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Stellar Blade: Accessibility Review

Disclaimer

The copy of the game used for this review was provided by the publisher at no cost to the reviewer.

Introduction

Stellar Blade is a game that I'd heard about at various showcases and, given there was no audio described trailer at any of the events I saw the game featured in (unfortunately), I merely had the music, voice acting, sound design and commentary around the game to go on. However, this also meant that, as with so many other games (though thankfully less as time goes on), there was no accessibility information either.

I'd also seen a couple of individuals on social media say that the demo had very little in the way of accessibility for gamers without sight but, given things can change from when a demo build is created to the final retail version, I understood things might change.

I definitely thought it worth trying this title out first-hand to see what all the hype was about and, thanks to the kind folks at PlayStation providing me a review code, we get to answer the question: Just how accessible is Stellar Blade as a gamer without sight?

First Boot

As is relatively common with my reviews of late, let's start off by going in with no sighted assistance, using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to take a picture of the screen and extrapolate text from the resulting image (for those that are interested, I use a PC, capture card with OBS and NVDA to achieve this).

After clicking the game's icon (which comes with some soothing piano music on the home screen), OCR reveals language options, both of which appeared to be set to English. A promising start in that the menus don't wrap, though the lack of narration does mean that you'd need OCR if you wanted to change to a non-default language. This horizontal list does wrap so getting lost could be easy as well.

The UI sounds, which to me give off a very PlayStation 2 era vibe, are different for moving up/down and left/right, an unintended accessibility quality of life element.

Hitting confirm seems to bring up the main menu, with no music whatsoever and seemingly only two options, New Game and Settings.

Adjusting Settings

After going into the options/settings menu, there is actually a dedicated accessibility menu here and as with the previous vertical menus the options don't wrap, thus making memorisation and guide writing, theoretically, easier to deal with. Of course, however, guides and memorisation should not need to be relied on by developers or players, but I digress.

There are also haptics for the menu interactions, not necessarily an accessibility feature directly but an immersive element that I feel it's good to have, personally.

Scrolling through the settings proved to be a futile task though, since there were so many and I had issues telling what the option I had highlighted was set to when adjusting it. This is a frustrating problem common to any game without narration, as OCR renders elements in columns, taking the left-hand side first then the right and presenting them as separate lists, thus removing connections between the values on the right and the associated names on the left, for example.

In trying to turn the QTE auto success option on for instance, I could not seem to figure out whether it was on or off, partly because even with a horizontally non-wrapping menu the sound didn't change when selecting either of the two available options. Having a different, distinct sound for toggling an option on or off, though a subtle change, can definitely be useful even without narration.

After adjusting what I could (including finding an auto loot option which could be useful if I got that far), seeing no navigational assist referenced that would allow me to navigate the world without sighted help, I thought I'd just dive in.

The Game Itself

Hitting new game presented me with only two difficulty selections, story or normal. Hitting story, as I wasn't sure if I'd even be able to progress past the first area, the intro sequence began, with no audio description or ability to pause said sequence (something that is very useful regardless of accessibility needs).

What I will say is the haptics are solid from the start and the music is great too, though of course that doesn't make up for not being able to follow the action.

Once the cutscene concluded, combat was the first order of the day. Thanks to turning on the auto lock-on setting, I killed my first two enemies with ease, though the tutorials that were presented didn't help as the button prompts, as is common with OCR, were not readable fully, instead listing "@" as the button to press for a quick attack, just to give one example.

Once I'd defeated my first few foes however, I ran into an immediate progression blocker - I had no idea where to go, even though a character had told me the objective was at "two o'clock, 400 meters in front of us". Without a way to locate my objective and know how to traverse (i.e. whether I need to jump over, duck under, or vault any obstacles), as well as where the objective was relative to me on a constant basis as I would be moving continuously, I knew I'd probably need sighted assistance.

By pure luck, without any of the above suggested informational elements, I managed to run towards the objective and trigger the next piece of dialogue, resulting in more combat, though again, luck shouldn't be a defining factor when navigating as a gamer without sight compared to those with usable vision. The tutorial pop-ups kept coming, meaning I had to OCR frequently whilst still being in the middle of battle, but I was progressing, by random chance and a fair amount of guesswork.

However, that run of good fortune came to an end soon after, when I seemingly died and respawned, having to replay from the previous checkpoint over and over again. Even when I did figure out how to heal which involved first holding the up arrow on the DPad and then, after releasing it, pressing it again to restore health, that didn't prevent my navigational woes from reappearing.

It was at this point I relented and obtained sighted assistance.

With Assistance

Now, with a co-pilot via Assist Controller, my first task was getting past the point where I'd got stuck. Playing on the harder of the two difficulties just for the sake of testing, things didn't feel that different, including from an accessibility standpoint in terms of increased aggression for instance.

Foes removed, assist controller came into its own and we progressed through more combat, tutorials and non-described cutscenes. Also of note is that QTE's, though marked for "auto success", could still seemingly be completed with the input, providing agency to the player if they wanted to opt to interact with them or not.

Having reached what might be considered the open world, the haptics continued to show their usefulness in immersion (though not direct accessibility) with rain-like elements and we encountered a visual puzzle. Entering a code that we'd picked up into a gate panel. However, this panel did wrap, meaning that you might have trouble entering the correct letters even if they did OCR well.

That being said, visually there is the ability to display the required code faintly on screen for reference.

After finding a point to rest, much like in Jedi Fallen Order, my session ended there, as I knew the accessibility wouldn't be enough for me to progress on my own.

Sound, Music And Acting

Accessibility discourse aside, Stellar blade sounds pretty much how you'd expect from a game that looks very graphically polished. In short, the music is well-crafted, the voice acting is solid and blends well with the feel of the game itself and the sound design is hard hitting and punchy.

Combat has impact and, though your attacks feel light (yes, even with the strong/heavy ones), the force with which you connect with enemies is not to be understated. The game very much puts me in mind of an anime, but I do not use that description to discourage.

Summary

Pros

Cons

Conclusions

Stellar Blade may be technically and graphically impressive and one of the most talked about releases of the year so far, but where it shines in those departments it lacks in accessibility for gamers without sight. Though according to reviews such as this one from LauraKBuzz the accessibility is serviceable when you have usable vision, though there is still even then room for improvement.

I would love to be able to play a game like this without sighted assistance and I hope that, with the accessibility considerations already being made, the team behind this game can extend their reach through subsequent projects to allow more gamers across the spectrum of sight loss to enjoy their titles.

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