Considering Stonefly describes itself as a “chill and tranquil” game, it sure did make me curse a lot.
The latest game from Flight School Studio, the team behind The Creature in the Well, Stonefly asks you to take to the skies in a bug-shaped mech. You’ll hop, glide and soar through various areas, engaging in enemy encounters and collecting materials in order to upgrade your craft – or ‘rig’ as it’s known in the game.
On paper, it does indeed sound rather chill and tranquil. And, during its best moments, it is. When you feel in control of your rig, traversing environments can be fun. There’s a huge sense of reward when it comes to unlocking new upgrades; farming enough materials to enhance your jump ability, gain a new skill or improve your survivability feels great. It’s just a shame that in between those pleasant moments comes a whole bucketload of frustration.
In Stonefly, you play as Ann. After taking her dad’s beloved rig out on a run one night, she forgets to lock the shed it’s stored in and wakes up the next morning to find it’s gone. Her dad, understandably, is furious. And so she sets out on a journey to find it.
That journey sees Ann find her own shell of a rig which she slowly starts to upgrade into a rather enviable contraption. She also stumbles across a group of explorers who take her under her wing, helping her get the parts she needs to continue upgrading her rig.
There’s a pleasant story that runs through the backbone of Stonefly. But with no voice acting – and often no real indication that a conversation is happening – text boxes can get lost on the screen, especially when conversations are occurring as you’re out and about. More attention needs to be given to Ann’s story, as it’s the driving force of everything she does – and the player does – for the duration of the game.
Your time with Stonefly is spent equally between traversing the world, and engaging in combat encounters. As I’ve mentioned, when it’s at its best, moving around the game’s unique environments feels good. You’ll glide from flower to flower, branch to branch, jumping and boosting to gain momentum. Occasionally you’ll use a gust of wind to propel you in one direction, and it’s exhilarating. Sadly, those moments are few and far between; the camera often works against you, making it difficult to ascertain where you need to go. And if you need to glide over a large gap, it’s all too easy to miss the platform you need to land on, falling to your death below. You’ll simply be reset on the last platform you stood on, but it breaks your immersion, especially when it happens time and time again.
By far the worst offender in Stonefly, though, is its combat. You see, most of the materials you need to collect to upgrade your rig are also wanted by the various bugs that live in Stonefly‘s world. So if you see materials waiting to be collected, it’s usually a sign that predators lurk nearby. If you want to collect the goods, you’ll need to engage in combat – and ideally quickly, before the bugs make off with those precious materials.
Some combat encounters can be avoided, but others are mandatory, and it’s at these points that you’re likely to feel the full weight of Stonefly‘s frustrations. Its core combat mechanics revolve around a downwards-firing attack that stuns enemies, and a gust of air which can push them off platforms. In theory, it works fine; fire at an enemy to stun them, then while they’re stunned use a gust of wind to push them off the platform. But when you’ve got more than a dozen bugs on screen, all of which require various levels of attack before they can be stunned, it becomes far too chaotic.
Some bugs can be stunned straight away. Others require several hits. Larger beetle-like bugs can’t be stunned until they open up to attack themselves. Later into the game you’ll also encounter flying insects; some that can fly alongside you and blow you off of a platform, and some that can attach themselves to your rig, continually causing damage until you shake them off. One on one, none of those foes provide much of a problem. But throw them all in together – and the game will, regularly – and you’ll have one heck of a frustrating time on your hands.
Add into the mix somewhat clunky controls, and it gets even worse. As you progress, you’ll unlock a variety of new skills; you can plant a decoy to distract some types of bugs, or create an upwards gust of air. The most useful is a protective bubble that can surround you for a short period of time – handy for collecting materials without being interrupted by an attack. But with so many different manoeuvres at your fingertips, it’s easy to fumble over the buttons.
It’s also tricky to skilfully aim your gust attack, key to defeating enemies. It’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to stun all enemies at once, dealing with just a handful at a time. But other enemies will continue to bombard you, interrupting your gust attack. All too often, the stunned enemies will regain consciousness before you’ve had chance to dispel them, and you’re back to square one. Sure, you’ll undoubtedly get there in the end – there’s nothing particularly difficult about Stonefly‘s combat – but it’s just not fun in the slightest.
Stonefly‘s saving grace is in its accessibility menu; you can turn on invincibility or make combat encounters easier by adjusting how long enemies are stunned for, amongst other changes. But you shouldn’t have to essentially enable God Mode to make a game palatable.
It’s a shame that Stonefly‘s combat is so frustrating, because there are glimmers of a good experience here. It’s a novel concept, and collecting materials to upgrade your rig is a satisfying gameplay loop. But whether you can grit your teeth through a myriad of problems to gleam just a slither of enjoyment is highly debatable.
Stonefly Review: GameSpew’s Score