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What game started the wonderful wave of indie games we've seemingly had since 2010? There are a few candidates, but one of the most likely is 2D platformer LIMBO. That game combined a beautiful art style and an oppressive atmosphere with solid platformer gameplay. Right away it's not hard to see Stela is taking inspiration from LIMBO, with a similar gameplay style and atmosphere. However, can it manage to stack up to the king of moody indie 2D platformers?
The game opens with a mysterious woman, who I assume is the titular Stela, being materialized into existence by an alien pillar. How was she created? Why? What is her purpose? These are questions she's seeking answers to, and you as a player likely will be as well. However, Stela lacks any actual story. You'll pass through dramatic scenes that barely seem connected to each other and glimpse at pieces of a world in its last days. There's little to interpret from all this.
Enter A Streetcar Named Desire quote here
Stela isn't that difficult to understand gameplay-wise. You can move right or left, jump, and drag things around. There are no other controls you discover later, no abilities added along the way. You'll use this small skill set in a variety of situations, helping Stela to survive plenty of encounters with monsters, environmental hazards, and bottomless pits. There's a nice weight to your character, especially the realistic feeling of weight in her jumps. I also appreciate her ability to automatically clamber up shorter ledges without needing to hit the jump button. It makes getting around the environment a tiny bit easier.
However, not even ten minutes into Stela, I ran into my first issue. Very early on, a swarm of hungry beetles descends on Stela. The game quickly establishes that Stela can push and pull objects with red tape. During the chase, you have to knock objects over to stop the swarm of beetles. At one point, I entered a door, saw a movable box, and noticed red-tape hanging from the top of the door. This implied that I had to quickly pull down the door. I followed the logic, only to watch Stela pass through the door and into the waiting swarm. This happened several times before I discovered that for this object, and only this object, you have to use jump to grab it rather than use the dedicated grab button.
This set the tone for several problems I had with Stela. Mechanics would change for one single section, often in a way that feels like it's trying to ensure player death. Stela establishes if you stop carrying something, you drop it. That goes out the window for one part where you carry a shield and stop to block arrows. You can't enter logs, except for one time when a monster spots you and you need to enter a log to hide. More than once, I felt that segments were straight-up unfair, making sure you die so the world feels "dark."
That's all a real shame. When everything flows together, Stela creates some impressive moments. Crossing a battlefield while an army rains flaming arrows on you? Sneaking through a forest infested by strange vaguely humanoid monsters? Jumping around a breaking elevator so you don't get hit by falling objects? This is all great stuff! However, by the end of Stela's three hour run time, I only found a handful of these segments.
Other smaller issues kept bringing me out of the moment. While Stela's monsters attempt to convey the same fear as monsters in LIMBO, they fail. Especially once they actually catch up to you. A great example is a giant spider that you spend a good portion of LIMBO running from. Should it catch you, it spears the protagonist through his head, keeping him attached to a limb and serving as a sinisterly gruesome death sequence. You didn't want the boy to get caught because his death was horrible. Compare this to the monsters in Stela. Should they catch her they sort of awkwardly swing at the air. A limb clips through her, and Stela ragdolls unconvincingly to the ground. It lacks the oomph that really makes the monsters feel like, well... monsters.
What really makes this hurt is that the audio/visual presentation is fantastic in every other way. The soundtrack is full of dramatic pieces often made in unusual ways. One scene involved Stela being hunted by a creature, and as it came close to her hiding spot the soundtrack was composed of a barrage of instruments playing randomly. It may not be good listening outside of the game, but it works wonders in making the scenes feel more dramatic.
Stela Review | Final Thoughts
Honestly, I really wanted to like Stela more than I actually did. There are a few scenes that are amazing, and manage to combine gameplay elements into a cohesive whole that matches some of the best 2D indie platformers. However, far too often Stela stumbles by introducing random mechanics and gotcha moments made to make sure you die several times, sapping the game of its fun. There's good stuff here, but it needed a bit more to help make it work as one cohesive whole.
TechRaptor reviewed Stela on PC using a copy provided by the developer. The game is also available on Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and iOS via Apple Arcade.
- Occasionally Fantastic Moments
- Amazing Audio and Visuals
- Full of Frustrating "Got'cha!" Moments
- Inconsistant Mechanics
- Occasionally Awkward Animations