I have reviewed a fair amount of 2D puzzle-platformers in my time, and the appreciation of the genre really stems from my time spent with Limbo when it first released. It has been a while now since I have opted to explore a game of a similar nature, but the time has come again. Stela, a game from SkyBox Labs (currently co-developing Halo Infinite), is a game about witnessing the end of an ancient world through the experiences of a young woman, although I may not have been able to tell you that without the help of the store description. The art style is what dragged me in, and I had hoped I would be as refreshed and taken aback by what laid ahead as I was by Limbo and Inside. Games like those provoke thought, evoke the power of the unexpected, and leave you decidedly satisfied when they end. Did Stela reach these heights? Let us explore the world that would soon come to an end.
As with most games of this nature, there is no dramatic opening sequence, no prologue to fill you in. Just you, and your ability to move, well, to the right. You begin your adventure, and will quickly see how you need to test your limits, running, jumping, climbing, and pushing your way forward past obstacles that aim to end your life or keep your quest stagnate. But you will, eventually, get past all of these obstacles, because up until the very end, they are rather easy to beat. Most “puzzles” or enemies solutions were pretty easy to solve on the fly as opposed to dying several times and going through the motions of trial and error. The first enemy you are introduced to are swarms of beetles, who look more like a pack of Black Plague era rats, and these can be avoided by keeping to high ground. Other deadly obstacles like giant spiked traps, flaming arrows, and more can all be found on your travels. Again, while easy to get past, this does not mean that I was not impressed by some of the original creatures or puzzles that stood in my way.
Early on you are introduced to a species referred to as Shadows. These elongated, Slenderman-esque creatures first instinct is to kill you when they are aware of your presence. They are a looming, intimidating threat in most cases, which is why you spend a lot of time sneaking past them. Their inclusion and design stands out as a notable part about the world’s lore that makes you wish you could learn more about what is happening in the world. That is one of my reigning issues with Stela, as it seems like the world was created around some deeper backstory, but the narrative isn’t strong enough to make you interpret answers on your own. There is nothing to really go off of, which at times can make you feel uninterested in the world around you.
Where Stela can do a great job to get the played invested, however, is by way of what I like to call “oh sh*t” moments, those special, vastly cinematic moments that really impress. Now, as cliché as flaming arrows can be, their inclusion was the first kind of these moments. They fill the sky, much like that of 300 fame, and challenge you to pace yourself across an open field with only a shield and scattered trees to guard your path. Another comes by way of a large, ominous black worm like creature that chases you in a cavernous chamber. Its presence is daunting, and it has no facial or anatomical features, making it ever more mysterious. There are several other points in the game that echo this feeling of delightful exposure to the radically unknown, only stippled by there not being a consistent notion of which to make inferences. But where a lack of storytelling fails, a praiseworthy musical score picks up the slack.
The music in Stela is something special, no doubt about it. It is so moving, so powerful in a way that is more commonly seen in high end cinema. It’s deep, emotional, and progresses the scene in ways that are necessary considering you do not get to see an emotional presence from the character in a way that you would in most games. The camera is a bit further out, and the graphics are lower in detail, so you do not see much body language from the young woman. Instead, you get a powerful score that guides that emotion for you, and it is just fantastic. If anyone out there has the pull to do so, please send me a copy of the album or get it produced into a vinyl record. It is something that needs to be appreciated and treasured. The visuals on the other hand are a bit inconsistent. The lighting and scenery in the darker segments, like in the caverns or forest, look quite great. But some of the brighter areas with more set pieces, like the snowy cabins, really look quite dated and underdone.
The same inconsistency can be found occasionally in the protagonist’s movements, as some jumps feel like they are not in sync with the player’s action, which can result in deaths. There is a unique sense of depth, physical actual depth, to the gameplay though, as you can see your character climb to a higher area or around a bend and the camera flows with her really naturally. The last portion of the game brings forward the most trying puzzles, but they still will not keep you stumped for too long. I think the difficulty is pretty simple for the most part.
I appreciate this game for its strong points, but it is hindered by some of its inconsistencies too. At times, I felt it was not a complete thought, and at other points, I felt quite the opposite. Its strengths lie in its most cinematic moments, which reel you in and keep you there with impressive set pieces and incredibly powerful accompanying music. Those portions really push the title forward, but it never quite gets over its own obstacles in retrospect. It makes you ask too many questions, without giving you the resources to come up with answers. Overall, this is a very solid title for the genre, but its price point and lasting effect just don’t quite put it on the pedestal alongside titles like Limbo and Inside, unfortunately.
*Note: A copy of the title was provided for the purposes of the review
Final Score: 7.5/10
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