Stela, wearing its inspirations on its sleeve, comes close to mediocrity. With Prince of Persia-inspired platforming, Limbo-esque enemy encounters, and an apocalyptic world in need of saving, the game feels like a rote composite at the start. However, SkyBox Studios’ cinematic platformer leaves an impression. Stela overcomes a trite setup through the use of effective environmental storytelling, sublime music, and brilliant sound design.
Stela revolves around a woman, who may or many not be the titular Stela, as she navigates a desolate world. With no dialog or text of any kind, it’s up to the player to piece together the actual story. The general story that unfolds is easy to put together, and rather predictable, but this is fine: Stela resonates not because of the broad strokes of its plot but because of the intrigue offered in the details.
Throughout the 2-3 hour adventure, the player encounters a multitude of deadly creatures and environments, all of which meld together wonderfully and provide context to one another. For instance, the game is littered with mystical obelisks tied to life’s origination, not unlike those from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. How different NPCs and enemies interact with them reveals finer details of the game’s world. The main story is simple on the macro level, but there’s definite nuance going on in the micro: the game does a great job giving the player enough to piece a lot together while withholding just enough to remain mysterious.
Stela’s score is your companion as it perfectly compliments the emotions felt and on display
Excellent, eclectic music captures the appropriate mood for each scene. Complex synthetic beats hit with an ethereal wonder during the quiet moments while shrill string instruments create unease during frantic chases. There’s dramatic heft too. The music is at times eulogizing, evoking grief for a lost world akin to a classic requiem. To put it bluntly, Stela’s score is your companion as it perfectly compliments the emotions felt and on display. The variety and quality of the music is truly incredible and Stela’s greatest achievement.
Stela’s score paces the game, so that the ambient moments, where it’s you alone with the world, feel uniquely terrifying. The music’s companionship provides comfort, so when its gone, there’s a void. The sound of your own footsteps haunt – like if your shadow blocked out the sun. It’s in these moments that the player character becomes more than an avatar. Following many of the intense sequences, when the music fades and the adrenaline lowers, it’s possible to hear our heroine frantically pant: the strain of her journey being almost too much to bear. The eventual reveal of her identity makes these moments especially poignant, capturing the humanity of a loving martyr.
Gameplay is rudimentary but solid. Never demanding, the platforming emphasizes environmental puzzles. Escaping from enemies and natural disasters is often a matter of organically manipulating the environment rather than twitch timing. The game only stumbles when it requires you to move more quickly, relying not on precision but premeditation. Like Limbo, you die quickly and respawn right where you died. The problem is that Stela relies on this as a means to overcome hazards: you aren’t cleverly outmaneuvering danger, but just stepping aside. For instance, there are switches that cause the floor to cave out under you. You don’t know about them until it happens. Then, upon revival, it’s easy to avoid just immediately run straight ahead. Many sequences follow this design, including some enemy encounters. Aside from these annoyances, Stela’s platforming is enjoyable and moves well to the exquisite score.
The platforming can be cumbersome, and the setup is trite, but Stela is a quality experience. The simple cell-shaded visuals charm, the details are evocative, and the music captivates. While it does not do anything new, Stela is a confident little indie that’s well worth a few hours of your time.