Stonefly is an unusual isometric action RPG. Rather than fighting off zombies, slimes and other traditional monsters, you’re knocking insects off leaves. Instead of running around wide-open areas, you’ll glide between branches of trees in your insectoid mech, only really touching them to launch back up into the air or collect resources. Instead of collecting loot, you’ll be researching upgrades. That last one is slightly less compelling, but still, Stonefly is a game with an enjoyably fresh take on a familiar genre.
It’s also beautiful. Gliding between leaves and seeing stylised layers of branches full of bright red leaves made me gasp aloud when I first saw them. It’s an explosion of warm colours, the leaves and branches look like they’re made with textured and coloured paper in an art class somewhere, but the game also has snowy or swampy areas that all look just as gorgeous as the next. Character designs and animations are both creative and charming, similarly looking like they’ve been made during arts and crafts. It’s all done without a dropped frame anywhere as well, making Stonefly a real visual treat.
Unfortunately, the game’s storyline is a little less exciting. Stonefly follows Annika who, after forgetting to lock up after borrowing her father’s insectoid mech (we’ve all done that, right?), has to go and get it back from whoever stole it. Naturally, this involves a lengthy journey and lots of non-lethal bug combat. The actual plot is okay and it should keep you interested, but the way it’s presented is fraught with issues. It plays out in cutscenes, but lacks voice acting, leaving you with speech bubbles that hang there for what is presumably meant to be how long it takes to read. It’s often far too long and occasionally a bit too short, and you can’t skip to the next bit of dialogue. Instead, you’re only able to skip the entire cutscene so watching one is an exercise in patience – a running theme throughout the game.
What dialogue isn’t part of a proper cutscene appears on the side of the screen whilst you’re exploring/fighting, but is still skippable like a cutscene. This means it can accidentally be skipped because X (on PS5) is the game’s jump button and the game’s skip cutscene button. If you hold X, you jump higher, but you also skip the dialogue, so you may have to weigh whether or not you want to hear it against how much damage that incoming bug is going to cause. Not to mention having to look away from the fight to even read it. These little niggles resulted in me almost rolling my eyes when any dialogue started, because they felt awkwardly paced and presented, and often weren’t interesting enough to inspire me to put up with them.
Once Annika sets out after the thief, you’ll have your very own mech to pilot and upgrade. Travelling around the game world is as unique as any other aspect of Stonefly, as mostly you’ll be gliding above it and only coming down to charge a jump to regain some height. Traversal in Stonefly feels…close to being good. It is a novel and very interesting idea that I was really excited to try out, but once you get playing the game’s level design and camera make it, once again, an exercise in patience. There are multiple layers of branches, and sometimes the camera gets caught behind them so you just can’t see anything until you move back, a particular sin for a game to commit during combat, yet it happens often.
Then there’s the falling. It may be the isometric perspective just doesn’t lend itself well to platforming, but even with the white dot that shows on the ground directly below you and guides you towards nearby platforms with a line, I found myself constantly falling off. Sometimes that line would guide me towards a platform but I’d miss it anyway somehow, or I’d land but slide slightly off the edge and have nothing below to land on. Then there’s little holes in the leaves you’re on, or the jump height seeming absurdly low even when upgraded, making trying to climb through areas far more frustrating then it should be. Combine this with not always being sure where you’re supposed to go or if the branch you’re looking at is background with no collision or actually part of the level, and it can get a bit dicey.
As mentioned, you don’t kill bugs in this game, you just knock them out of play, and to help you do this your mech is equipped with a few things. You have wings so you glide around above the ferocious bug hordes, legs so you can quickly jump back up out of reach, little bombs you can drop that stun bugs so they can be moved around, and turbines to blow those bugs off the leaf or branch they used to call home. Now, there’s a lot of stuff to keep track of here, as you’re gliding you need to make sure you aren’t too low to avoid incoming attacks, and to do that you’ll need safe spaces for brief landings. Whilst you’re up there, you’ll need to drop bombs on bugs to stun them so they fall onto their back, because otherwise your turbines won’t affect them. Then you need to get them over the edge.
We haven’t even taken the behaviours of the bugs into account yet. Some of them shoot fast moving projectiles at you, whilst others bombard you with what is basically insectoid mortar fire. Some bugs are tiny and bite you, other are moderately sized and charge at you, whilst yet more are large and essentially do both. This sounds complicated and let me assure you, it is. Your mech doesn’t seem well suited to fighting hordes of these enemies, especially earlier in the game when you haven’t unlocked any abilities yet, and as a result it can be quite frustrating.
Most enemies have a very short window after they telegraph an attack for you to dodge, while one or two seem to be very nervous about attacking, so you have to wait for what seems like ages in the heat of battle for them to attack and open themselves up to taking damage. When everything clicks, usually involving a smaller amount of enemies, it’s incredibly satisfying to efficiently stun and sweep away a bunch of enemies. But that only makes it more frustrating that the game insists on throwing so many at you so often.
Throughout the story you’ll encounter a range of characters who will give you things to do. Unfortunately, Stonefly is another in a long line of RPGs that confuses gameplay with grinding, as its upgrade system and its quests require large amounts of bug breaking. You “research” upgrades by using the relevant component (i.e. fighting) until a bar fills up in a menu, at which point Annika will think of an upgrade for it, allowing you to build it or, more likely, go out and find the resources to build it because you’ve already used yours on another upgrade. Finding resources is the same as any other game that has resources, you go mine them, except in Stonefly the bugs are trying to eat those resources at the same time. Far and away the best way is by mining Alpha Aphids, which are giant bugs that surface rarely and have rich mineral deposits on their back, but they’re also crawling with hordes of bugs which brings its own frustrations.