There is something about mysterious ancient worlds that are so captivating and, at times, truly horrifying. That was the primary reason why the recently released indie game, Stela, looked so fascinating to me. With an incredibly unique art-style, simple but smart gameplay and great music, I knew I had to check it out.
Stela is a new atmospheric and cinematic platformer which was recently released in March 2020. Developed and published by Skybox Labs, Stela follows a young woman witnessing the final days of a mysterious ancient world. I played this game on Steam using an Xbox One controller, and it took me roughly 3.5 hours to complete.
The story of Stela is not one for the faint of heart. It’s dark and unsettling, with mere glimpses of light that cut through the darkest of moments. However, it is truly a unique tale unlike anything I’ve experienced in recent memory.
Firstly, there is no dialogue or any real “characters” – but rather demented creatures and mystical beings who inhabit this collapsing world. The story is told in a first person view, with no outside explanations or context of any kind. As such, you will experience and learn everything at the same pace as Stela herself throughout the game.
The story starts with Stela awaking in an ancient world, as she begins to explore the surrounding area. It quickly becomes clear that this world is collapsing before her, and she must embark on a journey to find answers and hopefully find a safe haven. With hostile creatures at every turn, environmental hazards and strange artifacts unlocking forbidden dangers, Stela must improvise to survive.
Stela’s story doesn’t hold your hand, it presents itself as it is with no preconceived information. It uses its sound effects, soundtrack and gameplay to shape the events and tone of story, and leaves you to fill the gaps in your head. This allows the unsettling mystery to remain engaged throughout the entire game, whilst keeping you invested the entire time.
Despite Stela never really offering any answers to the many questions it may ask, I think that may be the strongest aspect of the story. The mystery that the game introduces with it’s ancient world remains intact, and it truly keeps me thinking about the game long after I have completed it. Some may have some frustrations with this however, which is worth pointing out to help keep expectations in order.
Stela’s gameplay is pretty simple, as the only controls you have is walking (W,S,A,D keys/left joystick), jumping (Space bar/A button) and use (F key/X button). Make no mistake, however, the game itself is quite complex and challenging despite such limited and simple controls.
The game features no combat of any kind, and typically has you finding way to sneak past enemies, running from danger, and solving puzzles to get through environments. A few exceptions including solving a environmental puzzle in order to trigger an event that kills an enemy, or blocks them from getting to you.
The game throws new challenges at you frequently, and often shows little mercy. You’ll have to use everything you’ve learned up to that point to overcome new obstacle, as well as on the fly decision making. On occasion the game makes you die to learn a new obstacle, which can be frustrating.
It’s worth noting that Stela can be genuinely horrifying at times. The enemies in this game look very freaky, and the sounds they make are incredibly unsettling. They’ll bust out of nowhere at times and startle you, and without giving you a break you’ll have to find a way to escape the situation or die horribly.
It’s bad enough when you slip up and die in Stela, and it certainly doesn’t help that the death’s are simply brutal. From being clawed to death from a screeching creature, to being swarmed and eaten by vicious beetles, and falling large distances and snapping your spine. Without showing blood or gore, its a very effective way to make dying more effective.
However its moments where you can outsmart the game and survive a near-death experience that the game becomes absolutely satisfying. There are times where you will feel like a survival ninja, especially when you survive sudden events that would kill an average player. Where the game can feel cheap, it can also feel very rewarding depending on how much attention you’re giving it.
Every level in Stella looks and feels different from the last, which also effects how every level is played. Some levels will have a slow, horror based feel which will have players using the environment to sneak around. Other levels will be super intense, and will require a lot of thinking on the fly and you dodge and weave through cover.
The levels are designed to be traversed in a standard side-scroller way, with a unique twist to the standard model. The backgrounds and foregrounds become important areas to pay attention too, as many points of interest may reside there. This includes incoming enemies, puzzle elements and important artifacts that are essential to catch.
Stela uses a lot of techniques to keep the game feeling fresh and rewarding with a good variety of levels and evolving puzzles. This is one of the few games I’ve played where the level design is drastically more important than the gameplay itself, and it nails it.
The large focus on the foreground and background throughout the game is where puzzles become unique. Whether you hide behind a tree as a terrifying creature hunts you down in the background, or interacting with certain objects such as climbing into a treetrunk to hide. The game makes you think of how to use surrounding objects while traversing in a standard side-scrolling fashion.
Where it becomes really challenging is where puzzles begin to use elements from these outside areas, making you have to really thing about how things will move. For example, there may be a puzzle where you have to move a table and jump onto a meat rack to hide from a creature. How do you hide when the creature checks behind the meat? It just so happens that meat rack will turn into the background and hide you.
There are also passive puzzles that don’t necessarily have pressure of an enemy trying to kill you. Most puzzles like these revolve around pulling levers and moving platforms to get from one area to another. These help balance the game by giving the player a chance to rest before ramping up the stakes again.
Sometimes these puzzles can result in brilliant, large scale views that can only be achieved in a game like this. These moments happen more often than you may expect, and they are certainly eye candy. They also seem to be some of the most difficult puzzles in the game, in a fair and enjoyable way.
The visuals in Stela are simply gorgeous at every turn, alongside a complimentary art-style. There’s a unique blend realistic looking environments and weather elements, with a more artistically simplistic and smooth character models. This allows in game models to truly stand out from the incredible looking world to formulate a visually outstanding game.
As one of the primary selling points of Stela, the graphics themselves, are very high quality, with detailed textures, bright and vibrate colors and wonderful looking effects. Your eyes will be treated with beautiful views throughout the game, which very much improve the experience of any situation you’ll find yourself in. Overall very impressive visuals that I think will impress many if they play through Stela.
Music and Audio
The music and audio of Stela is one of the primary highlights of the game, and I cannot stress enough how blown away I was. Sound effects from moving rocks, blowing winds and crackling fire really flesh out the world, as it creates a living atmosphere. Not to mention the terrifying screeches and moans from creatures that amp up the intensity in any given situation. It’s truly fantastic work.
Even better, however, is Stella’s Original Soundtrack, which is composed by A Shell In The Bit. The music is wonderfully composed, with beautiful swooping motifs and dark, aggressive and bombastic tracks, effectively bringing the game to life. It’s a very memorable feature in the game that may also be the best element within it, so good in fact that I’ve even downloaded the soundtrack itself.
The high quality music and audio truly helps makes this game unique, and was a genuinely pleasant surprise. Even if you don’t end up checking out the game, the soundtrack itself is well worth the attention.
In my personal experience with Stela, the positives far outweigh the negatives. I found myself invested throughout the entire game, and often had a bit of a smile on my face while playing it. I felt very fulfilled by the end of my time with the game, and look forward to replaying it down the line.
My only honest criticism of the game are the moments where the game essentially makes you die to learn. While I admit this may be more of a “user error” type of complaint, I do wish I had just a *little* more warning before dying. It only happened a few times, but I admit I did get frustrated when it did happen.
Overall, Stela is a very solid platformer that I would personally recommend to anybody looking for a short but good experience. The animations are smooth, the gameplay is simple but fun, I greatly enjoyed the mysterious story and ate the soundtrack up. I’d say this is one of the best indie titles I’ve played in recent memory.
A review copy was supplied for this game from the publisher and was reviewed for Steam using a Xbox One controller. Stela is now available on Steam for Windows and Mac, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and IOS.
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