If you’ve played LIMBO or Inside, Playdead’s wonderfully atmospheric puzzlers, or even Little Nightmares, you’ll probably immediately make the connection between those and Stela. In fact, it was that similarity we saw in the trailers that made us want to play the game in the first place. Stela is the first console title from developer SkyBox Labs, which is also working on the upcoming Halo Infinite.
Controlling your unnamed protagonist is straightforward as you’re limited to running, jumping and grabbing onto objects. All of it has a satisfying weight to it, and though your character will stumble or get winded as they go it never has any kind of impact on gameplay. Instead it merely serves to make her feel more like an ordinary person pushed to extraordinary lengths.
Presentation is the game’s strongest element. From the moment you exit your cave until the time the credits roll, Stela keeps throwing interesting and varied locations at you alongside unnerving creatures. The hazy forest with the tall slender monsters sets the early tone, and the beasts tunneling under the snow to converge on your location are awesome as well. It does lose some of the tension when you realize that they’re scripted to come up short as long as you keep moving forward.
There’s also a quality soundtrack to accompany you, rising and falling to punctuate moments of calm and panic alike. There is no dialogue, spoken or even text boxes, so everything is conveyed through images and sounds. We didn’t come out of it feeling like there was much depth to what we were seeing or hearing, but taken purely at an artistic level it’s well done.
Similar to the games that clearly inspired it, Stela offers no exposition or context for what’s going on. You appear to be a human female striking out into a barren world and then trying to survive the obstacles in your path. It’s entirely linear as you’ll move left to right for the duration outside of a few moments of brief back tracking. There also appears to be exactly one solution to every puzzle you encounter, though it’s plausible we missed alternatives.
Solutions usually take on some combination of hiding, manipulating objects and platforming. Some of them require fairly precise timing when it comes to jumping at the right moment or dashing between cover, while others are “do or die,” such as luring a herd of flesh-eating beetles into a furnace blast. One wrong step and it’s back to the checkpoint.
Checkpoints are frequent, so you’ll never lose more than a small chunk of progress. That’s definitely appreciated as some puzzles are designed to kill you at least once or twice until you sort out what you need to do. We never got stuck due to not seeing the solution, and even the trickiest puzzles were cleared in a matter of minutes. Whether that’s due more to a lack of challenge or our familiarity with similar titles is unclear.
Minus any lengthy delays we were able to plow through Stela in a couple of hours, which is about on brand for this style of game. Achievement hunters will be glad to note that you’ll unlock all but two of the game’s achievements in a single run — the ones for not dying and finishing the game in under 90 minutes will require a return trip.
While there are some standout moments in here, it never distances itself in any meaningful way from the titles mentioned above. If you’ve never played them you’ll probably come away more impressed with Stela, but if that were the case we’d recommend downloading Playdead’s classics instead. They did it first, and quite frankly they did it better.
There’s nothing wrong or even particularly disappointing about Stela. It was exactly what we thought it would be. Ultimately, though, that’s the problem as it doesn’t do anything we hadn’t seen before.