Flight School Studio’s Stonefly is all about feeling out your environment. You play as Annika, a small human in a world of massive trees, and more importantly massive insects. Using a giant bug-shaped mech, you must navigate this strange, enormous world and track down the stolen mech your father has built as his life’s work, and survive all the giant creepy-crawlies in your path.
The premise is straightforward enough: explore the world, upgrade your mech, and find what you’re missing. The multi-legged insect robot you pilot is definitely the main attraction from a gameplay perspective. Customizing your rig’s color and crafting upgrades to how it moves, how far it jumps, and how it fights off enemy bugs are all engaging and exciting systems. Stonefly knows that the mech, and how it interacts with the world, are going to be the dominant thing you think about while playing the game, so these aspects have been developed and sculpted with clear skill and care.
When you’re not tinkering with your ride, you’ll be out in the world, crawling and gliding through the game’s multiple sprawling biomes. Walking on the ground is actually not the most efficient means of travel, as you move way faster when in the air. Your mech can jump up in the air and glide for an extended period of time pretty much anywhere, with no glide limit beyond the physics of gravity slowly bringing it down — and you can jump back up with the press of a button.
Stonefly wants you to keep moving and keep exploring, so getting a move on is never difficult. Varying terrain, secret unlockable cosmetics, and alternate routes abound in these carefully-made terrariums, and it was always fun to keep flying around, looking for what might be on the end of this branch or under that root. These biomes are genuinely full of details and charm, and you really get the sense that you’re a small thing in a big, complex ecosystem that was managing just fine without you.
You’ll want to stop every now and then to drink in the scenery though, because Stonefly is a gorgeous game. Every background, insect, and character is rendered with a claymation-like texture, making them look like clay models straight off of a collector’s shelf. Everything is also colored with vivid cel-shaded hues, from soft pastel greens to more earthy autumnal browns and oranges. Every biome is packed with beautiful detail like a lazily-flowing river, or coiling thorny vines on a forest floor. The landscapes are stunning, from top to bottom, and much of the fun of Stonefly comes from unwinding in these picturesque locales. The soundtrack by Natureboy Flaco, is also a treat, full of lo-fi beats to fight bugs to. The general atmosphere is really impressive and welcoming, a perfect vibe that invites you to just keep poking around for a few more minutes before bed.
The bugs themselves are also full of visual flair. Each enemy insect has a clear, bright color scheme and bold, pronounced features to make them stand out from the background. They also come in recognizable shapes, like round beetles with wings covering their weak points, or smaller horned creatures that fire projectiles. Learning the visual lingo of each critter gives you a huge leg-up in planning out how you move through these woods.
Those with any kind of fear or aversion to the insects of the real world should likely be fine here, as no bug is ever rendered close-up, and their features are always cartoonishly exaggerated. There’s an almost zoological whimsy in how varied and unique and distinct from one another each bug looks, behaves, and moves through the space.
However, there are some bugs in the system, and not the cute kind (this is the only time I’ll make that joke). As great as navigation is, things get less exciting when the other bugs start swarming you. The combat in Stonefly borrows from, of all things, Super Smash Bros. You don’t defeat enemy bugs by hitting them until their health goes to zero, but by damaging them enough to flip them onto their backs, stunning them. Then you shoot gusts of wind to knock them off the edge of branches or platforms. This means you have to lure enemies over to edges before flipping them, or flip them and then knock them around for a long distance, all while other bugs take quick bites of your distracted mech. This juggling act is engaging and demands creative thinking for a while, but can quickly snowball into tedious enemy dogpiles. Or rather, bugpiles.
The enemy bugs can also knock you around and toss you off of your perch, which does severe damage to your mech — so severe that upgrading your rig’s hull armor is functionally useless in the face of damage sustained from being knocked around. Eventually, upgrading anything feels like an illusion of change, because the noticeable benefits between upgrades diminishes every time. As it is, Stonefly’s combat just feels precarious in a way that doesn’t have the right balance.
The game’s version of a difficulty curve is also unfortunately as simple as more enemies dropping onto your head at a time, which plays as less of a fun challenge and more of a mounting hassle by the game’s final encounters. When the game introduces new enemy types and you have to reappraise your approach, it’s great. When you’re facing down the third wave of a few dozen enemies all at once, it’s less creatively stimulating. There’s an Assist Mode that lets you tweak certain combat factors like knock back damage and enemy stun time, which can make the experience easier, but they don’t account for how the game was designed and mapped out.
The difficulty ramp also ties into how the game gates progress behind having to farm for materials. Many narrative progressions are locked behind building a specific part or donating a specific amount of the games, six types of minerals, which you mine while exploring. This means a lot of backtracking through familiar areas to scrounge for materials, or tracking down blue flies, which give you access to ‘Alpha’ insects: truly giant beetles with stacks of minerals (and infinite hordes of enemies) hanging on their backs. You can fly around and try to scoop up as much as you can in a given time-limit, which is a novel change to the game’s pace and flow, but also gets repetitive after the fifth or sixth time you’ve had to hunt them down for more resources. Thankfully, the game’s story is fairly short and can be completed in a little over 8 hours, and the majority of that time is well-spent.
These mechanical shortcomings are a drag, but they don’t detract from just how thrilling and exciting the opening hours of Stonefly are. The game is overflowing with big ideas and sincere appreciation for the natural world that it’s super-sizing. Learning the ropes, exploring new areas, and creatively chaining together different abilities I’d built for my mech all felt like a deeply exciting style of play. Stonefly really captures both Annika’s childlike sense of wonder and curiosity, both in its world exploration and in how it encourages you to root around and tinker with your toys. While there are some speed bumps, they aren’t enough to dim the game’s charm. Annika is an admirable and likable protagonist, and her enthusiasm for this beautifully-rendered world is impossible not to catch.
A key was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.
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Stonefly is a game with big insects and a bigger heart. Despite some clunky aspects in its combat and some repetitive sections, the game’s visual style, relaxing exploration, and rewarding customization system make it a game worth crawling around in.
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