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Review

Written by Rachel Mangan | Edited by Jade Swann

In Stela, by SkyBox Labs, you truly will be witness to the last breath of a magical, decaying civilization. Surviving, or often not quite surviving, as a recently spawned-to-life young woman, you’ll be literally outrunning the last moments of everything around you. But after a couple hours of stunning visuals, does this beautiful platformer offer much more than eye-candy?

The Dying Moments of a Beautiful World

An undeniable fact about Stela is the heart, soul, and talent put into the sensory experience. High-impact cinematic reveals, the scaling of Stela on screen to infer calm or chaotic moments, and the soft but vibrant colors will have you gawking at the gameplay. And did you hear that? You’d better be listening, because the audio in this game is not only beautifully mixed and equal parts lulling and chilling; they’re often essential clues to danger coming. In a game that makes use of Limbo’s popularized ‘Trial and Death’ learning mechanic, you’ll need those sound cues more than you think.

To Learn By Dying – Again and Again and Again

It’s impossible not to compare Stela to Limbo and Inside, so to get that over with, it does have the above shared death mechanic. You will die, many times, but that’s the game’s way of having you learn. Fortunately, the developers were very generous with automatic checkpoints in this game, so you won’t be frustrated replaying half a level. You might, however, get impatient with the game’s other mechanical quirks. To start, unlike most platformers where you are locked into a singular horizontal plane, Stela has moments where you’ll need to move on the z-axis to a platform or hidden place behind you. Problem is, this often isn’t prompted well, so you might be dying multiple times without realizing you need to be hitting ‘w’ instead of ‘space’. Therein lies the second mechanical issue. An interaction feature utilizes itself in many puzzles and high-speed escapes, where you must hold the ‘f’ key to pull a lever, drag a crate, or close the door that stands between you and a horde of giant, killer beetles. You are never prompted to hold it. That’s another discovery that multiple deaths will reveal to you. And sometimes it needs to be held down during a complex jump, where your fingers are otherwise distracted. While it doesn’t kill the player experience by a long shot, it does snap the immersion of the game till you move past it.

Witnessing a Magical Downfall

Past the buttons and technical aspects, you have a lot to look at in the actual game Stela provides. Large, harrowing enemies, true movie-moments when a threat breaches the screen for the first time, and lovely, unique set pieces makes for a striking show. But whether it makes for an engaging platformer is another story.

The game says Stela is a witness, and you’ll feel exactly that. You’re watching these amazing things happen, and interacting with a few gorgeous but admittedly simple puzzles, but if you expect a story like Limbo or an implied answer to all the questions like in Inside, you may be left wanting. Stela’s story is that she’s manifested in a swarm of light, and then has nowhere to go but right, so you take her right. Out of the safety of the cave where she spawns at the whim of a blue, glowing symbol, into the dangers of the world around her. You then cross through sections that introduce many other creatures, but how they relate to each other is never explained, as is the state of the world’s ‘death.’ In some places, it’s clear that humans, or perhaps other light-spawned humanoids, are long gone. In others, there are signs that hundreds of humans are still very much alive and fighting. There are gorgeous settings and a great variety of threats with their own mechanics to avoid, but as you go, they feel a bit disjointed and purposeless. Much like Stela’s unprompted journey from the left side of the screen to the right side. That doesn’t change how cinematic and wonderfully crafted the world is, and how thrilling it can be to witness it as you go, just don’t expect much to make sense once you come out the other side.

5

The Verdict: Fair

Stela is a lovely platformer that will occupy you for two hours with a talented display of art and sound, but the short duration, simple puzzles, and mechanic quirks take it down a notch. Is this short but pretty game worth the price? Maybe for some. Others might be left with too many questions to be satisfied.

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