Stela is an atmospheric platformer by SkyBox Labs, out now for Apple Arcade and Xbox One. A PC version is coming next year, so we went with the Xbox version for this review.
I’ll readily admit that Apple Arcade has passed me by so far. I’m not one for mobile gaming in general, and don’t even own any Apple devices. I do casually follow what’s coming out for Apple Arcade though, a bit like how I read about what’s coming out for Google Stadia as well. Most titles I can easily ignore, but Stela looked interesting for a number of reasons and it’s one I was glad was coming to consoles as well.
Not only does it look quite a bit like Limbo in its visual style and puzzle platforming gameplay, it’s also been developed by SkyBox Labs, who are co-developing Halo Infinite as well. With that combination it was a prospect that was hard to resist, even though the end result is more akin to a game like Toby: The Secret Mine than Limbo – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Stela takes place in a dying world, which you move through as a young woman. Landscapes are extremely varied, from snow to volcanoes and from being outdoors in the woods to being inside wooden buildings or dungeons for part of the game. Everything’s brought to life with a familiar visual style that uses shadows effectively and zooms the perspective in and out for dramatic effect. The end result is lovely to look at, although it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’ve seen this before. The art style’s very much Limbo-inspired, with the camera work being a reminder of how well Playdead’s second game (Inside) conveyed mood through perspective changes.
The entire experience is only about two hours long, which means you’re never lingering inside a certain part of the game world for too long. There are also plenty of checkpoints along the way, and with puzzles that generally aren’t too tricky to solve there’s always a good sense that you’re moving forward, enhancing the cinematic experience that SkyBox is going for.
Stela doesn’t leave the kind of lasting impression that Playdead’s game did though, and it’s mostly because the game doesn’t feel quite as unique. The story that you embark on also lacks the emotional impact and punch of Playdead’s games, instead offering sequences of puzzle platforming that are loosely connected but mostly remind you of other games.
That’s not a bad thing if you enjoy the games that inspired Stela though, since a game like Toby: The Secret Mine did very much the same thing a few years ago. Stela might feel a bit derivative, but since we don’t get a lot of these cinematic puzzle platformers I was more than happy to play through it – and happy it didn’t stay exclusive to the Apple Arcade.