An experience doesn’t need to be lengthy to be effective. I have played a good number of games that can be knocked out in a few short hours that have provided thought-provoking themes and engaging gameplay. Take Journey for instance, it takes longer to mow my lawns than to complete Journey, but damned if that takes even an ounce of emotional weight away from it. In a similar way, story-platformer Stela foregoes length without skimping out on gorgeous visuals or atmospheric tone. Not without its faults, as the narrative feels more like a slideshow rather than a fully-fledged story, Stela explores desperation and instinct in a beautiful and depressing way, making it well worth your time.
In a dark cave, alone. Not the best way to start your day
You play as a nameless, slender woman dressed in white who gains consciousness in a dark cave with no direction whatsoever. Stela plays its cards very close to its chest, in fact its cards aren’t even at the table as it doesn’t provide the player with a single prompt, reminder or hint. As you find your feet and exit the cave, it is immediately noticeable how gorgeous the game is. A muted colour palette of blacks, greys and browns litter the initial location of a farm. Scenes filled with dying corn and run down equipment are scattered in the foreground as you make your way toward a seemingly abandoned barn in the near distance. This depressing and lonesome sight is an accurate representation of the themes found in Stela, themes that happen to be one of the game’s greatest strengths.
Frozen tundras, deep caves and former cities on fire, every location is gorgeous.
Platforming and light puzzling, the game’s core mechanics, are introduced once you enter the barn as you use moveable objects to create platforms and paths to proceed. At certain points throughout the game you are able to climb into the foreground or background ever so slightly, giving some perception of depth to the environment, and though this doesn’t play into puzzles anywhere near as much as it should, it does feel instinctual and smooth when it is necessary. Jumping, though a little floaty, is fairly precise and I never felt myself fighting with the controls to achieve what I was intending. As the game has zero dialogue, text or prompts, you are left to experiment (mash buttons) until you receive the desired effect, mainly when interacting with moveable objects and switches. Seeing as running, jumping and interacting are the only three actions, this just adds to the feeling of loneliness rather than getting in the way of progress.
The barn is just as dilapidated inside as on its exterior, with the roof collapsing, the floor curling and the walls buckling with age and lack of care. It becomes obvious that the world that the protagonist is in is ancient, but also dying. Continuing through the barn, our lady in white begins to be pursued by a swarm of crawling insects that don’t appear to be friendly. Running from the throng of creepy crawlies is a band-aid fix, as the insects are faster than the player character, so your time is limited. Just as all seems lost, with scarabs biting at your heels, there is a spattering of red above a doorframe that stands out amongst the drab surroundings. Jumping to and grabbing this metaphorical light in a shadows results in a door slamming shut behind you, blocking the path of the bugs. Phew.
The barn sets a precedent for the rest of the game. It is rotting from age, dangerous and lonely.
Survival is the name of the game. Everything in this hostile world seemingly wants your life to come to an end and without a means to fight back, you will find yourself running from all manner of threats. In a dark, forest area you will be hunted by tall, thin, gangly humanoid creatures that look similar to the Wendigos from Until Dawn. These horrifying visages will pounce on you on sight, forcing you to travel between hiding places to keep your head where it should be. Each of the various enemies come with their own way to avoid them, keeping you on your toes. What truly raises the tension to fever pitch is the audio. The music consists of deep, long war horns that reverberate as you run for your life, mixed with high-pitched, hair-raising violin screeches that are both unsettling and beautiful. Combining threatening enemies with macabre visuals and tension-building music genuinely raised my heart rate during certain set pieces. A game causing a real, physical reaction is pretty impressive, especially when there is such little story to grab onto
Equally human and otherworldly, the shadows are unsettling to say the least.
From the aforementioned eerie forest, to sprawling, frozen tundras, each location is as depressingly gorgeous as the last. The absolute standout is a desolate battlefield that becomes emblazoned as fiery arrows hit the ground in waves. It is truly beautiful and sombre in equal measure. The negative concerning these varied locals is that the transition between them can be a little jarring and doesn’t make a huge effort to make the world connected geographically or narratively. The story itself is similarly vague and unpleasing as it attempts to show instead of tell, but that attempt only left me wanting to know more with no way of satiating that desire.
This scene is brilliant. From the music to the visuals, the game is worth playing for this alone.
Style and substance are so often at odds with each other and it is seemingly rare to find both in one package. Stela definitely leans towards style, with its visuals similar to a watercolour painting and its music ebbing and flowing, peaking and dropping to wonderous effect. But that lack of substance doesn’t refer to length but rather story and detail. I cared about this world because of how enthralling it looked and sounded, but was ultimately left feeling unsatisfied when it came to its depth. If you know that the beauty is only skin deep, this platformer is a must play.
Reviewed on Xbox One // Review code supplied by publisher