This gorgeous microcosmic mech game just about survives its more frustrating moments.
High up where the branches get icy, a snowstorm set in. The world was suddenly a thing of whiteness. Plodding on quite lost, I found a stranger in furs who offered to show me the way forward. We walked together, him giving occasional directions that I followed, the wind tugging at us as we went. For a few minutes the storm gave us space: there was nothing to do but find the path through this rolling blankness.
Flight School are good at moments like this. Moments that serve to remind me that this small team makes games that are quietly like no other. Creature in the Well blended end-of-the-world posthumanism with pinball and sparking electricity and, um, a creature in the well. It was stark and memorable. Stonefly is sort of sumo and sort of a collectathon and upgradeathon, but really it's something far more special. It's a mech game on the microcosmic scale. The mechs you pilot and steadily upgrade are insects, all bent legs and hidden wings, and these insects are exploring a world of twigs and bracken and falling leaves. The word horde on offer says it all: canopy, bramble, maple, nightlight.
The world you pilot your way through is truly beautiful. Stonefly tells the story of a young inventor on the trail of her father's mech, which she allowed to be stolen through a moment's carelessness. To get her father's rig back she sets off in a junker mech that will need regular improvements, and into a world of crackling bracken and lumpen moss where deeper mysteries await. Things are transformed from the perspective. Tree stumps are huge plateaus here, while mushrooms provide natural staircases. Catch a thermal upwards and you can move from one splindly branch of a tree to another, as if changing lanes on a highway, or you can leap between coils of creeper, dodging thorns. It's nature, but it also looks like handicraft, employing a sort of mid-century children's book aesthetic of textured paper and natural shades. Someone used a glue pot on this game! The thing Stonefly can do with browns and greens and then the occasional flaming burst of orange or yellow? It's pretty much glorious.
Stonefly's landscapes can be tricky to navigate at first, although restarts when you hop yourself off a branch into the abyss are fairly quick, and there's the option to conjure a bunch of glittering little insects that will point the way to your next objective. The faff is worth the effort, though, because movement and navigation is ultimately a fairly pure thrill here. These worlds feel spindly and delicate, one layer stacked upon another. They're brilliant to explore, because they're all nook and all cranny. And they get the best from your mech, another thing that can take a bit of getting used to, slow on the ground but speedy when you hop back into the air. It's a spin on The Floor is Lava - spend as much time as you can in the ether where you can move swiftly, but be aware of the fact that when you're up there, unless you're riding a current, you'll slowly be coming back down to earth the whole while. Time your hops to get air when you want it. Spread your mech's wings and make the most of your mobility.
The game has two main focuses. The first is combat, which is typically inventive. The game's bucolic world is filled with bugs large and small, and you defeat them by flipping them onto their backs and then pushing them off the landscape into the depths. It's a two-stage maneuver even before you factor in the differing bugs' abilities - ram attacks, sudden spurts of toxic goop, nasty pincers, a weird sort of spiky inflatable thing - and the various techniques at your disposal as you upgrade. Basically, it's no good flipping a bug if you're nowhere near a drop to gust them over. You need to prioritise targets, but you also need to factor in the landscape around you.
Your mech's growing arsenal of abilities give you options. You can dance above bugs, pelting them to remove their armour. You can pound the ground or slow them or gust while dashing or drop funny little wind bombs. New options evolve over time in the form of new modules for your mech. They each require resources to build, however, and here's where we come to the second of the game's main focuses.
Resource collection is not Stonefly at its most successful, I think. It's nice to see the resources poking out of the ground in little glittering seams, and since your battles are generally centred on bugs who want to get at the same resources you do, there's yet another thing to think about while fighting. But the game uses a range of resources to pad things out and hold back progress. Missions - particularly towards the middle of the game - increasingly send you out to search for huge hoards of resources to build critical components for the mech. This means grinding back over landscapes you've already visited, or tracking down the Alpha Aphids, huge insects who have resources erupting from their backs - moveable feasts you must first locate and then scavenge, battling around on them until your timer runs out, at which point you have to track them down again and repeat everything.
It's not ideal, but for me it wasn't enjoyment-shattering. I like the battling, particularly when you get a few key upgrades like a portable wind dome that allows you to sit within it and harvest resources while keeping everyone else out. I like the steady increase of different enemies. And in truth, I don't need much of an excuse to revisit such beautiful, intricate levels, bird's nests and bonfire stacks of possibility, each one. This is the work of a small team, and if resource-hunting is the best way to build out a game of such glittering moments and ideas, so be it.
"The inventor you play as is inspired by the world around her, which means every so often, once a background objective has been achieved, a new idea will suddenly come to her."
Besides, while the mech upgrades are fine, what I really love is the way they're introduced. The inventor you play as is inspired by the world around her, which means every so often, once a background objective has been achieved, a new idea will suddenly come to her - a stronger shell, a bigger jump, something new to do with gusting wind attacks. I played the first act twice and her upgrade ideas came at me in a slightly different order the second time around. It felt very organic, like I was travelling with someone whose mind was sharp and curious, but easily distracted.
This fits beautifully into a game in which you follow the main character through her bug-battling days and then through her nights back at the camp with allies she can trade with and learn from. She goes to sleep and you sift through her uneasy dreams, as she deals with guilt and hope and puts the story she is living through into some kind of shape. Stonefly, like Creature in the Well, is a wonderfully odd game, even if it's made from recognisable elements. It frustrated me from time to time with its grinding, but ultimately I sort of loved it.