Developer: Skybox Labs
Publisher: Skybox Labs
Genre: Puzzle Platformer
Available On: Switch, Xbox One, Steam, Apple Arcade
Tested On: Switch
Official Site: skyboxlabs.com/games/stela
Release Date: March 13th, 2020
You wake up in a dark room. You wander out into a desolate world, void of color and almost void of life. This is how Stela begins. And though you don’t know it yet, you will soon find that what life remains in this world does not want you in it.
A Lonesome Journey
Stela follows a young woman venturing through a dangerous land as it’s coming to an end. And it seeks to tell its story atmospherically as there is no dialogue. Different monsters roam each environment, but you have no way to defend yourself from them. No arsenal, no magic spells. All you have at your disposal is your brain. And you’ll use it to solve a variety of environmental puzzles. Sometimes these puzzles will simply lead you to the next area. Other times they will let you outsmart a treacherous foe, who would like nothing more than to pummel you into the ground or rip you to shreds.
As you can probably guess from the premise, the controls are pretty simple. You move, jump, and interact with bits of the world. But the controls never need to be more than that. Satisfaction comes from realizing what piece of your environment you can use to your advantage. For example, one of the earlier sections is infested by Slender Man-like creatures. You can often hide behind logs and scamper by while they’re not looking. But some of them take more effort. One particular enemy sat next to a pit. Jumping down would cause too much noise, alerting it to my location and leading to my death. But picking up a stone and throwing it into the pit beforehand would cause a distraction, allowing me to pass to safety. Stela is filled with many of those lovely little “A-ha!” moments.
But it’s not as if every environmental hazard allows you the time to think things through. A ceiling that lowers to crush you; a swarm of fast-moving, massive bugs. Some moments force you to think quickly lest you perish. And while that may sound annoying, dying while you search for a solution, it never really is. The puzzles are never too difficult that you’ll die more than a couple of times, if at all, before you get it right. It strikes a fine balance of being thrilling and accessible. And I was incredibly grateful for it.
It’s hard not to compare Stela to Limbo or Inside. In fact, when I first saw the trailer when the game launched on Xbox One last October, I thought it might be the next game from Playdead. But it actually comes from Skybox Labs, who is currently co-developing Halo Infinite. And with this original creation, they’ve managed to make something genuinely wow-inducing.
As you move from environment to environment, they grow more dangerous. The structures begin to crumble and the world throws more perils your way. But Stela also grows more beautiful with each passing moment. As I said, you begin in a dark and dismal place. The forest in which the gangly figures stalk you is muted. It does interesting things with shading, especially during the moment when a full moon shines through the dead, askew tree branches. But it seems purposefully dreary so that the later sections are more impactful.
The full moon in the forest is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how masterfully Stela uses lighting and color. One of my favorite moments came during a burning wasteland. While everything in the foreground was heavily shadowed, the background was lit up with bursts of orange as flaming arrows came careening towards me.
The developers also knew how to make the best of their given space. In a later section covered in snow, safe spaces were structures holding giant gongs. I could see enemies burrowing underneath the snow. Ringing each gong to scare them off provided a satisfying puzzle every time. But as I started to cross the last stretch of snowcovered ground, the camera began to pull back. As it did, I saw more and more of these hidden creatures in the background, hurtling towards me. There is no sprint button, so I genuinely felt frightened as the army grew closer. But the moment was expertly timed for you to reach safety just as they got near. These two cinematic moments were my favorite, but there are plenty more like them.
The Downside of Destruction
The way that Stela withholds its light sources before gifting them to you makes for some truly remarkable moments and environments. But that isn’t the case for all of them. In some indoor areas, it can be a bit hard to see. One puzzle, in particular, had me standing for a couple of minutes before I realized what exactly I was supposed to do. However, these moments are very rare. Playing in the Switch’s handheld mode certainly didn’t help matters. Although I could turn up the brightness, the camera is usually never close to your character or to the parts of the environment you can interact with. This was obviously an artistic choice to show off the game’s style and world. But if you go with the Switch version, I’d suggest playing it docked.
The game is also fairly short. Those looking to sink more than a few hours into a game may be disappointed with the $20 price tag. Although I would still say that the art direction and engaging environmental puzzles make it well worth it.
Verdict: Stela shines when it comes to art direction and engaging puzzles. Although some areas are a bit too dark, it was rare when I didn’t find myself marveling at its intriguing world. The story is short, but that only means that what is here is so good, I only wanted more of it.
- Engaging Puzzles
- Great Art Direction
- Fantastic Use of Lighting and Space
- Interesting Creature Design
- Switch's Handheld Mode and Lack of Light can Make Some Areas Hard to See
- A Bit Too Short