We’d have bet our house on Stonefly being a 2021 highlight. It’s the sophomore game from developer Flight School, who brought us the superb Creature in the Well, a dungeon-crawler/pinball hybrid that lit up Game Pass.
In every trailer and screenshot, Stonefly oozes class: it carries over some of Creature in the Well’s aesthetic, with blocks of colour criss-crossed with scratches. Then there’s the Honey-I-Shrunk-My-Mech theme, with spidery exoskeletons battling with garden bugs. And finally, there’s the elevator pitch: a Diablo-a-like but designed to be laid back. Everything about Stonefly points to an indie darling. It’s beautiful, clever, has good pedigree and isn’t like anything you’ve ever played. Prep your accolades.
Except there’s a rather large BUT. Stonefly isn’t particularly good, and that revelation is as surprising as it is disappointing.
It starts off well, yet still with a seed of something being wrong. As we surmised from the trailers, it looks astonishing. Everything is stippled and scuffed to give it a natural texture, and you feel like you’re in a kid’s nature collage. While recent games might have covered similar ‘lost in your garden’ territory, like It Takes Two and Grounded, neither game feels anything like Stonefly. This is a world that has history, culture, mythology, and you sense that everyone in its world is barely surviving.
It’s coherent and works well. Romping around in mechs and taking on insects makes perfect sense, probably because we’ve played too much Earth Defense Force, but also because the two forces look so much like each other: exoskeleton against exoskeleton, with one of them happening to have you in it.
But there’s something wrong in the execution. Part of that is the human characters. You start the game as Annika Stonefly, a teenage girl who helps her mechanic father fix old junkers. You have cartoonish eyes while your father doesn’t have any, and you’ve got lumbering, ape-like hands that are out of proportion with the rest of the body. It shouldn’t be a thing, but these models look at odds with the rest of the game, like Morph has wandered into a nature documentary, and – frankly – they’re not up to the standard of everything else here.
Then Stonefly heads off onto its plot, a rite-of-passage where you run away from home to retrieve a transport vehicle that was stolen on your watch. You’re ashamed, and you want to get it back for your father. But it’s all done so swiftly and clumsily. You’re barely given time to say a few words to your dad and you’re off, yet Stonefly definitely wants you to feel something as you reach its various narrative turns. These never feel earned, and there’s a misplaced emotional core at its heart.
None of this matters of course if the core gameplay is good, and Stonefly effectively breaks down into two separate cores. You have its bouncy exploration, as you leap around an open world with only the smallest of prompts of where to go next. Then you have the combat, where arenas are drawn around the environment and you are locked into battle with waves of bugs.
The bouncy exploration feels original. We’re used to walking or driving around open worlds, but there is a jump-and-float traversal here that we’ve not really experienced before. You will jump into the air and hope you’ve got enough backlift to reach far-flung branches and leaves, where you might scuttle along and do the same to reach the next canopy. Again, it leans on the bug themes, as you play something not dissimilar to a stag beetle or grasshopper.
Once the originality washes away, you’re left with something that can be frequently frustrating. Stonefly has no idea how to differentiate background platforms from important ones. We lost count of the times that we jumped and floated to a branch, only for Stonefly to say ‘nope, that was just dressing’ and let us plunge to our deaths. When you’re given only the slightest prompt of where to go next, this pattern of jumping and dying gets old quick. It doesn’t help that it’s prone to bugs of the technical kind, as you find yourself stuck or falling through the game map.
Developers Flight School are determined to make Stonefly as immersive and player-driven as possible. You can tap a button to send a guiding wisp in front of you, showing you the way, but we found it to be occasionally mistaken, hard to see, and it does a pirouetting flourish before going the right way, which gets annoying. That’s if Stonefly allows you to use it at all, as it often strips it out and asks you to find things yourself. That can be a problem when the things you need to find in the area – tracks for larger alpha beetles, for example – are near-impossible to distinguish from the environment. Enjoy rooting for brown stuff in more brown stuff.
Credit to Flight School, though: when you’re not face-planting into the forest floor, the hands-off approach to exploration feels good. Finding new elements of the map and unlocking fast-travel hubs feels really good, and you can spin away from the critical path whenever you want. We found towns and areas long before the game wanted us to. It occasionally led to bugs, but it was a net positive.
