A stylish and charming choose your own fur-venture.
Developer: Spearhead Games
Publisher: Spearhead Games
Format: PC, PS4 (Reviewed)
Release Date: April 12th 2016
Yes, yes, stifle the yawns. I know it’s the most generic and boring name for a game you’ve probably heard in a long while, and I don’t disagree with you. But beyond the game’s literal book cover, Stories: The Path of Destinies is actually a pretty interesting game. Take the anthropomorphic animal designs from Star Fox; mix it with the context-sensitive narration style of Bastion; add a dash of rogue-like elements and top it off with a choose-your-own-adventure style story and you basically have the recipe for the game.
You take the role of Reynardo, a sky-pirate fox who is taken out of his retirement when a once kind emperor, determined to resurrect old gods to become an immortal, starts pillaging and murdering the citizens of the floating islands of Boreas. When the emperor’s troops make it to Reynardo’s island, he is charged with protecting a rather annoying young rabbit and his mysterious book. Of course this mission goes wrong rather quickly when the young rabbit decides to run off, only to be vaporised moments later. With the only remains of the kid being his hat, belt and the mysterious book, Reynardo takes it upon himself to deliver the book to rebellion…but not before he takes a peek inside first.
The story begins a few years later, the rebels are on the ropes and the emperor’s forces are closing in on them. With little time left, Reynardo needs to choose his “game-changer” for the rebels: Rescuing his old friend Lapino, who appears to have a plan to defeat the emperor; or assembling a powerful ancient weapon, the Sky Ripper.
The player then chooses the path of the story, which ultimately culminates in a final showdown against the emperor and his fleet, but no matter what choices you make to get to that point, let’s just say it doesn’t work out too well for Reynardo. The story ends and the player is then presented with the game’s main mechanic; a chart of twenty-four stories with twenty-four different endings that can happen depending on the player’s choices, in addition to a twenty-fifth story that must be unlocked.
As it turns out, Reynardo is still on his ship heading towards the rebellion, the book laying out what destiny lies ahead of him depending on the choices he makes a few years in the future. But, with his first destiny revealed, Reynardo and the player will learn one of four truths that are necessary to finding the best ending to Reynardo’s tale.
Up until this point, I have to admit that I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic to keep playing after the first thirty to forty minutes that consisted of the introduction and first run-through of the story. The writing of the introduction seemed incredibly rushed in order to explain the premise of “You good guy, emperor bad, go beat him and save the day”. The tutorial section tried to explain the gameplay mechanics through jokes that almost always fell flat, and the combat as a whole felt very simplistic and far too easy, taking inspiration from the Arkham series and Metal Gear Rising: Revengance; but nothing more than the bare-bones “counter and attack” style of combat. During this entire section, I just had the repeating thought of “Is this it?”
But as soon as that screen of all the possible stories appeared, everything just seemed to click. It made sense that the intro seemed a little too quickly put together, as it’s there for the purpose of setting up the actual focal point of the game’s story. As the player goes through the story repeatedly, new enemy types such as shielded enemies and exploding enemies are introduced, forcing the player to react to more than just an incoming enemy attack. It didn’t make the introductory moments better by any stretch of the imagination, but in retrospect I can understand why the game started out that way.
Once the story actually begins, I found the writing presented by the game’s narrator, voiced by Julian Casey, very entertaining. Besides the general tone of the story being read as if it was an old fable, his context-sensitive reactions to the things I was doing gave the game a sense of upbeat charm; either making a silly pun out of it or cheekily lamenting that something in Reynardo’s past was the cause of it. It was especially entertaining to listen to him read out character dialogue in different voices, nailing Reynardo’s seemingly suave but gruff charm, while sounding hilarious trying to do any feminine voice for the female characters.
However, it’s also because of this fable-like tone that the game’s pop-culture references feel completely out of place. One particular example of this is the game’s reference to the Star Wars line “made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs”, only replacing “parsecs” with “FURsecs”. How witty of you.
A neat little addition to the narration is that depending on what truths the player knows, the narrator will comment on scenarios that relate to that truth. It gives a sense of dramatic irony when Reynardo knows the end result of a certain situation and tries to do things differently. Because of this, it makes narrative sense for the player making choices that don’t make sense, as if Reynardo is exploring every situation to see if any of them will work out for him in the end; which they almost never do.
