"It's as if the developers presented the Disney version of Robin Hood, but then gave the you option to let Little John die at the hands of the sheriff and wrestle with the psychological repercussions of that choice."
Stories: The Path of Destinies might have been the game that surprised me the most at PAX Prime. Based on casual observation, it looked like just another button mashing, action game set in a fairy tale world--albeit a very pretty one. That impression shattered when I sat down to play Stories on my last day at the show. I found a gem of a game with engaging combat, beautiful aesthetics, and a complex, branching narrative.
Stories: The Path of Destinies plays out like a storybook, but the game's exposition evolves in ways no storybook ever did. Each playthrough has a branching path, and character choices affect the real time narration as well as subsequent decisions available. Moreover, each time the game is restarted, the story starts over again, but discovered elements of the narrative persist through multiple playthroughs. For example, if the hero learns that a particular character is a traitor, the next time you restart the game and re-encounter them, that bit of information is retained. At that point, the hero may choose to dispose of them or otherwise act accordingly. It seems like each playthrough is an exercise in building the game's "true" narrative, although the studio representative walking me through the game was very cryptic about how this system truly worked. Apparently, revealing too much would involve major spoilers.
Gameplay involves traversing beautifully rendered floating islands that are essentially a series of corridors a la Bastion, and the game also shares the disembodied voice narrating every act of the hero. On the islands, equipment and spells for swapping out can be found, but choose wisely as there is no inventory for storing options. At the end of each stage, the hero can level up one trait. In my playthrough, I had to decide between a dash attack, health regen, or mana regen. The new attack I chose added a great deal of utility to my character's kit, but left him unable to heal from combat.
Combat is deceptively straightforward in Stories, mainly involving timed presses of the square button. You attack enemies by hitting square and aiming in their direction with the left analog stick. Holding square allows the hero to grab and then throw, and attacking while an enemy is winding up will parry the blow and stun him. This is all easy enough when there are only a couple bad guys on the field, but as the numbers grow, timing becomes paramount. Simply mashing attack will leave the hero open, so there is a definite rhythm to be found. Ranged enemies create an additional problem as well, because their attacks can't be parried. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and difficulty of combat. I even managed to get myself killed a couple times, though my character had infinite respawns for the demo.
The game's artwork and aesthetic also caught me off guard. Characters and environments are bright and beautifully rendered in the Unreal 4 engine, appropriate for a fairy-tale setting. However, the game's landscape responds to in-game choices, and making difficult decisions will change the world significantly. For instance, I choose to pursue a powerful artifact over saving friends, and as a result, the narrative became much darker along with the color palette; there was even a rain storm to fit the hero's melancholic mood over abandoning his companions.
The foreboding tone creates an effective juxtaposition with the fairy tale aesthetic. Reynardo, the hero, is an anthropomorphic fox, and his friends are a couple of roguish hares. Leading a rebellion against a menacing empire, Reynardo is a dashing, sardonic protagonist. It's as if the developers presented the Disney version of Robin Hood, but then gave the you option to let Little John die at the hands of the sheriff and wrestle with the psychological repercussions of that choice.
Thanks in part to the cagey media representative, much of Stories: Path of Destinies remains a mystery to me. However, I was pleasantly surprised by my time with the game and will look forward to it on PS4 when it comes out.