Stories: The Path of Destinies Review
Telling a rich narrative that gives a solid feeling of choice is something that video gaming has tried to do for ages. It's difficult to get a programmed media to really feel like you can do whatever you want. Even if you choose for Mario to warp to world 4 or world 3 when going into the secret pipe area, you still are working toward the main goal of rescuing the princess. Recently, Mass Effect pushed the envelope of choice, making you truly feel as if you were controlling the destinies of every life in the galaxy. But, as the backlash occurred, it became obvious that coming back to a storyline that ties up all the ends means you have to pare the impact of the decisions down to a scant few differences. While we may never truly get an epic, hours-long story that knits every decision we ever make into one storyline that truly feels like your choices make a difference, smaller titles such as Stories: The Path of Destinies can weave your choices into an exciting tale no matter what path you take.
Playing as a fox pirate captain in a beautiful cel-shaded environment, you make choices at the end of each Diablo-esque isometric level. While the main goal of taking down the evil emperor remains, you'll find your attention focused on saving your friends, getting the girl, or finding weapons of immense power. As you play, you find that not everything is as it's cracked up to be. Certain "truths" come to light, and you "finish" the game with a negative ending. Suddenly, the book you pick up at the start of the game activates, rewinding you to the beginning again, taking your equipment and experience back with you. There are plenty of levels, spread through the web of decisions that lead to a whopping 25 "endings." The one true ending is reserved for when you find out every truth and follow a path that prevents all of the mistakes. Think of it as Groundhog Day: Fantasy Edition. By reliving your life over and over and understanding the mistakes you made, you can find the way to a happy end. I absolutely love the art style. The shading is beautiful, and they use the power of the PS4 (or PC) with huge, deep levels that you see the depths of as moving platforms zoom you all over. You can see three or four tiers down as you glide to your destination. Forewarning: As the game looks very lighthearted and fun, it does cover some darker subjects, with the occasional cursing involved. As a big fan of mature animation, this was something I could handle, but just a forewarning for those who may be thinking this is something to buy younger kids: play it with them, much as you'd review a movie prior to letting them run free.
Story is shared through simple yet beautiful artwork, scrawled across the pages of a book. Much like the hit title Braid, a narrator reads the book out to the player as they make their choices. All characters are voiced by this wonderful voice artist, who sounds like he's reading a tale to the audience. Plenty of narrative choices are available, meaning that you rarely, if ever, hear the same thing twice, even if it's the fifth or sixth time you're trying an area. In battle, there are only a handful of different enemies, but they all have predictable patterns. Key to the game is learning that enemy A needs his shield pulled away before being attacked, enemy B will explode when attacked, enemy C will power up other enemies, and mixing priority with enemy patterns (their explosions will hurt other enemies as well) to smoothly cut your way through each arena area. Battles take place in designated zones. What I liked the most about battles is that you got bonuses for perfect sessions where you didn't get hit at all. This helped me realize that there could always be a way through if you were skilled enough, even if your health was near zero. This helped me push on further every time I thought all was lost. As you level up, you learn new skills, such as grappling, dashing, and throwing, that help you build your combo meter with finesse.
There is a simple crafting and upgrade system, giving you a chance to craft four different blades with different magical properties. You can also engage three different power up gems during play to increase strength, defense, speed, and the like. During certain paths, you find yourself with additional weaponry that boosts your stats or attack powers. The developers smartly locked doors with the swords. You have to buy your swords with collectibles through the areas, meaning the first time you run through an area you won't see everything, so those subsequent playthroughs still allow you to find a fresh zone or new materials. I found all of my swords and gems maxed out by the time I found all of the truths allowing me to unlock the true ending. The game allows you to go back and make other choices, good or bad, to see more of the ways the story could go. While it will be fun to go back and see all 25 of the endings, I am sad to know that overall my weaponry won't get much more amazing.
As you play and become more powerful, levels get easier, which is beneficial when you are pushing through the early levels you've already been in to get to your new choices. Nearing the end of the game sees you completing a "story" to an "ending" in roughly twenty minutes. The game becomes less about survival and more about finesse, as you learn more efficient ways to defeat your enemies. As I said, though, there's only a handful of enemy types, so there are no real bosses to speak of. While I did enjoy the story and understand the twists and turns, there were a few times I thought "ooh, boss battle" but the story didn't go there. You don't get to attack the swashbuckling cat you are chasing, the story causes her to join you or run. Make your way to the emperor, and there's no epic showdown, simply some more (very well done) story panels. The last area of the game was challenging, yes. It was insanely fun as I used my fully-stocked character to tackle the grunts. But in the end, it was simply a harder battle that I'd seen many times before. Maybe having your compatriot who is with you near the end join you to help battle enemies (storywise, they are supposed to be right beside you) or even having a stronger enemy in the mix that still had the predictable patterns but was designed to be the "end boss" amidst the chaos. The battle was over, and there was the end. I enjoyed it immensely. I just wanted that tag.
Overall, Stories: The Path of Destinies is easily recommended. Not only is it very fun, the value pricing make it almost a no-brainer. People who can't get into the upgrade system or learning finesse in the attacks may see unnecessary repetition, topped off by the lack of boss battles, but people who invest time in learning how to defeat a horde of enemies without a scratch will be deeply satisfied. I dream of this team being insanely visionary one day, creating a sequel (be it same universe or spiritual) that could allow multiple people to play their game, with their paths crossing where the story allowed. Think about it: what if your decisions led to a certain battlefield, whilst another person playing a different character could achieve their unique goals via the same means, teaming up for victory. At the very least, I'd like to see some nice endcaps, such as unique bosses or something that "felt" like more of an ending rather than just rolling more story pages. These are mere suggestions, not meant to detract from the quality of this title though. Stories: The Path of Destinies will provide you with a few nights of fun if you rush for the end, and last quite a long time for anyone looking to fill up the story's branches.
Thanks to the developers for providing a review copy. Links to all the ways to purchase the game can be found on the game's website.
Final score: 4.5/5