Distant Encounter Of A Third Kind

HIGH Great integration of 3D cinematography in a 2D game.

LOW A horrendous final section.

WTF The Dutch translation is horrible.

At a glance, Stela is a spectacular 2D puzzle-platformer with pretty aesthetics, slick design, tense sections encouraging quick reflexes and an apocalyptic perspective on society. Sound familiar? Much is clearly owed to Playdead’s LIMBO (2010) and INSIDE (2016), which make Stela feel unoriginal by comparison.

Stela’s story is entirely told through gameplay, offering no additional narration aside from cryptic drawings on spiritual pillars. As a young woman (I presume she’s called Stela) arises from an underground tomb, she meets the daylight of a world engulfed in chaos. While the environments she traverses represent the Earth’s various climates and physical conditions, the living beings she encounters feel alien, and they’re all violent towards her.

Stela can only move sideways and upwards while employing a jump and a grab button for carrying or moving objects. Enemies, on the other hand, appear in foregrounds and backgrounds. While the player can only move in 2D, Stela needs to take the 3D into account by hiding behind objects that block creatures from seeing her on either sides. She also needs to anticipate the time needed to escape from an enemy who might approach from the back or front.

The confrontations with hostile creatures in Stela‘s apocalyptic world are backed by some great visual spectacle. Whether I had to avoid a rain of arrows, outlast Gollum-like creatures on an elevator or keep bats at bay with a torch, the landscapes were impressive and it always felt fantastic to narrowly escape.

The enemies seeking to feast on Stela’s body showcase a reverse reality where things in the wild are no longer at a human’s disposal. Combine this observation with Stela’s multiple climate types and an apocalyptic setting, and parallels might be drawn to something resembling Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). That said, by so closely resembling LIMBO and INSIDE, Stela has big shoes to fill with regard to theming, environmental storytelling and highly polished gameplay. Unfortunately, it falls short.

Control-wise, it doesn’t feel tight. Jumping and grabbing seem off and inconsistent, and especially when combined. At one point I had to escape some rats by jumping at a garage door’s handle. The grab didn’t register, so I thought I needed another solution to the puzzle. After much frustration I tried again and the grab finally caught on. At other times, trying to jump at the last possible point of a slope led to plenty of do-overs during tight chase sections.

It’s in these sections that I’ve encountered two additional problems — poor checkpoint design and annoying music. Rather than restarting players at a puzzle they may have failed, Stela often makes them repeat the preceding platforming, which then leads to errors made out of tedium, resulting in even more delay. The music becomes noticeably annoying during re-dos.

Stela culminates in an anticlimactic ending with a terrible final section. While most of the game is about survival, atmosphere, spiritualism and decay, the last bits take place in a sci-fi area with the platforming at its most simplistic. The thematic message of the preceding parts felt completely ignored here as Stela started focusing on abstract, lifeless imagery.

Stela’s world decay, the desperation of its inhabitants and the environmental connotations that come along with them strikes a fine note and it’s supported by an engaging playstyle and attractive aesthetic — the problem is that several other games have walked the same path before it, and many of them do it better.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Disclosures: Stela was developed and published by Skybox Labs. It’s currently available for PC, XBO and iOS. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and played on PC. Approximately 2 1/2 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: Stela has a PEGI 12 rating for Moderate Violence and Horror. There are terrifying beasts and alien-like creatures feasting on the player, but no actual gore is visible. The game deals with the destruction of planets. 12 is an appropriate rating. The ESRB rates it as E10+.

Colorblind modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There’s no narration, nor any cueing sound effects. This title is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: There are no remappable controls and no control diagram image. Using a Gamepad: The left joystick is for movement sideways, as well as climbing. The X button is for grabbing or holding items to push or use. The A button is for jumping. Using Mouse and Keyboard: A and D move the character sideways, W is for climbing a background obstacle. F is for grabbing or holding items to push or use. Space for jumping.

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