There’s no doubting that Stela, the cinematic platforming-adventure from the team at SkyBox Labs, wears its inspirations like a badge of honour, with the game easily comparable to both Limbo and INSIDE from a gameplay and presentation standpoint. That’s not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination – they are two high quality and well-loved games after all, so if Stela offered even half of what they did I knew I’d be in for a good time.
Thankfully, Stela offers an enjoyable experience that manages to feel unique in its own little ways, even if the gameplay will feel a little familiar to most. It might not hit the heights of Playdead’s masterpieces, but it still offers an intriguing adventure that fans of the genre will want to take a look at.
It’s a little difficult to describe the tale behind Stela, mainly because the game drops you right in the deep end as a nameless female protagonist that awakens in a desolate world that’s full of monstrous creatures and deadly threats with no real introduction. There are subtle visual clues given to you along the way as to what’s going on, but a lot of it is left to the player’s own interpretation. That being said, it all ends with a bit of a bang, so you’ll get a basic grasp of the situation by the time you reach the end, even if you didn’t quite fully understand what exactly occurred along the way.
Stela offers a 2.5D platforming-adventure that’ll see players continually working across a somewhat derelict environment in order to progress through the world. Controls are kept simple, with it limited to basic movement, a jump button, and an action button, whilst most platforming segments just require a few well-timed jumps and the majority of puzzles just see you pulling an object or interacting with a lever. If you’ve ever played the likes of Limbo or INSIDE, you should feel right at home with Stela clearly taking some inspiration from Playdead’s releases with both its eerie atmosphere and blend of puzzle-platforming action.
I had quite a good time playing through Stela, with its hauntingly atmospheric world and satisfyingly simple gameplay mechanics making for quite the intriguing adventure. The puzzles and platforming demand observation due to the fact that you’ll have to utilise objects and obstacles that are both in the foreground and the background, whilst the ever-changing threats will really keep you on your toes with how you handle them.
Your showdowns with those threats make up a lot of the experience, with the protagonist constantly on the run from deadly creatures and having to utilise various means to halt them in their tracks. Sometimes it’ll be a case of sneaking around carefully and using your surroundings to hide your presence, sometimes you’ll have to make a loud noise to scare them off, whilst other times you’ll just have to run for your life and hope for the best – there’s a decent amount of variety on offer with each enemy type and it helped ramp up the tension that I felt when facing off against a new foe.
There are a good few set pieces to be encountered across the game too, and whilst I don’t want to spoil anything here, my showdown with a big slithering foe and the deadly elevator ride were certainly the highlights. That being said, I couldn’t help but to feel a little disappointed with the game’s final act, which didn’t only take place in the least interesting environment in the game but also featured boring platform-based puzzling. It was a shame that it ended with a bit of a whimper, because the majority of the game is made up of enjoyable and intense sequences.
That being said, it could probably be argued that Stela is a bit too simple and easy in places. Whilst there were moments where I died in the game, they were few and far between and I’d never make the same mistake twice. The puzzles were a little bit obvious too – I never came across any tricky enigmas in the game that really had me scratching my head, with almost every puzzle easy to figure out at first glance. Whilst Stela is clearly inspired by the releases of Playdead, it doesn’t have the same level of challengingly clever puzzles or tricky platforming sequences to really put the player’s abilities to the test.
One area in which Stela deserves a lot of praise is with its presentation, especially with the sound design which mixes together haunting tunes with ambient noises to correspond perfectly with each and every situation you find yourself in. You simply know when you’re under threat because the brilliant music says so, whilst even the more tranquil moments are captured perfectly with subtle sounds that really set the mood.
The environments all look really pretty too, even when playing on the Nintendo Switch’s handheld mode. Sure, there can be a few jagged edges here and there and some moments in the game could be a little bit difficult to make out on the smaller screen, but between the impressive desolate sights and the game’s grand sense of scale with the environments, it was hard not to find myself wowed by the game world even when playing on the go.
Whilst Stela offers an enjoyable experience, it is on the short side and can be easily finished in just two hours. Now I’m actually a fan of short games and appreciate the quality-over-quantity approach, but the fact that the game costs £15.99 and lacks any real replay value may leave some gamers thinking that they’re not quite getting enough bang for their buck.
Stela’s adventure is incredibly atmospheric and I certainly enjoyed playing through it, though the short run-time and slightly high price may put some gamers off.
It offers a beautiful yet desolate world to explore and the brilliant sound design helps bring every intense moment to life, whilst each encounter with the grim creatures that ravage the environment will certainly keep you on the edge of your seat as you fight for your survival. Just don’t expect to be tested too much throughout the game, with most of Stela’s puzzles and platforming sequences feeling a little bit too simple in design and offering little challenge to the player.
Developer: SkyBox Labs
Publisher: SkyBox Labs
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC