Review: Stela – Shoots for the Stars and Almost Makes It

Stela, a 2D Platformer from Skybox Labs, makes no attempt to hide its inspiration. The game is, particularly in the first two worlds, more a clone of Playdead’s Inside than the celebration it seeks to be. Stela contains no text and no spoken dialogue, so all storytelling is done environmentally. In similar games such as Inside and Little Nightmares, the wordless nature of the story magnifies its execution. Right from the outset,  Stela writes a check that environmental storytelling just cannot cash,  and the player is left wondering what exactly the significance is of anything that transpires. For all these criticisms, though, it cannot be denied that Stela absolutely excels at controlling its atmosphere with vibrant color and ominous, dulcet tones. If you’re looking to wander through a once-grand world on its final day just for the sake of it, this is the game for you.

Stela Capture 2
The desolate, grey corn field that Stela begins in is almost an identical copy of the corn field from Playdead’s Inside.

The player will take control of an unnamed girl, who I must assume is the titular Stela. As I mentioned previously, there are no words exchanged or written in this game, so all names ascribed to creatures and places in the game are of my own making. The first oddity of the game is that the player isn’t given any sort of goal. Stela has no motivation to go anywhere or do anything, other than the fact that you are playing a video game and standing still isn’t very much fun. In Stela, you are expected to hold down right on the analog stick simply because there is nowhere else to go. Stela’s one and only goal is to keep playing it until it’s done and then stop. This is perhaps worded too harshly, because it isn’t a distinct negative – some players will find this kind of game very intriguing.

Most of the the game can be competed by simply holding down right on the control stick. Stela does most of the climbing and actual platforming with no input, which veers this game more towards a walking simulator than an actual platformer. The sporadic instances of platforming are impeded by the dependence on 3D structures in a 2D environment. That is to say, it’s almost impossible to tell if something is part of the background or part of a platform until Stela jumps on it. 

The puzzles are of varying difficulty, but none of them are too convoluted. I found the contraptions in the snow world to be quite enjoyable to configure, and some of puzzles in the underground and mountaintop were cleverly made. The endgame of a puzzle in a video game is typically a tiny dopamine rush for the player, that “Oh I figured it out! I’m smart!” micro-feeling. Unfortunately, I found most of the puzzles to be so easy that they didn’t warrant that feeling at all. The puzzles exist largely to give the player something to do while walking, rather than present a challenge themselves. Again, this leads me to believe fans of walking sims will be more attracted to Stela than 2D platformer enthusiasts.

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Many of the game’s backgrounds are so dark it’s almost impossible to see what Stela is doing.

Stela does have moments of intense strength though, and in those moments it shines. The monstrous, long-limbed inhabitants of this dying world, who I took to calling Skinwalkers due to their resemblance to the Native American myth, are more animal than human, though they are certainly somewhere in between. The entire forest section is an extended stealth exercise, hiding from the Skinwalkers as they run, cry, scream, pray, sing and bang their own heads into trees repeatedly. The end result is significantly and uncannily unnerving. There is something innately terrifying about creatures that are intelligent enough to practice a religion but sleep on the forest floor and hunt humans for meat. The Skinwalkers worship a dead god, some sort of tentacled monster, and shrines for that monster are laid all around the world. The inscriptions on these signs are meant to build on the story as Stela progresses, but it always feels like you’re being fed only the surface scratchings of an intricate world someone spent hundreds of hours building.

Stela Capture
The ice world is blue, the forest is yellow, the forge is black, the farm is grey. Giving each area a completely different color sets the tone well.

Greater than the tense, chilling moments when a Skinwalker patrols just inches from Stela’s hiding spot are the tightly crafted, controlled atmospheres of the world. Each of the sections is tinted a very distinct and vibrant color, and the themed architecture of each area stays consistent. The snow village in particular feels like a real place I could visit, and place where people actually lived. The snow-sharks that roamed the icy wastes weren’t particularly scary, but turning them against the Skinwalkers to make my way across the tundra was very satisfying. The moments of high action like the elevator ride were, to use the word again, controlled experiences. Skybox Labs here proves that they looked at their design document and followed the golden rule of picking the strongest part of your game and focusing on it. The strongest part of Stela is not the platforming, which ranges from boring to actively bad. It’s these directed moments that pull the player into the game, these moments that all work towards the Ascension.

More than that, the sound design in some places actively caught my attention, which is always good news for sound design. The moment I figured out I had to count beats in the music that was playing to determine the path of the fire arrows in the ash valley (rather than just counting seconds), I felt that little rush the puzzles had been denying me thus far.  On the topic of sound, the song that played during the Skinwalkers’ ritual in the forest was some of the most potent music I have heard in years. I truly felt the awakening of something evil, the end of times, and for the first time I felt that this game was important. This singular track, titledA Shell in the Pit”, was so powerful I coiled up on my couch, set down the controller and just listened for a few minutes. The soundtrack overall was atmospheric and fitting, but this track in particular is one of the strongest songs from a game I have ever heard. Up until that song played I had been asking, “what is the point of all this?” After that, I understood. This was truly the end of the world.

The last world, which I’ve dubbed “Cube World,” is so significantly different than the rest of the game that it fazed me a bit. In the last leg of her journey towards ascending to starhood, Stela must make the climb through what I can only assume is some astral plane. This is the only portion of the game that truly depends on accurate platforming to progress, and it’s at this juncture the player will notice that Stela isn’t very precise with her movements. Jumping and running a just a little bit off, and it takes some getting used to before you’re able to move as precisely as you’d like. Cube World is a series of lever puzzles that become more tedious as they go on. I truly believe this would have been fun if the platforming was fun, but as it is it gets in the way of the story.

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The moment of Ascension was directed and potent.

To be honest, I’m not sure that I’ve cracked the story of Stela. Wordless as it is, perhaps I’ve misunderstood the point. Perhaps there isn’t a point. I cannot deny that the game felt important, and that I felt important when playing it. I did feel a sense of discovery as I traversed the world. However, the fact remains that the actual platforming, the walking and jumping, are clunky. Stela feels bad to play. It only lasts about two hours, and is the exact right length for a game of this kind. I feel hesitant to keep comparing it to Inside, but Stela seems to keep insisting I do just that. It wouldn’t be fair to say this is a worse version of Inside – it certainly finds its own legs and begins to do its own thing about halfway through. My final thoughts are that if you want to be overloaded by sheer atmosphere and don’t care much about the quality of the gameplay, Stela will certainly leave an impression on you.

Nirav reviewed Stela on the Nintendo Switch with a copy provided by the publisher.

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