They say don’t judge a book by its cover. However, when I first saw Skybox Labs’ Stela trailer for the Nintendo Switch, I knew I was in for a treat. Stela is one of those games that isn’t about high scores, speed runs, or trophies. It is simply a narrative experience you play through. And as a huge fan of narrative storytelling, I absolutely had to check Stela out for myself.
A Visual Experience
Stela‘s strength lies within its visuals. That was the first thing I noticed while playing. I was blown away by how each environment captures the beauty and terror of the world. You will find yourself in harrowing fire-filled battlefields, terrifying forests, abandoned snowy villages, and more. Likewise, the environments themselves are a character in Stela. Throughout the game, it is only you and the world around you. A beautiful world on the brink of ruin.
Additionally, the game’s music wonderfully pairs with its visuals. In one moment, a sweet soft melody accompanies a fleeting feeling of peace. But in an instant, the music is cut, as a terrifying creature’s shadow dashes across the background. And what terrifying creatures they are! While this title has rather simplistic gameplay, it is the visuals, audio, and environments that ultimately make Stela as transportive as it is stunning.
If you’ve played titles like Inside, Stela‘s gameplay will appear very familiar to you. It is a side-scrolling puzzle adventure, and those puzzles are no joke. Most of the time, you only have a few moments to figure out a solution, or else you’re dead. Even if you’re familiar with puzzle games like I am, you will die A LOT in Stela. However, thanks to the great quick-save feature, you will automatically be loaded back in at the moment before you started the puzzle. And you don’t lose points or currency, so there is no punishment for death. You’re simply encouraged to try and try again.
I’ll admit, there were a few moments where I had such a difficult time with a specific puzzle that I simply turned off my Switch. Ultimately, the beauty and mystery behind Stela kept pulling me back in. I worked until I finally solved the puzzle, and was once again moving forward on my journey. Moreover, this game is also a fairly quick play. I made my way through most of the game after playing for around 2 hours. For how simple the gameplay style is, that gameplay timing feels right for me.
As I have stated previously, I am a huge fan of storytelling in video games. Arguably, the narrative of a game is one of my biggest focuses when evaluating a title. With a game like Stela, I was really hoping that the narrative or story would grab me. There were definitely moments that had me shocked, surprised, and curious. Likewise, towards the end of the game, I was able to put what narrative pieces I was given together. But ultimately, I wanted more. Just a little bit more. A bit more about this world on the brink of destruction. Are the creatures of the forest warped humans, cursed to become monsters? Was it magic, or man, that caused this ruin?
I also want to know a bit more about my character. Who, or what is Stela? What is driving her to run in the first place (besides monsters, disaster, and death)? Does she feel propelled to find her destiny? Or does she even recognize what it is? While I do appreciate the vague narrative surrounding the game, there was so much creativity put into this title, that I simply craved more!
Overall, I truly enjoyed playing Stela. It was a refreshing break from the first-person shooters and simulators that I’ve been playing recently. Stela is definitely a palette cleansing title; it is the ginger of gaming. It is refreshing, and though a bit bitter at times, ultimately rejuvenates your gaming experience. That being said, this game does have themes of isolation, and the end of the world. These themes definitely hit me harder than I thought it would, probably because I’ve been alone during the COVID-19 lockdown. Ultimately, if you are looking for an artistic game that is haunting, challenging, and beautiful, then I highly recommend picking up Stela today.