So, while the exploration feels bewildering and occasionally unsatisfying, it’s also nicely freewheeling. Deviating from a path and just reaching a faraway leaf does have its joys.
There are fewer silver linings in the combat, though, and you wonder why Flight School decided to build a game around it. It’s something that should have been playtested to death, but somehow we have it in our hands when it should have stayed as a prototype.
Whenever you come across resources in the environment (more on those in a minute), insects will appear. That in itself is annoying: there’s no such thing as a free reward in Stonefly, and the reward dopamine hits will regularly be snatched away from you by bugs burrowing up through the ground. Then you’re in either a fight you can run away from, or a fight you can’t, with big red arena walls appearing around you.
Props to Flight School, as there’s a nice message to the combat. You’re not killing the insects, you’re pushing them out of a ring in a tiny Royal Rumble. It’s nicely non-aggressive.
Your aim is to clear the ring, and that means using a jet of air to push beetles. You can also hold down the button to do a bigger jet. Some enemies have shields, so you have to jump above them to drop bombs, and then they’re flipped onto their back, ready for you to gust them off. All the while, bugs are charging at you, lobbing gunk and spinning around like death-sycamores.
It sounds fine, but it’s just not the slightest bit fun. Arenas are pretty large, so bugs in the middle become a ball-ache to shuffle to the edges. By the time they get there, they’ve flipped back up and scuttled to the middle. The balancing’s shot too: some of the bugs are sponges, taking ages to flip, yet you still have to move them to edges. If you fail to get there in time, their shields are replenished and you have to do the whole hoo-ha again. When half the bugs have a stun mechanic, stopping you from getting anywhere in time, you will often want to jack it all in. It’s herding cats, but the cats have tasers. Marketing materials claim that Stonefly is ‘chill and tranquil’. We’ve been more at ease in driving tests.
You get some tools to help with the cat control, like pulls and singularities, but they come late and slightly wimpily. Stonefly makes the Alpha Protocol mistake, by making you too rubbish at the start, so everything is a slog and puts you off. It also makes the Force Unleashed mistake of handing you a superpowered mech at the start and then ripping it away from you, so the rubbishness becomes even more stark.
We felt like Sisyphus, pushing a rock up a hill – like a dung beetle, in fact – and it would come tumbling back down as we got stunned or the enemies replenished their shields. We’d grunt and walk back down, knowing that we needed to get past this combat, as we’ll get resources at the end of it. Perhaps, just perhaps, it would be enough resources to create an upgrade that would make combat less of a folly.
Because, if we’re honest, the upgrading system is pretty snazzy. There’s a structure for a fantastic game here, with actions in the world unlocking research, which in turn becomes upgrades that you can complete, using found-resources and tools that you only have to buy once. You get to stop at camps where you can purchase resources and work on your mech in a multitude of ways, as well as monitor progress on research. It’s superbly done, and would have motivated us to play more if the rest of the game didn’t make us go “nu-uh”.
Because while things move at a decent pace, with the map populating quickly and some cool alpha aphid levels acting like giant pinatas, raining rewards down on you, Stonefly is prone to the grind. You should upgrade to progress – sometimes you must have certain upgrades to progress – and that means grinding to gain access to the alpha aphid levels, or finding resources and fighting repeatedly to get what you need. But the stuff you’re repeating wasn’t fun the first time round, so you’ll be doing it with hate in your heart. We’re not proud saying it, but having completed Stonefly, we have no intention of returning to its nooks or seeing what upper tier upgrades get us.
And that’s perhaps the most surprising part of Stonefly’s release. Flight School are a clearly talented studio who know their way around a mechanic. After all, Creature in the Well was a fun old romp all the way through. But Stonefly is built on not one but two dodgy mechanics – its exploration and its combat – and they both raise eyebrows rather than smiles. You never feel in control or powerful enough in Stonefly, and too often the biggest enemy is the game’s own engine, balancing and design.
If Stonefly was an insect, it would be a stinkbug: beautiful to look at, but lets off an unpleasant odour when you start grappling with it.
You can buy Stonefly for £16.74 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S