Title Stela
Developer SkyBox Labs Inc.
Publisher SkyBox Labs Inc.
Release Date October 17th, 2019
Genre Platformer, Side Scroller, Puzzle
Platform Xbox One, Apple Arcade, PC (Q1 2020)
Age Rating E10+
Official Website

There’s been a bit of a renaissance when it comes to side scrolling platformers in the past decade. Starting with with the classic Braid in 2008 and Playdead’s Limbo way back in 2010, leading to its spiritual successor in 2016 with Inside. All of which reinvented themselves as more visual and emotional experiences rather than hardcore platformers. These have worked thus far, and worked really well. With this, I’m happy to say that Stela, the latest entry into this genre, is no different, and then some.

In terms of story, Stela continues in the footsteps of others with a more visual, cinematic approach to the way these games present themselves. Keeping it vague, it maintains a minimalistic approach to the pacing of the overall narrative. Providing only hints and suggestions as to what the fate of the world is and ultimately the fate of our titular heroine. It’s short, able to be beaten in about 2 to 3 hours (there’s even an achievement to complete the game in under 90 minutes), but I believe this is to stick to the game’s insistence on being more cinematic and that certainly helps to understand it. You feel like you’re playing an animated movie at times, and it wraps up just as soon.

Stela | Cornfield
One of the game’s earliest levels, already setting a tone.

As far as controls go, you pretty much already know how to control the titular character. Left, right, A to jump and X to interact. Straightforward and makes sense, however there were times where I felt like there was an ever so slight lag with the jumps, leading to some pretty bad fails on my end. Which admittedly was hilarious. However, there are very few times in the game where this was even an issue, so it very well might have just been me. Other than that, everything else is clean and responsive.

The department where Stela really stands out is the visuals. The artistry on show during this game is fantastic. Each world is crafted with such care and with such a flow that makes it look really fluid, and downright moody in some areas. The art team really outdid themselves in the variety of locations too, with one level being a burning wasteland of a incinerated castle under siege, to an ancient cavern of alien like stones, to an ethereal plain of existence and snowy mountains, each providing to be unique and incorporate into the puzzles of each level perfectly. Each portion of the game has its own feel and really shows you the scope of the world the developers put you in. Atmosphere was definitely the focus and is really the biggest selling point. Stela herself takes on the same minimalistic aesthetics as the environments to ensure that while you can’t tell exactly what she’s thinking, her movements and animations are expressive and do a fine job of conveying her feelings without the need for words.

Stela | Forest fires
Only you can prevent forest fires.

Also an aspect that’s really on point is the sound. From the sound effects to the score that permeates throughout the game, it adds a very esoteric and atmospheric mood to each level, never going too bombastic when something quiet is happening and never too quiet when something big happens. My personal favorite is when you get to a war torn wasteland part of a level where you need to protect yourself from a wave of blazing arrows and the music crescendos into this huge orchestral piece that really helps the dire tone of the situation set in. Most of the score is understated, especially in the more desolate levels such as the abandoned winter village, or dodging snow monsters that’ll catch you and force you to restart back to the checkpoint.

Speaking of those monsters, there’s not too much in the way of physical confrontational enemies in the game. You’ll come across creatures such as “Shadows”, huge limbering dark figures that swipe at you if they see you, as well as the aforementioned snow beasts. Killer rats that’ll eat you as you’re busy solving a puzzle will have you thinking on your toes. There’s really not even that much fighting, as Stela herself doesn’t have any way to attack. It’s a case of you hiding from and dodging enemies, waiting for them to pass. Stealth sections, really. Enemy AI seems fine, though there were times when I felt like my sighting was a little bogus, but again, just like the perceived jump lag, it could just be me.

Stela | Winterland
Stela’s character model reflects and interacts great with the environments.

Though admittedly, even with the minimalistic approach to the story, I did find the ending a little anticlimactic. The game does such a fantastic job with its world and pacing beforehand and really drums itself up with a huge orchestral piece right beforehand, indicating that something is going to come along to wrap the game up and explain some answers to your inevitable questions, but it unfortunately doesn’t. I don’t want to get into spoilers, but I found it not as climactic as I would’ve liked it to be. But, with it following in the footsteps of its predecessors, it lends itself even more to my saying that it’s more open to interpretation than something that can just be played out as a linear story.

Ultimately, Stela is to remembered for its outstanding artistry and beautiful paint-like backgrounds and environments. Again, while being beatable within a 2 to 4 hour time frame, around 4 in my case, the shortness in no way hindered the experience and actually proved as a relief for not overstaying its welcome. I feel like $15 would be the sweet spot for this, but if you’re really into these particular cinematic side scrollers, this is an absolute pick up for $20. Stela, as it turns out, is pretty stellar.

Review Score

Review copy provided by publisher, Thank You!

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