In Stonefly, as a tiny person, you'll jump into your bug-sized mech to battle dangerous insects over resources.
Following 2019's Creature in the Well, a dungeon crawler that utilizes pinball mechanics to inform its hack-'n-slash combat, developer Flight School Studio is now making Stonefly. If I had to come up with an elevator pitch for the upcoming game, it would be Studio Ghibli's The Secret World of Arrietty meets Neon Genesis Evangelion.
In Stonefly, you play as Annika Stonefly, a girl who lives on a planet where the human-like people are incredibly small. To survive and overcome the much larger insects that also live on the planet, folks pilot mechs.
"There's a combination of inspiration for the mech designs--a lot of them are [styled after] bugs, but then they have the giant robot anime look too, Evangelion and Gundam are mixed in there for sure," Flight School Studio creative director Adam Volker said.
The mechs behave a lot like their insect inspirations, nimbly jumping into the air and sprouting wings that allow them to momentarily hover or glide. They aren't armed with traditional weapons, though. Since you'll be going up against insects, the mechs possess weapons that cast lights that can distract or create gusts of wind that can shove away. Flight School Studio compares Stonefly's combat to Super Smash Bros.--you're not trying to kill enemies, you're trying to utilize your mech's tools to push them off the environment.
I got to see a short demo of Stonefly in action, in which Annika takes one of her father's mechs on a joyride, loses it, vows to reclaim it, and falls into joining a caravan-looking group called the Acorn Corps. There wasn't an opportunity to go hands-on with the game, but what I saw of the combat looks almost rhythmic. That's about the only similarity I can spot when it comes to comparing the game to Creature in the Well, another game that encouraged players to fall into a regular rhythm-like flow to overcome its challenges. Stonefly is very different, however, in that its gameplay loop seems geared more towards exploration than combat.
"Although the game has a lot of kinetic, fun action gameplay, quite a bit of the game is very exploration-focused and very chill, listening to [Natureboy Flako's] soundtrack with a beautiful landscape," Volker said.
This exploration focus becomes apparent right away. Annika begins the game inheriting a run-down mech from the Acorn Corps, which you can slowly augment with upgrades over time. From a hub, you set out on missions--the game gives you a choice of completing new chapters in the story, exploring optional areas in search of resources, or pursuing challenging time-sensitive hunts. Instead of encouraging you to jump from area to area and complete each one once, Flight School Studios wants you to repeatedly return to previously traveled-to locations and utilize your expanded arsenal of abilities to explore further.
"And most of the encounters are all random," Flight School Studios game director Bohdon Sayre added. "There are hand-made ones, like the boss encounters, and a couple moments during missions that we call 'closed' or 'main' encounters that have some hand-made sequencing. But there's a lot of variety that you have if you're playing the same area multiple times--you'll encounter different combinations of things and that makes it fun to go back through."
Like Creature in the Well, Stonefly seems to be very hands-off in teaching you how to play. I did see tutorial messages that inform the player how to perform basic actions like jumping, shoving, and gliding. But there's no direction for how Stonefly's systems interact with each other. That seems to be up for the player to figure out.
"We really wanted to make something that was much more of a sandbox--other references we have are incredible games like [The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild] and [Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain]," Sayre said. "I think what those games do really well is create sandboxes that you can play in. A lot of the bugs [in Stonefly] interact with each other--the bugs that dash really fast can stun other bugs for you if you can bait them into running into each other, interacting in interesting ways. So there's a lot of bug-on-bug interactions."
As I noted in GameSpot's Creature in the Well review, this lack of explicit directions can be annoying when it comes to information that's crucial for progression--it's a lesson that Flight School Studios has seemingly taken to heart in Stonefly.
"We learned from [Creature in the Well] to make sure that we have enough time for players to learn what we're trying to tell them," Sayre said. "Our games are, as far as we know, very weird and unique and out there, and it's important for us that we lay down some familiar and stable groundwork for players to latch onto as they journey into this unknown territory and try to figure out 'What the heck am I doing here? What's this weird mech thing that flies and doesn't land and pushes bugs and stuff?' So [Creature in the Well] definitely taught us a lot about pacing and how we space things out and how we can be efficient with what we're creating, testing, and iterating."
And that's where I think I'm most intrigued by Stonefly. Like Sayre said, Flight School Studios makes weird games. Creature in the Well was so difficult to define that folks christened it a "pinbrawler," a new genre that combines elements of pinball, dungeon crawling, and brawler hack-'n-slash games. Stonefly is similarly difficult to pin down, and that's intriguing. I haven't really seen a game like it before, even if the pieces are all familiar--like Creature in the Well, Stonefly has a lot of The Legend of Zelda influences, for example.
"The uprooting of a bug, stunning it and flipping it over, is definitely inspired by [The Legend of Zelda games], like when you use [the Magic Hammer] to smash and flip over [Turtles]," Sayre said. "The whole game from the start was really centered around this concept of wind and the elements. Creature in the Well was all about electricity, and this game is intended to be all about wind. And there's kind of a metaphor there as well. We liken the gameplay and mechanics to metaphorically represent the story; wind has this transience and this air of letting the past go and moving forward that's really nice about it."
Near the end of the Q&A, I asked Flight School Studios about accessibility, to which Sayre said, "There are a few options. Outside of the accessibility settings that Unreal has built in, there are a couple of gameplay things, ranging from a couple of minor stat tweaks that make life a little bit easier all the way to invincibility for if you just want to play through the game on basically story mode and don't want to take damage and just have fun. We're trying to make sure that a variety of different people can play the game if they want to get through the whole thing."
We don't have to wait long to check out Stonefly--the game is currently set to launch for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS5, PS4, Switch, and PC in Summer 2021. Flight School Studios estimates the campaign will likely take about 10 hours, a bit longer than Creature in the Well. I, for one, will be checking it out. I enjoyed Creature in the Well, and Stonefly's delightfully strange set-up intrigues me--though I do hope that I won't have to contend with any monstrously large arachnids.