If Stela is wholly successful at anything, it's as a tribute to Inside. It follows Playdead's immersive platform-puzzler template to a quite remarkable degree, while its shortcomings only enhance the reputation of the 2018 eShop release. Are you someone who thought Inside was merely a generic 2D platformer with pretty window dressing rather than a downright masterpiece? Playing Stela will set you right.
That's not to say that this is a bad game. Stela is competently put together, with a considerable amount of artistic merit when it comes to visuals and music. But numerous little mechanical flaws and the odd shortfall in imagination serve to prevent you from fully immersing yourself in the plight of the protagonist.
That protagonist is a young human woman who awakens in a strange, alien world. This is a deeply hostile environment where dank forests, snowy villages and crumbling temples are filled with monstrous beasts and murderous Gollum-meets-Slender Man antagonists. The only glimmer of hope comes from a mysterious cult that appears to be monitoring and possibly even guiding your progress.
Just like Inside, the controls come down to a control stick for movement and two buttons, one for jumping the other for using items. You character's wallowy, clumsy movement is one of the game's persistent flaws. We get that you're not supposed to be some hyper-capable ninja here, but we lost count of the number of times we misjudged a jump or ran clean off the edge of a ravine because of the game's imprecise controls.
The ‘use’ button has multiple functions, but will mostly be employed in shifting boxes and pulling switches. Alas, Stella's puzzles are another stumbling point. They're a real mixed bag in terms of quality, with a couple of imaginative level-long riffs interspersed with plenty of rote switch-flipping, a few maddeningly vague or poorly signposted conundrums, and some insta-death trial-and-error sections that will begin to try your patience.
Again, you could point out that Inside contains a similarly scripted blend of light physics puzzling and weighty platforming, and you'd be right. But Playdead showed more imagination, repeatedly nailed the execution, and integrated its puzzles more tightly into the story it was trying to tell. A story, we should add, that was much richer and more emotionally involving than the one offered up here.
Stela is a platform-puzzler that's quite clearly been made in Inside's (and indeed Limbo’s) image. It's a serviceable approximation of Playdead's work, with a beautifully strange world and even a couple of neat ideas of its own. But it fails to immerse you in its world in quite the same way courtesy of some unfortunate flat spots.