"It was time to choose," says a chunk of opening text from Stories: Path of Destinies says. You'll be choosing and dying a lot in this action RPG. It never stops feeling good. Even the dying. Stories opens at a crossroads: roguish fox pirate Reynardo has been helping a resistance movement fight an oppressive space emperor and must decide whether to go and help an ally or look for a powerful artefact to turn the tides. That's only the first decision of many that players will need to make in the game, which happens inside a magic book. The mystical tome holds chapters containing the lead-up to Reynardo's showdown with the Emperor, as well the final reckoning. The tale changes depending on what players have Reynardo do at the end of each chapter.
Spearhead Games' newest title teases you with branches and inflection points all throughout. The smaller ones happen while sword-fighting your way through an area; decisions might include whether to jump down into a well or stay above ground to get to the next part of a level. The bigger ones reveal different aspects of Reynardo's personality and his relationships with erstwhile allies and enemies. The choices in Stories feel far more consequential than in games where picking certain paths is a heavily hyped feature. Each runthrough of the game's chapters presents different choices, and those choices direct you to divergent endings. Those endings can reveal one of four immutable Truths to the players. That information can then guide you to make better choices in your next revision. New environments get opened up, too, so you're not just moving through the same old locales multiple times.
Stories' gameplay hews to the hack/slash dungeon-crawler template. You'll pass locked-off sections on your first few stories, unable to open them until you get enough ore and essence to craft the right sword. Reynardo can craft four special swords in Stories, each of which harbours unique attacks and attributes.
The ice, fire, healing and void swords grant access to the extra loot in these areas and lets you slay enemies in stylish fashion.The combat feels snappy and quick, as Reynardo dashes through the gangs of enemies that pop up throughout the dungeons. Stamina and energy meters track the energy required to dash and use sword magicks.
Beautiful art direction underscores the game's narrative conceit. The levels' multiple pathways seethe with little details brought to life in a vibrant palette of moody colours. It really feels like you're adventuring through a fractured fairy tale that needs to be pieced together in the best possible way. Julian Casey does excellent work as the game's narrator, inventively changing his voice for multiple characters. He adeptly creates an air of devil-may-care derring-do, fraught emotional melodrama and ponderous philosophizing and adds lively snark to the in-game asides that pop up when Reynardo's fighting or opening up chests. The writing in Stories is filled with self-aware charm. When you know that this is a game made by a studio founded by ex-Ubisoft devs, you can't help but laugh when Reynardo says a floating platform is much easier than free climbing.
Each story is made up of five chapters where you make four crucial choices. You can run through them in about 30 minutes or so, depending on how thoroughly you want to explore. When the story is all told, players get a summary of what they did and who Reynardo was in that particular telling. Summaries can be reviewed on subsequent runs so you can refer to your previous actions. The endgame grid holds slots for 24 possible denouements. After finishing the story the first time, I couldn't wait to see what was in the chapters my choices had locked out and what new endings would get opened up. Stories' chewy interconnectedness serves to make players dive in again and again, because you'll want to see what's different. Even after you unlock the vital Truth clues and max out your swords and gems, the abilities on Reynardo's skill tree provide strong incentive to to explore and keep on fighting to gain more XP.
I like how Stories folds metatextuality into its design. It winks at the idea of dying and doing things over again and speeds up the cycle of anticipatory lust that gamers have for a new-game-plus once they realise all the new upgrades and skills that await. Familiar snatches of dialogue and scenes get remixed, gaining new contexts and meaning depending on the choices you make. The multiple endings also shed light on different interpretations of Reynardo's personality. Maybe he was too headstrong in one story and caused friends to die needlessly. Or should he have spared an old girlfriend a particularly painful revelation? Hidden scrolls in those locked-off areas create sympathy for the game's power-mad evil emperor once you read them. Even he has a different story waiting to be told if you dig deep enough.
You're not guaranteed a happy ending in Stories, no matter how good the gems and swords at your disposal might be. On my third playthrough of the text, I was kicking arse and nailing perfect combat sequences where I wasn't getting hit. But the most crucial aspects of that particular arc were when I was picking what to do, not fighting. During one string of choices, I really felt like I was making Reynardo into a better hero. He'd quieted the grimmer parts of his nature, approached combat with zen-like calm and didn't just rush off to prove his prowess. As I triggered the final confrontation, I thought, "Finally, this is it. I'm definitely getting a happy ending now." Then I got beheaded.
After five playthroughs, I finally made a series of choices that netted me a happy ending. It'd be easy to close Stories' virtual book and say that I beat the game. But I didn't want to stop playing. There were more yarns, more facets of characters and plot for me to wander through.
The Sandman reference in the bit of dialogue above might feel like just an offhand joke at first, but it struck me as a nod at the way Neil Gaiman's seminal comics series focused on the act of crafting and listening to stories. It's often said that, as a medium, video games suck at storytelling. Stories feels like it's trying something rewardingly different, to do more than just ape the linear style of a summer blockbuster movie. It's embracing tried-and-true hallmarks of action game design and weaving them around interactive fiction elements. The result is both familiar and fresh.