvement in the things that interest me. But soulslikes have, far too often, been too punitive a teacher for me. And as someone who struggles with my sanity and has to fight enough real demons when something is frustrating, soulslikes have remained something that feels too mean to me. I’m just less likely to engage with them. I want to experience the thrill of beating those games, the accomplishment of having mastered something. I just need to prioritize my personal cooldown for the things in life that will never have a difficulty slider. Steelrise proves that a game can do this while still being challenging enough.
“Assist mode” didn’t just make the game easier. It was a helping hand that reframed the frantic action to say, “Hey, you can really do this. And here’s how. Games need more.