Developer: SkyBox Labs
Release Date: October 17, 2019
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Publisher: SkyBox Labs
There’s a real joy from playing games with interpretive storytelling. I can turn the on-screen journey as my own or take it as a viewer-only experience. I’m able to take whatever perspective I want with no narration, acting, or written logs to tell me what I should be feeling. That’s the kind of pleasure that I got to have with Skybox’s Stela. This purely visual escapade draws from the type of experiences found in Journey and Limbo and marries them into a tense yet triumph adventure.
The story behind Stela is as simple as they come. The first thing you see after selecting a new game is a young woman awaking in a dark and cold looking place at the bottom of the well, with only the sights of a stone and ladder leading the way out, a young woman climbs out and begins the journey from there. Along the way, she encounters monsters that are ruthless and blindly attack anything that gets close. From tall, dark figures to burrowing ice beasts, the young woman must keep out of their sights at all costs to have a chance to survive on her way to a destination in the tallest mountain.
As I said earlier, you can compare plenty of elements of the game to other titles that use this way of visual storytelling. Several sections have environmental puzzles that are required to be finished to advance, a la Limbo. Different parts have impressive visual scenes that pull back the camera for the player to stop and take an appreciated gander. While people may say, there’s been some copycatting going on here. I find Stela’s approach to be original enough to stand on its own two feet.
The few criticisms have in regards the presentation is around the breathtaking scenes that give off an audible wow from players when they see it, but more the lack thereof. The scenes that I expected Stela to scale back the camera and witness something beautiful or maybe even applauding are too few and without impact. In one scene early in the game. A barrage of burning arrows is continuously being loosened from afar and raining down on the land while the young woman did what she could to get across. While I did find this visually impressive, I felt no real stake in the situation. As the game continued after a mild introduction to the section, it was then seen as just another obstacle to pass. What I would have found more emotionally impactful was seeing the land go from peaceful stretch of plain to the living hell as a woman was running through it all. I know the setting has the game is more implying that a young woman has woken up in the middle of a dreary world. Still, after seeing the other scenes that Skybox has created in the latter half of this game, I felt they could have easily added more heart-tugging visuals.
As for playing the hour and a half side scroller, Stela operates as a two-button affair. One to jump, while the other performs actions. With much the action button centered around grabbing and activating, the gameplay is simple. Jumping takes a few tries to get used to due to the young woman starting the animation of bending her legs to then launch into a jump. The small delay could be mistaken for a faulty game mechanic, but once player’s notice the animation I mentioned, the timing becomes second nature. While there is no much delay for the action button, there are instances when I didn’t realize that the young woman could grab certain items or ledges. With simple controls, the real conflict only depends on a player’s ability to solve problems. Luckily, there are only a few instances where I felt that Skybox didn’t make my options clear or had an item I needed just outside the screen where I couldn’t see it. After a few hits and misses, I was able to continue with my adventure with no gripes.
Additionally, I didn’t feel that the game lacked much due to its straight forward gameplay. Yes, the majority of the game is a series of going from left to right and picking up a few things but puzzle section to a decent job breaking that monotony. And if trailers for the game still have others expressing thoughts such as “been there, done that,” I would say that the second half of Stela is worth every minute. Without spoiling the fun, there is a scene that puts our hero in a predicament that had me tapping buttons, hoping and praying that I got out alive as there was no apparent way to escape. After narrowly passing the sequence, I just wanted to do it again.
Being a sight to see, Stela is also one that should be heard. Music does an excellent job complimenting the game’s various environments that range from hopeless farmlands and war-torn villages to snowy plains and ancient temples. The ambient music also adds tension and panic when surrounded or otherwise chased by monsters that are much faster than a young woman. At least the good news is after haunting death tones from one-hit kills; players can try again. What I am most impressed with is the music progressing with the game as it continuously becomes more mystifying in each section. In the beginning, the music is curious and frightened, much like the unsuspecting player. Afterward, when the woman finds herself in more mysterious places, the sounds turn euphoric and ambiguous, all thanks to Skybox creating an original soundtrack for the game.
When surrounded by game titles that choose to tell players when to be happy, mad, or sad, Stela can be a breath of fresh air. Skybox didn’t make a game that creates new high standards in its genre or makes players ponder its ending because it didn’t need to. Stela deserves its moment in the limelight for those looking for a game that doesn’t ask for much. That said, it still provides a great sense of triumph even if those triumphs are silly monsters and puzzles.
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