"If you enjoy action RPGs and seeing the different ways a story can play out based on your experience, Stories: The Path of Destinies is an easy choice."
I feel like I've mentioned this recently, but as a kid, I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure book series. Even now that I'm an adult, I've got 50 or so on my bookshelf. So when I heard of Stories: The Path of Destinies, I knew it was a game I'd want to play. In Stories, I can't put my finger in a page to save my place when I make a risky choice, but there's a lot more combat in the game than there was in the books, and like the books, this game has kept me coming back over and over to see where the different paths take me.
You play as Reynardo, an airship captain (and a fox, for a nice pun in French) in the service of a rebellion against a toad emperor who's gone mad in his pursuit of power, sacrificing his citizens in the hopes of gaining favor from old dark gods. (Puppies and kittens are specifically mentioned — this guy is a monster!) You have a few different ideas about how to make a difference in the fight and take down the emperor once and for all, but when the game begins, you have no way to know how well any of those ideas will work out. Before each chapter of the game, you must decide between two or three possibilities such as whether to rescue a friend who's been captured by the emperor's forces or go after a weapon that you think might turn the tide.
That is somewhat unique, but it's not Stories' real "gimmick." The thing is, each playthrough only lasts a handful of chapters, and at the end of your first playthrough, you don't see the end credits. Instead, you die and the story rewinds to the moment when you made your first choice. But your time has not been wasted — Reynardo has learned an essential "Truth" from his experience that affects every subsequent playthrough. After learning four Truths, you can make the choices that do lead to end credits, but you don't have to. Either way, you can play through again and again, making different choices and seeing how they play out.
Each chapter only includes two or three choices, so there isn't an infinite variety available in the story, but I did find it interesting enough to keep playing after I saw the end credits to see how different choices played out together. Fortunately, the game does a few things to help you easily keep track of the paths you've already taken and guide you toward new Truths as well as toward the game's ending, which helps you avoid wasting time by replaying the same path multiple times. Sadly, having just those few choices each time around sometimes leads to confusion as to just what is happening in your current playthrough. Even the game seems to get confused every so often — I swear there was a time or two that the story seemed to reflect a different choice than I had made.
As you make those choices, the game does a good job of adjusting its approach to reflect yours. Remain loyal to your friends at the expense of searching out power, and Reynardo's internal monologue discusses the importance of watching out for those near you. Do the opposite, and he instead ruminates on the evil emperor and the necessity to do anything it takes to eliminate him before his plans can come to fruition, even if that means losing your friends. Despite the fact that some of its details are quite dark, the story is handled in a lighthearted, fun manner that feels very appropriate to the gameís story-telling theme. It's no 100-hour epic like a Dragon Age game, but I found it pretty satisfying.
Of course, story's not all there is to a game, and as I mentioned above, there's a lot more combat in Stories than there is in a book. Enemies appear in groups, locking you into the vicinity until you defeat them or die. Tapping the attack button swings Reynardo's sword, and holding it makes him grab his enemy for a throw. Hold the analog stick or point the mouse in the direction of a different enemy, and Reynardo dashes to attack them instead. There is an Arkham Asylum flavor to combat, as enemies get an exclamation mark over their head when they're about to dash at you, giving you a window in which to switch your attack and counter them.
Defeating enemies earns you experience, with bonuses granted for achieving long combos and not taking damage. When you level up, you gain a skill point that you can use to improve Reynardo in a number of ways, from using his grappling hook to yank away enemy shields to actually stopping time for everyone else for a few seconds if you counter at the last possible instant. Exploring the levels nets you the materials you need to upgrade Reynardoís sword and equippable gems that give him special bonuses to his stats and abilities. By the time I got to the end credits, Reynardo was an engine of nigh-unstoppable death to his foes, and I had a blast making him into one. I died a number of times along the way, but doing so only sets you back to the previous checkpoint (often right before the combat that killed you), so thereís not a strong penalty for failure.
The game looks and sounds great as well. Its use of a narrator will, Iím sure, be compared to Bastion, and thatís fair. The narrator reads the story to you, including doing voices for all of the characters as you would if you were reading a story to a child, and he makes occasional comments when you open a treasure chest or smash a bunch of breakable objects or do particularly well (or poorly) in combat. In my opinion, itís done well and not overly often, so I enjoyed the narration, but I can see that some players may find it annoying.
The backgrounds and music are both very solid and fit each other well from level to level, and Reynardo and his enemies all look hand-painted. Between levels, the story is told using portraits that are stylized enough to be interesting, but ďon-modelĒ enough to clearly represent the same characters youíre seeing in the game. A number of these have a style like the face cards in a standard deck, which melds nicely with the way the game plays through, returns everything to the way it was at the start, then deals out a new set of choices, but always from the same basic options.
I ran into bugs from time to time, but nothing fatal — and itís worth pointing out that I was playing the pre-release version. There were a few spots I dashed into and then couldnít get back out of, a couple of times that I dashed off a cliff, and one spot where a sort of laser just got frozen in the air. There was also a time or two when a button prompt displayed with the wrong type of button (like Triangle, even though I played on PC with an Xbox controller). The developers also gave us a code to play on PS4, and I am told that the PS4 version is more issue-prone than PC, with framerate problems and typos in the text, so if you have a choice, go PC on this one. (Please note that my scores are based solely on my PC experience.)
If you enjoy action RPGs and seeing the different ways a story can play out based on your experience, Stories: The Path of Destinies is an easy choice. It wonít take you forever to play, but itís only $15 on Steam, and itís absolutely worth the asking price. It does have some small bugs, and the initial loading screen takes longer than Iíd like, but for me, nothing about it gets in the way of the enjoyment. As I mentioned, the PC version is best, and folks without beefy gaming rigs should know that they can probably still play it. If I turn down the settings to minimum, it even plays on the three year old laptop I got for work!