Another Stela performance from some stellar people.
For a time, it seemed that platform games were far too numerous and pretentious. During the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, it was as if every second game was some corporate-ordered bit of kid-friendly candy saturated in colors and made to appeal to the lowest common denominator. But then we got the first cinematic platformers, and they proved that the genre had more than enough room to be darker, more serious, and even more profound. Stela is one such example of this sub genre, and it’s mighty good.
Stela places you in the role of a woman waking up to a dying, empty, and very bleak world. In what seems to be the end of days, she explores her surroundings but it is quickly established that she is neither cut out for this world nor particularly welcome. It is ultimately conjecture, however, as the game relies on no text nor voice acting to tell its story, whatever that may entail. Indeed, the thrill of exploration in this forsaken world is as much a motive as any sort of narrative.
Dark and degenerate days of doom.
Comparisons to other games such as Limbo are difficult to ignore. This game has a similar aesthetic, albeit a tad bit more colors. It’s interesting how the game managers to achieve and maintain a sense of dread and decay with a more colorful-yet-muted palette at its disposable. Also like Limbo and its ilk, there are a slew of puzzles to solve and many precarious situations from which to remove yourself. For example, our ever-venerable protagonist may find herself needing to resort to stealth to make her way past a monster. Other times, she’ll need to think in three-dimensional terms and sort out a physics-based trap.
It’s not uncommon that players will have to move and race against threats as they unfold in real time, such as blocking the entrance that allows creepy crawlies to spawn in. It’s this prominent mix of problem solving and quick reflexes that help to make Stela stand out a bit from its contemporaries, although it’s still not quite enough. The puzzles themselves are also not exactly head-scratchers, but they nonetheless remain satisfying to beat and sometimes require more execution than thought. Be prepared to beat many of them with nary a moment to spare, heightening the adrenaline rush and addictive quality.
How much fun you get out of Stela relies a lot on how much you’re willing to put up with the amount of trial and error to which you are subjected. Be prepared to die a number of times on your initial run because you’re put into a situation with barely any time to react to the situation at hand. You likely won’t be too annoyed, as it just allows you to enjoy the game’s splendid, muted world even more. In fact, some of the best moments are when things become still and your take it all in, from the desolate atmosphere to the ambiguous symbols to the complete and utter lack of any spoken word whatsoever. It’s a bad dream, but one which you’ll wanna see to the end.
And it’s not just the visuals. The audio, too, is a gorgeous and utterly absorbing affair. Sometimes, Stela’s only companion is the creepy wind that only heightens the feeling of dread. Other times, it drones and fills out the ambience with sonic textures that let you know just how unwelcome you are in this world. And finally, there are the tense moments with a full-blown horror twist, as high and fast notes are struck while some unspeakable abominations materialize. It may sound shallow, but I cannot stress enough how beautiful this game is, and fortunately it’s not merely a case of style over substance.
Stela is the sort of dark and moody platformer you’ll want to play after being saturated by colorful traps in Super Mario Maker 2. It does nothing new, and don’t expect to walk away from the experience with a new sense of profound realization. Nonetheless, you’ll enjoy the time you have with it, even if the ending is disappointing and the game requires a fair degree of trial and error. This along with Planet Alpha should rocket to the very top of your shopping list if cinematic platformers are your thing. Catch it for your Steam library right here. If you’ve already given it a go, let us know what you thought in the comments section below.
Available on: Windows PC / Steam (Reviewed), Apple Arcade, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch ; Publisher: Skybox Labs ; Developer: Skybox Labs ; Number of players: single-player only; Released on the 13th of March, 2020.
Full disclosure: This review is based on a Steam key for Stela provided for Hey Poor Player by the game’s publisher.