I became a pilot around ten years ago today. What I really wanted to experience at the time was the feeling of flight, but what I wound up discovering was that flying an airplane is mostly a matter of managing your motor. The only time I found that flight experience I was looking for was when shutting down the engine while practicing forced landings. You wouldn’t believe how far an airplane can fly without engine power–which led me to the sport often called gliding, but technically known as soaring.
The principle is to use rising currents of air to keep yourself aloft for the longest possible length of time. Since they don’t use engine power to keep them in the air, flying a glider comes pretty close to being a bird. You’re literally flying by the seat of your pants. In other words, you have to feel your way around the sky. Are you climbing or descending? What angle of bank are you at? Gliders are heavier than air, so they always come back down to the ground eventually. Stonefly manages to capture this experience by giving you a gliding mech. You’re constantly trying to judge your distances and plan your touchdown points. The game is all about the feeling of flight.
Stonefly has really good gliding. When you’re in the air the game is a joy to play, but when you’re on the ground it can be a bit of a bore. The bulk of Stonefly is crafting and combat, which are two surprisingly in-depth systems. I would even go so far as to say that both are just a little bit too deep, which gives me the sense that Stonefly suffers from a mild case of feature creep. The crafting, for example, consists of improving your mech in a variety of ways that range from cosmetic modifications to special abilities by way of improved performance. There are several development trees with an overly complicated number of steps between stages. You’re always missing a tool or something. In order to craft anything, you, of course, have to collect a variety of different resources, too. The game forces you to grind your way through all of this on more than one occasion.
Then there’s the combat. There are far more special abilities to unlock than seems necessary, which results in overly complicated combat. This entails knocking out bugs with bombs, and then pushing them over the edge of a platform while repairing any damage that your mech may have sustained in the process. The problem is that you have so many special abilities to juggle in addition to bombing and pushing, that fighting winds up being more frantic than fun. You stumble over yourself a lot as you search for the right buttons to press while trying to remain airborne. The bugs don’t stay knocked out for long, so time plays a part in things, too. The combat is just too much to handle.
Stonefly, on the other hand, shines when it comes to the aesthetics. The developer, Flight School Studio, somehow managed to reconcile the intricacy of nature with the minimalism of modernism in all of the artwork. Skimming over the pastel colors of the landscape in your mech is a real pleasure. The leaves on the trees are lovely shades of red, yellow, and green. The water is a beautiful blue. The animations are nice and fluid for the most part. Your mech springs up into the air in a very satisfying way. The environment is three dimensional, but the fixed perspective makes the place appear like some sort of isometric projection, almost as though you’re playing around inside a painting.
The problem, however, is that you can’t find your way around the game world very well, because you’re looking down at the ground all the time. The game gets around this problem with tracker flies that point you towards the next objective, but the fixed perspective is a bit of a bother for another reason. Your view can be either partially or even completely blocked when flying below trees or bushes–a tad annoying, but otherwise forgivable in light of the level design. The music mirrors the artwork in a lot of ways, which is best described as being somewhere between experimental jazz and electronica. The sound effects include a wonderful bunch of beeps and boops that make bouncing around rather pleasant.
Not too much story
The story in Stonefly is delightful in terms of theme, but shallow in terms of narrative. The former is all about what it would be like for tiny people to live in trees–throw a couple of mechs into the mix and you’ve got yourself a pretty solid setup. The possibilities are just about endless when it comes to worldbuilding and lore. Why is everybody so small? How did they develop this technology? The latter is unfortunately nothing more than a pretext for the mechanics; there just isn’t that much going on at the narrative level. You play as a girl named Annika who leaves a garage door unlocked and winds up with a stolen mech. Annika sets out in search of this particular machine and soon finds herself teaming up with a squadron of pilots called the Acorn Corps. The narrative is flimsy on the whole and falls into more than its fair share of tropes and clichés; Annika has ran away from home because she thinks that her father won’t forgive her for losing the mech, only to find out that her disappearance threw him into a panic. While it might string you along for a bit, the narrative definitely doesn’t immerse you into the world of Stonefly, which is kind of a shame. The narrative touches on issues like rejection and belonging, but does so without delving deeper into these personal problems–a missed opportunity.
I really like Stonefly, but some frustrations really hold it back. When it flies it soars, but when it stumbles it falls flat. That said, the game is a good way to spend five or six hours, but you can expect some turbulence along the way. What impresses me the most about Stonefly is how closely it captures the sensation of soaring. I’m not sure what sort of magic Flight School Studio used to make it happen, but when you glide around the game world in your mech, you just feel incredibly free.
The rest of the game, unfortunately, doesn’t match up to this. Just like the sport of soaring, while everything is great when you’re up in the air, the fun comes to a screeching halt when you’re down on the ground. Cruising around on those rising currents of air is an incredible experience that truly captures the feeling of flight. You can sometimes keep your glider aloft for hours by weaving around the sky in just the right way. When you touch down, there’s no getting yourself back up into the air, though. Flight School Studio was on to something with all the gliding, but didn’t quite stick the landing.