Opening times steel upgrade feels very doable and fun for soulslike, a game genre that often begins with a tough challenge and a “go figure it out” vibe. But once I reached the second map, I met an enemy that made me grab the gamy “Help Mode.” You might think that activating “Easy Mode” got me through the rest of the game, without thinking. But not. Far from it. The game remains difficult, but there is room to learn at a more patient pace. With this mode turned on, the game doesn’t constantly send me back to the spawn area, running out of my experience points with lost time to load the screen. This mode offers varying difficulty options, so I can upgrade to where the game wants me to be. steel upgrade not deprive the ruler of this genre. But it definitely shows at least one way they could improve, and with a pretty cool aesthetic at that.
steel upgrade is the latest title from French developer Spiders. It’s soul-like where you play as Aegis, the “automatic” clockwork who must battle other similar creations in a steampunky alternative history twist on the French revolution. The studio is famous for its narrative-focused RPGs like 2016 Technomancer and 2019 Greed.
Previous Spider games, while probably generally similar to something like Mass effect, usually marching to the beat of their own drum. With steel upgrade, I was initially displeased to see the studio chasing other game models so closely, only to be predicted to fall short of the very strong standard FromSoftware has set in this genre over the years.
If you’re a huge Miyazaki fan who doesn’t have time to emulate, steel upgrade impossible to get your attention. Despite the imaginative premise and some great character designs with easy-to-digest RPG mechanics, something is missing here. It also struggles to maintain 60 frames per second on PC for me, which makes the experience feel rougher than it should be. However, all the boxes have been checked: enemies are tough, you need to level up to meet their health and attack power, when you die, you drop XP, and return to the last spawn point with all enemies refreshed, tasked with recovering souls that weren’t called. You’ll continue to unlock new shortcuts and ways of traversing the winding map as you progress. Yes get the picture.
But “Help Mode” is a place worth paying attention to and talking about.
This mode is a set of options that allow you to change various game functions. You can modulate the damage you take, reducing it to 0% if you want (you’ll still receive fall damage). You can also choose to keep your XP when you die, adjust your stamina regeneration rate, and affect the “cooldown” timer you’ll get when you perform too many actions in a row. If any soulslike is considering adding a difficulty option, steel upgrade is a clear model of how to do this.
Those who get goosebumps at the idea of ease the trouble soulslikes tend to worry that the core experience is at risk of being diluted or lost, or simply missing the core of the genre. Many may worry that it’s the equivalent of taking a gun out of a shooter or jumping off a platformer. But Steelrising Assist Mode doesn’t pull you away from the core gameplay. Instead, it lets you get a different perspective so you can actually get better at your core attack and dodge skills and potentially learn how leveling up can change those dynamics.
The option I think is used the most is reducing damage to 0%. This means that the first enemy to really give me some trouble, a robot that throws a giant steel ball around a chain connected to its arm, can teach me its moves instead of just overpowering me and forcing me to start over every time I fail. It went from a giant bastard to a sparring partner.
It still knocks me in my ass every time. But I can get up and say “okay, when it moves like this, I have to get out of the way.” I learned where the gaps were, how fast I had to suppress my attacks. I can incorporate muscle memory into my response to this kind of foe, and I don’t have to go all the way back to that damn spawn point and face all the daaaaamn enemies again to learn it. I would love to have a “fake health bar” so I can feel how much damage they do to know “well, I’m going to die at this point.” Help Mode helps me understand the language of the game, and has prepared me for when I’m ready to let go of those practice wheels, beat these foes, and feel successful the way I get better.
Other difficulty options can also match what kind of game this is. Having XP stay with you means death plays a different role in the game. Stamina regeneration can make the game feel a bit faster. Indeed, when you activate one of these features, there are certain achievements that you cannot unlock. But that’s fine! In fact, it actually maintains the difficulty the developers wanted. It makes playing games as designed as something you aspire to be, less often penalized for failing to live up to their demands.
I enjoy challenging and difficult experiences in video games and elsewhere. I like to see my own improvement in the things I’m interested in. But soulslikes are, too often, too punishing a teacher for me. And as someone who struggles with my mental health and has to fight a fair amount of real demons when something is frustrating, soulslike remains something that just feels too unkind to me. I just tend to get involved with them. I wanted to feel the thrill of beating these games, the achievement after mastering something. I just need to prioritize my personal cooldown timer for things in life that will never have a difficulty slider. steel upgrade proving that the game can do this while it’s still pretty tough.
“Help Mode” not only makes the game easier. It’s a helping hand that reframes the frenetic act of saying, “hey, you can totally do this. And here’s how.” Games need more than this.