Stela oozes style but lacks the all-important substance.
- Developer: Skybox Labs
- Publisher: Skybox Labs
- Release date: 17 October 2019
- Genre: Adventure Platformer
- Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Windows PC (Steam)
- Reviewed on: Titan Gaming PC
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
What do you do?
If I ask you to think of a game that you play laterally, and which uses silhouettes and 2.5D graphics, then you would probably think of a game like Limbo or Inside. If you are a fan of those games, then you may enjoy Stela. This game is an indie love letter to the others. From its graphic style to its sound design, the likeness to them is uncanny. So much so that I had to check it was not made by the same developers.
The game opens with a woman appearing from a pool of light. As if created by this alien force that echoes through the game. That’s it. There’s no tutorial, no “press space to jump” or preamble. You’re thrown headfirst into this eerie and lonely game. The immediate question is, “OK, what now? Where do I go?” and if you have played these types of games before you immediately know that to progress is to walk right. But, if you haven’t played these types of games, it may take you a while to realise what you need to do and where you need to go.
The visuals are the main appeal of this game. The 2D graphics allow for some well laid out scenes filled with grandeur. The character feels tiny in comparison to some of the sets. For example, in one part of the game, you are made to traverse through a battlefield that is on fire. In the background of the scene, you see flaming arrows being shot in succession towards you. During this whole scene, the sense of dread is enforced by how small the character is compared to the looming buildings surrounding her. The colour and lighting of the environment changes between each scene. The first scene, for example, is very bland and grey, which then changes to a dark and eerie blue and black-hued forest scene, and then escalates into a fiery battle scene.
As I said, the game doesn’t spell things out for you when it comes to storyline or game mechanics. For example, early in the game the main character must run away from a swarm of beetles (don’t ask me why, this is also never explained). When running, she passes by a tall bookcase with red tape over it. This caught my eye in the grey scenery, but I believed that this was to signify that I was going the right way. But, 15 minutes and many deaths by beetles later, I realised that the red tape was showing that the character could grab the object. This frustrated me as at no point before this was I shown that red tape meant the character could grab things. Instead of a reward, the deaths felt like punishment for missing clues and hints that weren’t there.
The game isn’t all that difficult; you can move left, right, jump and you can grab certain objects to aid you. There are no unlockable power-ups throughout the game or any hidden abilities. Which, of course, you can expect in a game that sets itself in a real-world post-apocalyptic scenario. One thing I felt in the controls quite early on was how lightweight the character felt. Her ability to stop after running had a slight delay which caused me to tumble into danger often. Also, her jumping mechanic felt more like she was flying than jumping. After hitting the jump button there was a slight delay in the animation to her jumping. She took too long to come back down to earth, too. This ended up costing me a few times when jumping over ravines as, instead of jumping over, she would jump into them.
As someone who loves indie games and the stories that they often tell, I hate to say that Stela’s story is non-existent. The entire game feels like it’s leading up to this big reveal. Why is this character traversing through a world of killer beetles, man-like predator creatures, flaming battlefields and burrowing dinosaurs? But the end feels flat. I understand that with games like Limbo and Inside a lot of the storytelling is done through visuals, and I love those games because it is done so well.
All style, no substance
With Stela, it seems like the developers focussed so much on the gameplay and the visuals that the story ended up being a secondary thought. For a three-hour game, I sat down expecting to be blown away by this amazing short story. Instead, I left feeling deflated and wondering why I had played it in the first place. There just doesn’t appear to be any reason for anything you do in the game.
Don’t get me wrong, some of the sections in the game were beautifully told. Early on when the main character is running from beetles, there was a moment where I jumped out of my seat. It didn’t shock me so much that I wanted to stop playing, but it added to the intensity of the moment. It was great! There’s another section in the game where you must hide from these looming creatures. This is a completely different mechanic to the running that you have learnt so far, keeping you on your toes and engaged.
There was one moment where I mistimed my jump and one of the creatures caught me. I expected a terrifying end for my character. Something like when the boy gets dragged into the depths by the mermaids in Inside. But, the animation didn’t leave me feeling any emotions. The creature screamed, swung at the main character and that was it. There was no amination in there that made me feel scared of my impending doom. If anything, it made me feel less engaged as the sense of dread wasn’t there anymore.
The sound design is understated, which matched the minimalistic style of the game well. In the beginning, the sounds in the cave are simply dripping water and echoing footsteps. This reflects the isolation of the main character well. However, as someone who loves swelling background music, I felt that there was something missing. Sure, there is the sound of her feet crunching in snow and the sound of the fire raging through the woods, but it doesn’t hit home quite as much as I would like it to. The music is well done; but, it could have been better. For example, during the beetle section, it ramps up when it needs to, but, it could rouse a little more suspense in the air. It’s not a soundtrack that will stick with me.
I was so excited to play Stela based on my experiences with LIMBO and Inside. I thought that this was going to be an interesting game that would get me playing and replaying it to find all the visual storytelling clue, and I expected everything to be explained at the end of the game, with all loose ends wrapped up into a neat little bow. But, towards the end of the game, the developers focussed more on the visuals and gameplay than the storyline. In the end, I was left feeling confused and deflated, wondering, “Why did any of this happen?”