Finding all of these truths doesn’t take very long, with each run through the story taking about thirty to forty minutes to complete depending on how much you explore the levels for items and materials to craft new weapons. As the game gives you an icon around the third story run which signifies which choices will lead to the discovery of a new truth, it will only take about five or six tries to unlock the “True Hero” ending, in which you use the knowledge of the four truths to end the story in the best possible way. If you simply want to discover the four truths and finish the story, then you’ll have a great time. However, because the story screen constantly tempts you with stories you haven’t found, I imagine that most players would find a need to unlock every story the game has. Story-wise, it’s the best way to play the game as it gives extra hints for how to complete the “True Hero” ending, as well as flesh out the personalities of the characters.
And if you’ve been wondering why I’ve only been talking about the story for the most part up to this point in the review, it’s because this temptation to see everything the game has to offer leads to its ultimate flaw; the story mechanic is really all the game has to keep itself interesting. Everything else on offer gameplay-wise either becomes mundane or is accomplished far too quickly. As a result, the process of unlocking all of the stories unfortunately becomes an adventure in tedium with nothing to keep the player interested between story beats.
Each level contains various colour-coded doors that will lead to chests and alternate paths if Reynardo has the corresponding sword to unlock it. While you only start off with the one sword, exploring levels for chests containing crafting materials will allow you to craft three other swords: Fire, Ice and Void; all of which not only act as keys for the doors, but also have a special ability to use in combat. However, each sword can only be upgraded once after they have been crafted, something that can be done by around the sixth or seventh play-through. Not that the upgrades do anything special in terms of their special abilities. Abilities only last as long as your “magic” bar, which unfortunately runs out incredibly quickly and takes quite a while to fill back up. As a result, I never really bothered with using any of the other swords abilities since I could maybe use them on two or three enemies at most; playing nearly the entire game using the first sword you’re given which heals HP, being the most practical ability of the set, and only switching to the other swords when I needed to open their respective doors.
Besides crafting materials, the player can also explore the levels for ability gems that give Reynardo certain perks in combat, including increased damage resistance and the ability to break enemy shields. There are seven types in total to find, each with three levels that upgrade their usefulness. Unfortunately, once each gem has been found and upgraded to their third level, they stop appearing in chests. Crafting materials also stop appearing in chests once all the swords have been crafted and upgraded, instead only giving the player health items. Because both gems and weapons can be upgraded fairly early on in the game, there is little reason to go off the standard paths once everything has been found. Which is especially unfortunate considering that the levels encourage exploration due to their change of layout depending on the player’s choices in the story beat leading up to it.
Besides exploring levels and finding chests, players will also need to fight during their journey between each level’s point A and point B, earning XP based on their performance. Once the player has enough XP, they are given a skill point which can be spent at certain points in each level to unlock a new skill on their ability tree. Thanks to the variety of enemies that appear and the first sets of skills you can unlock, combat becomes fairly tactical by forcing the player to focus on more difficult enemies first. As the game progresses, new skills make these encounters more rewarding by allowing the player to take down the more difficult enemies in faster, more effective ways. But eventually, this too can’t keep up with the game if you wish to unlock every story.
Once every enemy type is unlocked, something that happens within four or five story runs, it quickly becomes obvious that the enemy type combinations don’t really change in each combat area; they’re basically the same encounters from that point onward. This eventually makes combat fairly standard and repetitive, which is concerning considering that you’ll be visiting the game’s nine levels multiple times if you wish to unlock all the stories in the game. While the skills help ease the repetition of combat for a while, they eventually either become mundane stat upgrades towards health or damage, or they become significantly overpowered to the point of making combat encounters more bothersome, such as the ability to instantly kill enemies once your combo meter passes a certain mark.
After exploration runs out, combat becomes the only gameplay element outside of story choices, which eventually becomes mundane. As a result of this, gameplay sections between story beats will eventually turn into a considerable chore. While this can turn the task of unlocking all the stories the game has on offer into a bit of a grind, I highly recommend you stick with it if you’re planning on doing so. For the considerably low price the game is currently on offer for ($16.45AUD on PSN as of this review), you’ll be getting a beautiful looking game with a charming and entertaining story that is presented in a really interesting mechanic reminiscent of classic “choose-your-own-adventure” books. Just be prepared for the gameplay between story beats to become fairly repetitive if you’re looking to unlock every story the game offers to tell, which honestly makes the overall story of the game much richer for it.
Final Score: 3.5/5