[Review] Stela — Nintendo Switch

Written by Kevin Scully
  • Developer: Skybox Labs
  • Publisher: Skybox Labs
  • Release Date: 13/03/2020
  • Price: £15.99 / $19.99
  • Review code provided by Skybox Labs

Introducing: Stela Switch Review

At the launch of Apple Arcade, Stela stood out to me as a game I just had to try. The clean, modern take on puzzle-platforming paired with muted, atmospheric visuals was an irresistible proposition. Within five minutes of playing, I was frustrated at the touch controls on iOS. An early puzzle which involved escaping from a horde of bugs proved too much for me. I really wanted to experience more, but had to call it quits. Thankfully, barely a few months later, here we are on Switch, with a real control stick, actual buttons, and a (slightly) bigger screen! I can finally escape those bugs and see what the rest of Stela has to offer. 

In the Valley of Monuments 

Stela is an atmospheric, narrative-driven puzzle-platformer, with a real emphasis on generating a powerful sense of dread. The visual style and use of music were key in helping this game stand out to me and remain the highlights now having finished it. 

Comparisons to recent, mature 2D platformers is inevitable. Stela definitely shares a sense of gloom with Inside and Limbo from Playdead, but offers a different puzzle solving experience. Playdead’s games eventually have you proclaiming yourself to be a genius as you finally unravel a task; Stela’s puzzles are often more trial-and-error in nature; requiring you to get the timing of a sequence of jumps down, or discovering how long between volleys of arrows you have to duck back behind cover. 

The Switch release of Stela coincides with the release of additional content on original platforms. This content places emphasis on the story elements and includes a bonus gallery, the contents of which are unlocked by finding secrets throughout the game. 

The gallery houses fifteen small dioramas, recognisable moments from the game with an accompanying line to shed more light on the narrative. In a way, it’s a shame these little treasures are hidden behind the need for finding secrets within the game. As the credits rolled on my playthrough, I would have liked to be able to dip into these to reach more of an understanding instead of having to revisit levels to be able to do so. 

Reassuringly Expansive

The design of Stela is a modern, crisp aesthetic that conveys a lot of atmosphere with minimal effort. As well as recent equivalents, I was reminded of classics such as Another World and Prince of Persia, the smooth animations for running, climbing and jumping in particular. Travelling through the game will take you from cursed farmlands through icy wastelands and electronic voids. The scale of the environments dominates the screen, with the player character often being reduced to mere millimetres high in handheld mode. 

The audio cues and overall soundtrack are excellent, used to enforce the terror felt as you are chased or racing to escape a crumbling ruin. Moments of peace and wonder are also highlighted effectively. 

I played several sections in both handheld and docked mode. While I’d recommend the docked mode to really give the scale of the visuals room to be effective, playing in handheld did give a more personal, intimate feel, exposing a bit more of the fragility of your character. 

Glass Half Full

The full length of a playthrough is around three hours, but it can last more if you search for the secrets for unlocking the gallery pieces. There are segments of the game I wish we were given more of. The tense stealth sections in particular worked really well. Equally, there were sections that didn’t sit as well. One sequence has the character working to escape the basement of a crumbling temple, and the trial and error nature of the jumps required removed the thrill of what would otherwise have been a breathless act. 

Pros

  • Moody, atmospheric visuals
  • Stunning sound design
  • Enigmatic narrative

Cons

  • Over too quickly
  • Frustrating trial-and-error sequences
  • Some of the best lore hidden behind away

Verdict
A polished experienced that is over a little too quickly, Stela does leaves a lasting impression, with a number of effective set pieces and an enigmatic narrative that can be fed further with the gallery mode unlockables.
4/5

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