The fighting genre has been around since the glory days of the arcade, and while it may not be quite as popular today as it's always been, there's still quite a following for this rather technical type of game. Though fighting games may initially seem to be quite simple, they usually have a fairly deep combo system that requires absolute mastery of chaining attacks and counting frames. Steel Rivals does its best to offer its own take on the fighting template, but it unfortunately results in an uninspired and unpolished mess that even the most dedicated individual will struggle to extract any enjoyment from.
While the foundations of what could eventually become good gameplay are in place, the execution is bad enough that the game is a chore to play. It has a simple enough template; two opponents duke it out in hand-to-hand combat, with the typical mixture of blocks, attacks and counters making up the meat of each fight. Unfortunately, it's so mired in terrible framerates, a woefully unbalanced roster and many other faults that it boils down to an utterly frustrating mess that does little to reward your perseverance.
One of the things that's important to any fighting game's success is a steady framerate - otherwise, judging attacks and timing your combos is near-impossible. Sadly, Steel Rivals fails to achieve this goal, and seems to be barely capable of maintaining 30 FPS. As the two fighters are going at it, there are frequent bouts of chugging and sometimes animations are skipped altogether. Perhaps there's a significant amount of work being done in the background, but considering that environments are completely devoid of life and detail, there's really no reason for why the game should struggle as much as it does. It can be nearly impossible to properly chain a combo together simply because your window of opportunity is continuously changing along with the frame rate.
The combo system needs a massive overhaul, too, as the game makes no effort at teaching players its mechanics or how to play as any of the characters. There's no combo list to look at, and the 'Training Mode' is just a typical fight, but with unlimited health. This means that one must simply discover things through means of trial and error, but it's nearly impossible to do so with some characters due to the terribly balanced roster.
It's a given that there will always be some characters that have an edge over the others, but the gulf that exists in the Steel Rivals roster is almost comical. There's eighteen generic characters to pick from – all just as forgettable as their names – but the problem is that they all have extremely limited and easily exploited movesets that just make the whole thing a bore. Most fights usually just devolve to the faster character spamming the same combo ad infinitum until their rival drops; blocking or countering could solve this issue, but the inconsistent frame rate ensures that it's impossible to properly judge when to use these moves.
There's not a whole lot going on here presentation-wise either, but it's at least passable. There's no title screen to speak of; booting up the game just launches you directly to the mode select. Character models are fairly well detailed – one of the game's few pluses – but they aren't very diverse and are firmly centered in the "Uncanny Valley", stranded somewhere between photo-realism and looking like plastic action figures you might find in a bargain bin. Stages have some pretty good lighting effects, but tend to be monochromatic and drab, as if the developer simply saw them as a means to an end. The music is similar; it all sounds the same, and it generally doesn't seem to match the pace of combat. Of course, there's no Off-TV play either, the GamePad is simply an empty, black screen while the game is running.
In terms of replayability, there's a decent amount if you can stomach the broken gameplay. In addition to the training mode, there's a standard mode that pits you against an AI character (or a friend), a survival mode that pits you against progressively more difficult enemies, and a tournament mode. Beating tournament mode with any character unlocks an extra skin for them, which gives players some incentive to keep trying new characters.
Steel Rivals is a game that tries to fill the gap of fighting games in the Wii U library, but ultimately does very little to do so in a meaningful way. The bland characters, shoddy presentation, and awful gameplay make this one of the worst fighting games we've seen; it's barely playable, but the few positive things that can be said about it are drowned out by the crushing mediocrity of the package as a whole. We would absolutely recommend that you do not buy this game; especially considering the price, just go pick up a Street Fighter game off of the Virtual Console for your fighting game fix.