This month our prog spotlight falls on Stela, a side-scrolling platformer released in March 2020 by SkyBox Labs.
Stela is a stunningly artistic game that combines the exploration of cinematic landscapes, scenes and situations with ever-present dangers and fiendish puzzles at every turn. Way back in 2010, a highly regarded indie game called Limbo (eventually followed up by the even more richly-developed Inside) coined the term ‘trial and death’ to describe its gameplay. Stela follows in a similar vein, with most puzzles requiring a certain skill in timing, trial and error and learning from repeated failures to solve.
More cynical reviewers have accused Stela of being a straight clone of Inside and Limbo. An understandable opinion: however, I personally believe on this occasion that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Stela easily stands on its own merits. Besides, it could be argued that this style of game hearkens even further back to the heady days of the PlayStation One, in particular the wonderfully imaginative Abe’s Odyssey, whose titular character was forced to navigate past gunslinging enemies and puzzles with nothing but speed and ingenuity. For all its fame, Limbo also owed much to its predecessors.
Stela begins in familiar style with an ever-silent protagonist awaking in a cave, with no indication of where they are or what to do. The female character appears dainty and lithe, touched with fatigue as their delicate dress flutters in the breeze. Fortunately, we will soon discover that they are more than capable of holding their own in the hostile world beyond.
Each of the game’s areas has its own distinctive style and colour palette, while the musical score that underpins your journey is perfectly immersive throughout. Before long, it becomes clear that you are witnessing the final days of a mysterious, ancient world, as per the game’s description. In true ‘prog’ style, you must piece together the story from vague narrative and visual clues, rather than relying on any narration or text.
One of the aspects I enjoyed most was the balance between exploring dramatic, atmospheric vistas, and stumbling into sudden danger. I will not spoil the game for those wishing to play it, but be warned that you are far from alone in this crumbling landscape. None of the puzzles are overly frustrating and I was able to complete the game in just under 3.5 hours.
Personally, I enjoyed this length. The days of sinking over 30 hours into a game as a teenager are sadly diminished, as time and energy is increasingly consumed by adult life. At this point in life, I find myself enjoying the luxury of experiencing a game from start to finish in one or two sittings. However, at the full asking price of £15.49, you might expect more. Perhaps £7.00 would have been a fairer price.
Nevertheless, I would rate Stela as a deeply enjoyable experience which ticks many boxes of the quintessential ‘prog’ gaming experience. If you are looking to immerse yourself in a mysterious world of splendid visual design one of these rainy afternoons, you need look no further…