A woman in white wakes alone in strange cavern. She crawls over boulders, climbing out into the light, and begins to run — facing a world of monsters all seeking to destroy her.
Stela is a side scrolling puzzle adventure game from SkyBox Labs, available on iOS, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, and Macintosh. Playing as the woman in white, the player transverses various dark and unsettling landscapes, encountering various obstacles they need to get around — rocks to climb, traps to evade, puzzles to solve.
Some of the most dangerous obstacles are the creatures you encounter along the way — insects, diggers, and tall, lean, sharp clawed things. Most of these creatures are almost always impossible to outrun, so finding ways to sneak around or outsmart them is vital for your survival.
As a player, interaction with the world is limited. Your character can transverse from side to side, grab boxes or objects to slide along the ground, or pull various cranks or levers in order to set gears into motion. The puzzles are generally straightforward, making them easy enough to get around. Others present greater challenges, requiring trial and error (and many deaths) in order to figure out the correct timing or order of action to complete the task.
Achieving the correct timing of actions was the greatest bane of my existence with Stela, as I was playing on my phone (via the Apple Arcade service). However, the fault was not so much the game’s as it was the fact that trying to achieve precise control using a touchscreen is difficult. The mobile-version of the game does have a controller support, and I’m sure that syncing a controller would have made things easier.
In general, the design of the game is beautiful with layered backgrounds of scenery that create a sense of depth. The fire level in particular was gorgeous with its glowing embers and flames. The designers were also able to create a cool sense of three-dimensionality to the flat side-scrolling experience. Clever camera work allowed you to follow the character as she climbed a spiral staircase or turned a corner — giving the impression of breaking the 2D plane, even though the side-to-side movement had not changed.
My one complaint would be that the world didn’t feel entirely cohesive. When crossing from one level to the next, it was like transitioning to an entirely different world. Though the story builds to a strong climax, it didn’t feel as emotionally impactful as it would have if all the levels gave the impression of being more singularly connected.
Some of the level design and story elements also felt a bit derivative — echoing elements several other puzzle adventure games, such as Inside, Little Nightmares, and Journey. To be fair, the similarity of Stela to Inside, in terms of its dark tone and side scrolling play style, is one of the reasons I was drawn to this game in the first place. However, the way the emblems glowed in the background and the character’s adventures were retold through imagery on walls was so similar Journey that it pulled me out of the immersion.
None of this is to say that I didn’t enjoy the game. Stela offers well balanced challenges to its levels, with a combination of imagery, music, and sound design that allowed for an immersive experience. The monsters were genuinely frightening — at one point, the game startled me so much I fumble-tossed my phone across the room in panic. It’s also a comfortable length, with around two hours of gameplay. Stela is worth checking out.