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Review: Stela

16 Oct 2019

There is something to be said about a game without dialogue, narration, or text of any kind. It’s a tall task, one that not many games have been able to master. But Stela from SkyBox Labs is the perfect example of a game that can tell a story and pull you into its world, all without a single written or spoken line.

This cinematic platformer takes players through a journey of an ancient world across Steam, Apple Arcade, and Xbox One. If running through an eerie forest, traversing deserted structures, and exploring other-worldly puzzles sounds like a good time, then you may want to turn your attention to Stela when it releases on October 17th, 2019. 

Uncovering What Was Lost

Our protagonist, an unnamed woman, kicks off the game by waking up in a cave. Stela relies on the storytelling devices of showing, and not telling, so much of the story is implied through visuals and artistic techniques. I found this to give the game an open-ended story where, as the player, you are meant to fill in the gaps, much like the protagonist herself.

Almost immediately, you realize that this world isn’t peaceful and there are plenty of things that want to kill you. Using visual and audio cues, it becomes clear that anything that moves is a threat, from giant beetles to savage creatures swimming through the snow.

While exploring different areas, the story of the ancient world unfolds. Signs of worship to objects as well as odd symbols adorning certain areas come together to show some of the more odd elements of this ancient world. It’s clear that the world collapsed somehow, even if the specifics aren’t obvious. Stela has natural replayability to it and I’m certain you could begin to fill in the countless story gaps through multiple playthroughs. 

Life or Death Puzzle Solving

Upon watching the trailer, you may find yourself being reminded of Limbo or Inside from Playdead, much like I was. This tends to come with the territory of a cinematic platformer and I find that the story, visuals, and audio set Stela apart from the work of Playdead. However, the gameplay style is, at times, nearly identical. This means the puzzles typically involve a push and pull mechanic for items and time-based sequences. 

For the most part, the gameplay is smooth and the puzzles run without issue. There are a few times you may find yourself scratching your head, but most puzzles are straight-forward enough to be solved within a couple of attempts. Every once in a while I ran into issues with frame-rate during a puzzle, but it only tended to happen after returning from a pause. Grabbing objects that need to be pushed or pulled can cause some issues as well; the hit box for a grab tends to be pretty small, so grabbing things needs to be precise at times. 

Stealth mechanics have been worked into the gameplay and puzzles as well, usually in a natural manner. At one point, when I knew I needed to hide from an enemy, the hiding spot was a natural part of the background. Many puzzles or just general movement in the game involves interacting with elements of the background that you wouldn’t initially think can be interacted with. I found this to be a breath of fresh air from other puzzle-platforming games, where the gameplay style can get stale when they do not introduce new things to interact with. The sound design also plays a big part in these stealth elements, making those moments truly feel life or death with heightened tension.

Beauty After Disaster

Visually, this game is gorgeous. I was playing on my Xbox One X and found the overall art to be beautiful and translate well throughout the game. Each section of the game has its own aesthetic and sound design that makes you connect to the story of the ancient world. On top of each area having a unique and beautiful look, the transitions between areas are flawless and make perfect visual sense throughout. Many times I was worried I had died in a particular section only to realize it was the way of the scene transitioning in color and, quite often, tone. 

I mentioned it earlier, but both the lighting and sound do a wonderful job telling the story in a game that truly relies on showing and not telling the story overtly. Locations and scenes transition in lighting to impact the mood or impending doom while the music tells a dramatic tale being uncovered. I found many of the audio techniques reminiscent of horror movies like Insidious with a combination of sharp string instruments and deliberately deep, booming sounds to insert tension and fear into mysterious situations. As far as visuals and audio, Stela really hits it home and provides a phenomenal experience. 

Carrying the Torch

Much like its unnamed protagonist, Stela carries the torch of cinematic platformers and delivers a unique and compelling experience. If you’re a fan of the genre, or just want to look at a beautiful game for a couple of hours, then this is a must-play. I found myself saying, “I’ll stop at the next area,” over and over again, while subsequently not being able to due to the amazing visuals and intriguing evolution of the game. 

The only hiccups in this experience are a few mechanical issues, none of which are game-stopping or frustrating. Not to mention, these issues will likely be patched post-release and not cause any issues for future players. 

Stella takes a risk in story-telling and guiding players through the story of a beautifully complex ancient world. Don’t blame me when you find yourself lost in this gorgeous and mysterious world, wondering where the day went.

~ Final Score: 9/10 ~

Review copy provided by SkyBox Labs for Xbox One. Screenshots courtesy of SkyBox Labs.