Stela scares me.
Then it makes me solve a puzzle. Then it scares me while I try to solve a puzzle. Even when I do everything right, I know my next death is lurking around the corner.
Stela follows an unnamed protagonist, a tall woman clothed in white, as she explores a world in ruins. Her motivations and goals are unclear. All I know is that she woke from her slumber at the beginning of the game, and leaves a cave to face a crumbling world. The game is a 2D side-scrolling adventure, much like Limbo, and was created by SkyBox Labs, co-developers of Halo Infinite.
All the storytelling in Stela comes in the form of context clues given to me by the scenery and larger world. There is not a single dialogue box or spoken word in the entire game. Curiosity — not an explicitly articulated quest — drives me to explore as I seek to learn and see more of this world.
Each of the game’s zones has its own color palette and striking aesthetic. There’s a beige forest filled with tall and dangling Slenderman-style monsters chasing me, as well as a booby-trapped temple painted in deep blues. The camera sometimes pans across a scene to create a beautiful composition between our hero and the background scenery. It’s stunning to look at.
Stela’s puzzles take on multiple forms. Sometimes I need to figure out a way to avert the gaze of a monster, other times I might need to find a way to survive hazards like a rolling stone covered in spikes. Each solution usually requires a combination of platforming, timing my movement, and pushing and pulling objects in the world to get something done.
Early on in Stela, I escape from a swarm of rustling beetles in a dilapidated building by breathlessly pushing a box to plug a hole in a wall, blocking their path. It does the trick. I have to tie together speed, planning, and execution to survive most of these situations, and each one leaves me a nervous wreck. Stela is one of those games that keeps me either yelping in fright or breaking out into nervous laughter.
And even the game’s animations help sell its personality. So many games with platforming elements or jumping puzzles feature characters that are always on their feet, but the hero in Stela frequently stumbles and falls. She pants after running for more than a few seconds, and often looks tired. The fact that she looks and sounds like someone who is also just barely hanging on is one of my favorite parts of the game, especially as none of this ever caused me to die or fail a jump in which timing was crucial. Our hero is human, but capable.
The trouble is that for all the power of its visuals, animation, and sometimes clever level design, Stela is never able to build toward anything with meaning. There’s a moment when the protagonist has to jump from a ledge to evade a monster, but stumbles and doesn’t get back up. A cloaked figure approaches her, and brings her to a temple. What happens, and why, is never really explained, and the imagery isn’t enough to carry the game on its own. You can emphasize style over substance in a game like this, but the style better be damn good, and Stela never quite gets there. I wasn’t intrigued as much as I was annoyed.
My questions about the world and this character were never answered, and I didn’t feel like I learned much of anything during the journey. As Stela ended, I found myself asking another question: What was the point of it all?
Stela is available now on Apple Arcade, and will be released Oct. 17 on Xbox One and in 2020 on PC. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” Xbox One download code provided by SkyBox Labs. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.