Putting aside images and memories of this epic comedic moment, alongside its other slice of comedy gold and, of course, the source material, Stela from SkyBox Labs is a moving work of art. As a game, it covers the bare minimum in terms of gameplay, but what’s there is challenging and expertly crafted. Long has our industry butted heads with outsiders (and even inside naysayers) about “games as art”, but with games like The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, Limbo, Inside and the most recent side-scrolling gem, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, arguing against “games as art” is going to start making said peeps look kind of *ignorant*, for lack of a better way to put it.
What elevates Stela among so many incredible games of the modern design age is that it follows a “less is more” attitude around gameplay, but this is amplified by one of the best scores I’ve heard in a videogame before, and a cinematic approach to key moments, reveals, set-pieces and deeper environmental storytelling, that fills in the many blanks you’ll have as you press right on your controller, or D on your keyboard. The difficulty spikes are subtle, but exist, and each time our Episode IV Princess Leia look alike, presumably “Stela”, dies from a Shadow, a Beast, bugs, bats or falls to her death or is crushed by a piece of the environment.
"This is how I imagine Éric Chahi’s Another World would look and play if made today..."
Like so many side-scrolling platformers in the modern age, it’s hard not to marvel at how the devs built out this mysterious world. In many ways, this is how I imagine Éric Chahi’s Another World would look and play if made today, and not almost 30 years ago (it’ll be 30 years-old next year). Most environmental puzzles are necessary for progression, and there’s some similarity between mechanisms, such as pulling a lever to move an item to gain access to a higher place, but there are also secrets strewn about the place rewarded to players with a knack for trying get off the so-called “beaten track”. At the end of the game you’ll see how many you managed to find among all available, while your listed Achievements reveals a number of challenges players can partake in for bragging rights, such as finishing the game within 90 minutes, or finishing it without dying.
From a narrative perspective, like Inside, there’s not a lot explained here. You’re in an odd place, in an odd world. It has set-pieces that hint at war and mass exodus. There are ancient things and ancient structures. It’s not Kansas, that’s for sure, but it feels familiar. To give you a visual and tonal perspective, Stela wouldn’t be out of place as an in-game ‘trip’ in Remedy’s Control. And it’s as confidently built as that game, despite the two being so far apart from a genre and design perspective, but they kind of maintain similarities where mystery and curiosity are concerned. Call me weird for suggesting one relates to the other, but they *kind of* do.
"And that soundtrack I mentioned earlier crescendos in ways a lot of big budget movies wish they could. The mystery never lets up, it only amplifies and therefore drives you..."
How the game ends is spectacularly sombering, and I won’t spoil it for you, but the epic nature of the game’s build up to the final few moments feels beyond fitting, while also jarring. And that soundtrack I mentioned earlier crescendos in ways a lot of big budget movies wish they could. The mystery never lets up, it only amplifies and therefore drives you forward for more answers. Will you get them? Well, that’s for you to ascertain.
Writing reviews for games of this size is always a tough task because, ultimately, once you start pushing right of screen, that’s kind of the gameplay point. What I can end on is that you won’t be disappointed in any way shape or form with this as a complete product. Production values throughout the short journey are spectacular and you get a sense when it’s all done that this is either the beginning of something longrunning and with expansive potential, or a complete one-off experience for the ages. Again, you’ll be the judge of that when the credits roll, but such is the virtue of what SkyLabs has created and completed here.
And, equally, as mentioned earlier, there’s replay value here. If not to get that elusive Achievement then to try and make sense of the world you’ve just run through. It’s both dark and light, hopeful and savage, and all at once. Games of this nature aren’t the norm, but they’re certainly games you should be seeking out for their rarity in execution. I wouldn’t be surprised if offers for second and first-party acquisition of this fledgling studio aren’t already coming in thick and fast.
What we liked
A soundtrack for the ages
High production values in a less is more approach to game design
A fantastic mystery wrapped in a bare bones narrative that also embraces the above