Games that successfully manage to stimulate the ol’ limbic system and stir feelings of true, tangible emotion are few and far between. That being said, there is one genre that seemingly thrives when it comes to achieving such a response – creepy 2D Adventure Puzzle Platformers (quite the mouthful). Stela falls slap-bang in the middle of the ominously vague pile and successfully manages to deliver on practically every front.
Stela opens with nary a speckle of information, dialogue, context, rhythm or even reason. All you know is that you must move your smallish female protagonist from the left side of the screen to the right. Your only comfort being the paradoxically uncomfortable, foreboding atmosphere.
Movement plays into this suffocating atmosphere, with a noticeable delay between every action. You are not an action hero, you are barely even on the spectrum of above-average fitness – you are simply a human girl on the run.
Whilst initially under no threat of fatal impalation and/or mutilation, such occurrences are not far off. In fact, they are ceaseless in their chase – desperate to relieve you of your mortal coil. You have no defense other than to put one leg in front of the other until you reach the game’s ultimate conclusion – although there are certainly a few obstacles that will put an end to any momentum you may think you are gaining. These typically come in the form of light puzzle mechanics, with Stela having less than a handful of puzzle variants to keep you entertained. These involve moving boxes, flipping switches, minor acts of arson, or a mixture of the three. None of these puzzles are particularly taxing on the old meat-computer, but they offer enough of a diversion from the core running to keep the game feeling fresh for its 2-hour duration.
Messing up a platforming section, a timed puzzle, or even a good old cross-country jog will almost certainly result in your demise. Death can come hard and fast in Stela to those not paying attention, as is common in this genre of game. Where Stela truly stands out amongst the highly lauded pack, is that these deaths rarely feel cheap. I died maybe four times in my playthrough, with only one section baffling me on what exactly I had to do to progress. The game wants you to see it to the end. Sure, it will kill you from time to time, but more often than not, it will only apply the crushing weight of the expectation, and fear, of death. It gives Stela an almost uniquely brisk pace, getting you from point A to B, to C without trial and error gameplay bogging everything down.
Continuing the trend of keeping the game feeling daisy fresh, are the varied locations you will inevitably stumble through. You may start by stampeding through some abandoned buildings, however you will quickly plod through forests, battlefields, and other, potentially spoilery locales. You spend just enough time in each place to feel like you are carving a hodge-podge path through the wilderness, but not quite enough time to feel like you are retreading the same repeated paths. Aiding in this is the enemy variety. You will be hunted by subterranean gribblies, forest stalking gangly-thingies, and various flesh-eating insects. Each brings its own flavor of surreal terror.
Graphics and Sound
This is all enhanced by some truly staggering visuals. Stela portrays its world in a way that hammers home exactly what you should be feeling at any given time. The color palette is often muted, however it also knows when to flood your screen with vibrance and light. Animations are beautifully realized, showing the constant struggle to survive with every motion. When you whip out your handy-dandy magnifying glass, you are sure to find some gripes with some questionable textures from time-to-time, but these are easily forgiven and even missed when you consider the pace you are moving through the game’s environs.
The aspect of Stela that truly got me engrossed, that made me feel real emotion for the struggles of the protagonist, was the music. Stela’s music is part portentous nightmare, part emotional rollercoaster, and part awe-inspiring magnificence. Never before have I grown so attached to a character, with so little context as to what I am doing, or why. I may be a big Northern Englishman who eats nails, drinks turps and does a fair amount of manly grunting, but even I was not immune to the tear-jerking serenade that assaulted my ears. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t help but lose my iron grip on subjectivity and devolve into an emotion-driven mess.
Stela is not a game for everyone, and even for those that appreciate the genre may not be in the right frame of mind to truly appreciate what it has to offer. These games require a specific mindset, mood and time in order to deliver whatever obscure message it is trying to peddle. You do not play Stela for the gameplay, for as competent as it is, it’s not the driving force. You play Stela for the journey. I totally failed to comprehend the story in the end, but reaching the end was enough for the game to administer its beautifully concocted cocktail. If you have a couple of hours to spare, and you fancy a new atmospheric 2D puzzle platformer…adventure…journey…thing(?), then I have to say this;
STELA IS RECOMMENDED
Stela can be purchased on PC (Steam) and Nintendo Switch with an expanded ending, other content, and visual improvements. It can also be purchased on XBox One and iOS platforms.
Many thanks to Skybox Labs for the review copy.
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Forged in the rainy wilds of northern England, I carved a path of mediocrity through generations and genres. My play style is often described as: “optimistically awful”.