Puzzle platformers have become popular in this past decade, and when taking a closer look at these games, it’s easy to see why. Small independent studios with only a few people at the helm create and develop many of them, and passion vitalizes their projects. I had been looking forward to playing Stela, hoping that it would also be an experience that I would be surprised by. Unfortunately, I was more deflated after completing it rather than elated.
Violence: The main character can be killed in various ways throughout the game, from adversaries that can discover her if the player is not careful enough, such as falling off high cliffs, or being zapped into beams of light that may appear at points. There is no blood shown when creatures do kill the protagonist, but it can still have a jarring effect if the player is not prepared for it.
Stela begins when a nameless young woman is beamed from a stela, the titular tall, upright stone pillar, and awakens to begin her quest. With no words of dialogue spoken for the entirety of the game, and no text shared on screen, you are left with no task but to run, and to keep running.
As the nameless woman runs, she enters diverse landscapes of various colors and tones, all of which indicate that she is traveling in a ruined world, where virtually no civilization is left, and everything is abandoned. She comes across a decrepit farm, a spooky forest, dark pits of deep caverns, snowy wastelands, and a mystical temple as she travels, among others. All the while, she must use the environment and tools around her to subdue fiends that will attempt to catch and destroy her if given the chance.
It isn’t until the game’s final moments that some sort of revelation is given, and that the entire journey the player undertakes is meant to lead this purpose into fruition. For most of the game as I was playing, though, I found it difficult understanding the point of the story, if it had one.
My focus instead was geared towards surviving with each passing level against the myriads of creatures that were dead-set on destroying me. The first two levels alone made me to realize that it was very much me against the world…literally.
The different adversaries you meet, however, help introduce Stela’s greatest strength, which are its stylistic various puzzles. Deadly beetles swarm into the farmhouse soon after the nameless woman enters the first level, and it’s simply a matter of blocking their path and escaping as quickly as she can before they can overtake her. Strange ghoulish creatures called shadows plague the forest she enters soon afterwards, and the strategy quickly changes from rushing as quickly as she can, to slowing down and taking cover if a shadow gets too close.
Different enemies and areas provide various puzzles that the woman will need to solve in order to evade them and avoid certain death before proceeding to the next area, and on and on it goes until the end of the game.
What helped make this more bearable for me was the atmosphere that this game provided. It’s certainly lovely to look at, and the game ran very smoothly when I played it. Whether you’re inside a building, traveling across frozen landscapes, or in a dark dreary forest, there’s no denying that this game is appealing to look at, and it felt natural to me when a location transitioned to another while playing it through.
The mechanics in the game are simple to learn and master; there’s only a few select buttons offered that can make you move left, right, jump, as well as moving up and down when needed. There is a select button that you need to use at certain points to move levers to start mechanisms, or to pick up objects as you use them. Items such as boxes, levers, or rocks will shimmer on screen, letting players know that they can interact and use them in order to complete the puzzle.
I also enjoyed the music that played in the game; it’s minimalistic in nature, but serves its purpose by making the game more vibrant to play through, and I felt it helped add a layer of intensity that wouldn’t have been there without it. It had a soundtrack that I felt encapsulated the world Stela is set in; ancient yet alien from our own world somehow.
The biggest problem for me while playing the game, however, was that I felt a lack of purpose, as I previously mentioned. I kept hoping for some story revelation as I kept playing, or even a little bit of lore. Who were these frightening-looking shadow creatures, and where did they come from? Why was everything trying to kill me as soon as they set eyes on me? Where did I come from and where am I running to? The frustrating thing is that none of these questions are really ever answered, and I can only guess and wonder what kind of world I was really playing and serving my time in. These questions only burned in my mind the closer I came to the ending of the game, and was coming face to face with puzzles and locations that spoke of a rich history that I was partaking in, but not fully experiencing.
If you decide you don’t really care about plot all that much, but just want to play a simple puzzle game that can be intense at times, and has great atmosphere and beautiful artwork, then Stela may be a game you should consider checking out. It is a solid game, overall, and the longer I played it, the more engaged I became. Just be aware that without a coherent story, a large piece of the game’s soul is missing.
I do hope that SkyBox Labs can learn from their experience creating Stela, and take pride in the elements that did work in their next project, and create captivating stories paired with solid gameplay to share with others in the future.
Review copy generously provided by Stride PR
The Bottom Line
Stela is an atmospheric platformer that offers solid puzzles and mechanics that will genuinely challenge the player, but may leave them wanting more than what is ultimately offered.