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access_time June 29, 2021 at 8:00 AM in Reviews by Josh Boykin

Review | Stonefly

There’s a style to a Flight School Studio game that I love: unique visuals, an action focus, and a more subtle, reflective narrative. Creature in the Well struck a chord with its pinball-style action mechanics, and dark, foreboding environments. This time, Flight School takes a brighter approach with Stonefly: a game where you pilot bug-like mechs in hulking natural environments. Playing as Annika Stonefly, a young girl on a mission to find her father’s stolen rig, she embarks on a quest of self-discovery and meets new companions on the way. Stonefly creates a space that feels unique in its chill presentation, blending a mellow soundtrack with striking visuals of forests, rivers and more. Though it takes some missteps in pacing and storytelling, there are some genuinely great moments in the game worth experiencing.

Ann’s quest starts with a tragedy (as most do). After taking her dad’s rig out for the night to harvest materials, she wakes up in the morning to find it’s been stolen. After getting chewed out, she secretly leaves to try and track down the thief, hoping to repair the relationship. Along the way, she meets a group of bounty hunter/mercenaries (called “corps”) that she teams up with. Throughout their journey, they each help the other along the way. The trail to find her dad’s rig is long, and she’ll find that it’s not actually just the rig she’s looking for.

Over the course of the game you’ll pilot Ann’s rig, a beat-up, abandoned mech that you’ll upgrade over time. Each stage has you adventuring around a semi-open world, exploring and mining minerals you can use to improve your rig’s stats or gain new abilities. The world of Stonefly is a bit like the movies A Bug’s Life or Antz, or even the game Grounded. You’re exploring a massive space where blades of grass tower far above you, and trees feel as huge as skyscrapers. There are plenty of foes in your way as well. Bugs ranging from small, chompy worms to huge beetles that’ll knock you away from combat. Interestingly, there’s no direct destruction in this game. You don’t destroy enemy bugs, but instead stun them and blow them off the playing field. 

Combat in Stonefly can be frustrating, but feels like it channels some of the game’s more meditative philosophy. You jump above enemies and drop stun seeds on them. Once they’ve been hit enough times, you can blow a gust of wind to knock them from the stage. It’s simple at first, but there are layers of complexity. Irregular stages shaped like leaves or rocks (sometimes with holes), enemies that attack you in the air as well as on the ground, etc. Enemies will smack your rig and deal damage to your parts to make life more difficult for you. Thankfully, you can repair your rig mid-combat (so long as you survive long enough). 

Lucky for us, there are all sorts of upgrades you can unlock to help in battles. Shiny balls that distract beetles, vortex seeds that group enemies together, and so on. Even with new tools, combat in later stages is challenging, requiring a mix of strategy, frantic reactions, and sometimes luck to survive. This compounds when dealing with some status effects, especially acid; your rig can go from full health to destroyed in seconds, and sometimes unpredictably. That might be the most frustrating part of the game. Occasionally you’ll get a group of enemies on you at once, or get hit with acid, making it so you’ll drop from full health to dead almost instantly. Combined with a long respawn sequence, it can feel pretty painful getting stuck.

What Stonefly does wonderfully though, is provide moments of incredibly peaceful exploration. The action feels nearly cinematic at times. Your bug-mech walking along a tree root. Jumping in the air and gliding towards a pile of colorful leaves. It creates a sense of tranquility. Much like Creature in the Well’s journeying from room to room felt engaging, Stonefly’s traversal is gorgeous and carefree. Many times, enemies won’t even come out unless you choose to smash a rock, revealing resources and summoning baddies. This means you can often explore at your own pace, sometimes stopping to just appreciate the view. (Though a note: there’s no photo mode or option remove the HUD, and I REALLY WISH THERE WAS ONE.)

When it comes to plot, Stonefly can be a bit hit-or-miss. Ann’s story of finding herself can be cute, especially as she gets to know the Acorn Corps she travels alongside. Though you won’t get to know TONS about the backstory of any character, watching the gruff misfits of Acorn warm up to Ann can be pretty nice. Still, the pacing is pretty unpredictable. One moment you’re tracking down your dad’s rig, the next second a stranger is telling you to find your own path, and then that theme just vanishes for a while. Some of these moments are punctuated by resting at camp, where you see Ann’s internal monologue. Most times though, that monologue won’t have much to do with the main plot (especially if you’re dying a lot, because you have to sit through that monologue each time you die).

Oddly, most all text in the game is auto-advance. This might be to get it to align to character movements better. Unfortunately, this also means potentially missing dialog if you’re a slower reader or you look away. Also, there aren’t sound effects to go along with dialog: no voice substitutes, not even blips between dialog bubbles. This makes some narrative-heavy scenes feel strangely empty, leading to moments where you’re just sitting, waiting for the text to carry on. 

Pacing in general can be an issue for Stonefly, particularly when they put in “bring me this many minerals”-style blockades. Thankfully, you can hunt down Alphas, timed events featuring huge bugs with minerals on their backs, to speed things along. Still, tracking down the Alphas via their randomly-placed trails in a mission can take either seconds or many minutes based on sheer luck coming out of the spawn point. Some upgrade gates are helpful, forcing you to unlock a tool that’s useful for an upcoming enemy type, for instance. But otherwise, these gates feel like they’re artificially extending the game, with little rhyme or reason. It’s an unfortunate decision that pops up in an otherwise smooth title.

Overall, Stonefly is an interesting experiment for Flight School Studio. There are some moments to genuinely love in its presentation and action. Unfortunately, the plot pacing and inconsistent combat can create some real frustration. It doesn’t seem sequels are Flight School’s style, but I definitely look forward to the ways they take the lessons from Stonefly and apply it to their next project, whatever it may be.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

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