There are certain games that capture your heart from the very beginning, putting you under a spell. A spell that you can’t break until you get right to the end, leaving you to then stare into nothing but the abyss, deep in thought about what you’ve just done. You don’t need me to tell you that these games are proper rarities, and can come across like watching the perfect movie that leaves you annoyed for blinking and missing precious storytime. Stela, for me, is one of those games. A game that has seen me uttering the immortal ‘wow’ multiple times, with only the dog next to me bearing witness to my joy. Without a doubt in the world, Stela is a game that I have loved and I’m here to tell you why.
Let’s get straight into the first question that you, the honest gamer, will ask when looking at a screenshot for Stela. “Isn’t it just like, Inside?”. Well, yes it is. It’s definitely been influenced by the mechanics of Inside, and the wordless storytelling of that critical success, but apart from that it’s a game that is truly original, delivering an amazing, mind-blowing, gaming experience in the process. Thankfully, I don’t mind developers running the copycat route, especially when the inspiration is so good; it’s when they copy the middle of the road games where my anger levels start to rise.
Skybox Labs, who are also working as co-developer on a certain new Halo game – Infinite, if you must know – have created something very special in Stela. Running as a cinematic, atmospheric platformer about a young woman witnessing the final days of a mysterious ancient world, you wake up in a large cave with no clear instructions on what to do next, who you are, or how you got there. But none of that really matters because you’re soon up on your feet and starting out on the first steps of an epic adventure.
The control system is very basic, but that in turn means that it is utterly simple to use. And with this you find yourself running this young lady along, jumping onto ledges and across chasms as you see fit. She can use switches, drag objects and solve puzzles too, however you won’t find any form of combat to be had. She will be pursued by creatures and beasts mind, so stealth is needed in certain sections; stealth and sheer cunning. It all works brilliantly and you won’t ever find yourself too stuck or left dying multiple times, because Skybox Labs want you to experience the journey of Stela more along the lines of a game, rather than how skilful you are. It has a surprise around every corner – and obviously these elements are tricky to talk about without spoiling things because I really don’t want to ruin the experience for anyone.
What you can know though is that I’m a writer and I love words, but some of my favourite gaming experiences have been, mute, wordless and only pushed on through the visuals. In Stela the game’s narrative is held together by the woman’s actions and her journey through this amazing world. Burnt woodlands, sci-fi ruins, deep dark caves filled with traps and a huge, menacing creature are just some of the wonders on sight. And because of this, you’ll be left with multiple questions throughout your time, wondering why this world is teetering on the edge of destruction. Where are the humans? What happened to the people who built some of these constructions? Who am I and why does everything want to kill me? These questions are never answered directly by Stela, but you can build the ones you want for yourself and that’s where the whole premise becomes more than a little interesting.
My gripes with Stela are minor, and I guess for many the overall length of the game will be an issue, with it feeling far too short with just a few hours of running time. For me though that length is perfect, especially as it all plays out fairly straightforwardly. Yes there’s a latter level that feels a bit hard to navigate though, and you may find yourself stuck for a while, but when you get out, the whole thing delivers a magical ending.
Stela on Xbox One looks as wonderful as it plays. The colours on their own are stunning, and that’s before we start talking about the use of lighting and perspective. Further, the creature and world designs are exemplary and by exploring the environment you will feel like you’re journeying into a living breathing universe that exists on its own. I have loved how lonely the woman can look in the wilderness, and how scary and frightening some of the set pieces can be. There is a sequence with a massive creature that is one of the highlights of my gaming experience. Quite possibly, ever.
The game has a fantastic soundtrack too. Actually, I think it’s right up there as one of my favourite gaming soundtracks of all time. It makes Stela the brilliant experience it is because it works collaboratively with the adventure of the trip. It’s like a prog-rock album from the 1970s; you know, the type that many would listen to in their bedrooms, as they come up with hidden meanings and secret messages. It makes you feel amazing, like you’re starring in a great movie. The effects are superb as well, with some brilliant creature noises and a whole host of exciting sounds in tandem with the action on the screen.
So as you can guess by now, I’m a big fan of Stela. I’ll have to admit that it may not be everyone’s cup of team, but if you have previously loved games like Inside and FAR: Lone Sails then it is going to right up your street. Stela is an epic poem of a game that plucks at the heart and makes you yearn for a world that you never knew existed. It’s what this wonderful medium of gaming should strive towards, and for me it’s very nearly the perfect experience.
Thank you Stela.