They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery, so the folks over at Playdead should take it as a compliment that SkyBox Labs stuck so close to the script when making its recently released cinematic side-scroller, Stela. Games like Inside and Limbo have obviously left a lasting impression on the indie studio, as this new game borrows many of the same mechanics and themes that made Playdead's games inspirational reference points for a whole generation of designers.
The secret sauce in Stela (and the games that inspired it) is instant accessibility. Much of the challenge that we normally associate with platform games is stripped out and replaced by strong narrative elements and light puzzles that test the player just enough to elicit that feeling of satisfaction, that firing of endorphins that accompanies the completion of a thought-provoking challenge. In this respect, Stela is a success, as it effortlessly pulls you through a series of levels that depict some sort of doomsday scenario unfolding, and there are plenty of satisfying moments where everything clicks into place at just the right time.
Visually, the game is strong, with a series of atmospheric levels, each one distinct from the last and holding some new terror for the player to face. Stela doesn't ask you to fix things and save the day, however, and for the most part, you're simply running for dear life, avoiding deadly creatures while hell unfolds all around you. It's dark and moody and bleak, and straight away we were absorbed into this strange, dank world thanks to the effective use of colour and shadow that defined our early explorations.
The music only amplifies the drama, and we really liked the soundtrack. We played on an iPad, with the music running through the tablet's tinny speakers, the audio experience left much to be desired, but once we'd put on pair of capable headphones, the atmosphere was pushed to the fore, with crunching audio effects intermingled with dramatic riffs that couldn't help but make an impact thanks to their grandeur and intensity.
Just as interesting is the way that SkyBox has used perspective. The line the player follows as they move left to right can twist into the foreground and background in pleasing ways. Sometimes creatures off in the distance will move from the back of the screen and into the foreground, and several of the platforming sections utilise the 2.5D design in clever ways, letting you climb and drag scenery that at first might not seem obvious.
All that sounds well and good, and when you break it down into its component parts, there's a lot to like about Stela. Indeed, any one section of the game viewed in isolation might suggest the whole to be the heir apparent to Playdead's (temporarily vacant?) crown, however, while there is much to admire about this cinematic side-scroller, there's something stopping us from falling in love, and that's probably something to do with the game's lack of coherence.
Simply put, Stela is such a muddle when it comes to story and setting that the disparate nature of the events depicted therein creates an accidental narrative dissonance that undermines the thick and oppressive atmosphere established by the game's audio-visual design. We're keeping it vague because we don't want to spoil the story, but even after much reflection it just doesn't make any sort of reasonable sense, and the locations, enemies, and logic of the world are so at odds with one another that we found it impossible to find any sort of satisfying conclusion.
Who is Stela? In terms of the definition of the word, it means some sort of decorative stone or memorial, but what has that got to do with a woman in pristine white clothes exploring a dangerous, dirty and oppressive world? We don't meet any meaningful characters en route to the game's non-sensical ending, and those times we do meet people, it's ambiguous and their silent motivations are left unexplored. Are we on Earth or some strange planet? If we're on another world, what has happened and why does it feel like some sort of medieval fantasy? What are all these strange creatures and why are they so intent on killing us? And why has this bleak end-times scenario been arranged in a way that feels utterly artificial and subservient to lacklustre puzzle design?
As you can see, we ended our two-or-so hours with Stela with more questions than answers, but it's certainly strange for a game that is reliant on its narrative to be so incoherent and ambiguous in terms of what it has to say. It's a real shame because there are a lot of positive elements, yet somehow they don't gel and in the end, Stela feels less than the sum of its parts. In the best cinematic side-scrollers, things come together with a satisfying moment of realisation, that split-second where everything makes sense and context adds dimension and purpose to your journey. At the end of our time with Stela, all we were left with was the frustration that this promising title ended up being an impressive-looking yet ultimately soulless clone. It could have been so much more.