Much like the cheeky fox who serves as the main protagonist for the game, there is far more to Stories: The Path of Destinies than first meets the eye. Indeed, early impressions can seem beguiling; Stories would appear to be some sort of PG-rated Diablo clone as players take accidental hero fox Reynardo on a swashbuckling journey through a multitude of colourful and vibrantly realised locales en route to foiling the wicked designs of a nefarious emperor. Fortunately then, it doesn’t take long at all before the Montreal developed title begins to show its true colours.
The first thing that Stories does to distance itself from its seemingly bog-standard hack and slash remit is the use of a dynamic narration system that will be familiar to anyone who has been fortunate enough to play Bastion from Supergiant Games, or its more recent spiritual successor, Transistor. For the unfamiliar, a disembodied voice narrates everything you do from smashing crates to chronicling key story points and much more besides.
Where Stories especially excels in this area however, is in the quality of the voice actor who lends their voice box to these narration duties. At once cheeky, descriptive and wonderfully charismatic, the narrator sounds far closer to the sort that one might expect from a Discworld audiobook (with the same actor covering all the roles) rather than the stoically stuffy tones of Bastion’s narrative commentator. Of course by itself a dynamic narration system, no matter how accomplished, is not enough to meaningfully separate Stories from its peers who employ similar delivery, but where Stories does manage to achieve some level of distinction is in the branching story structure that it embraces.
Eschewing the typically well-travelled act by act layout of similar fare, Stories allows the player to make key decisions at the end of every chapter to push the narrative down one or more different avenues. Whether it’s choosing to save a long-time friend over building a war-ending superweapon, or, electing to use said weapon or not once you’ve built it, it’s clear that there is ample opportunity for expanding the breadth of the narrative in many different ways. Fortunately, the writing is actually highly entertaining and despite Stories’ seemingly child friendly demeanour, it ostensibly owes far more to the likes of Terry Pratchett than to anything remotely comparable from toddler land.
The ultimate upshot of this system is that Stories has some twenty-four different endings for players to discover, which might seem daunting on initial glance, but as each play through only spans four or so chapters which can all be nailed in just over an hour, it becomes a far more achievable feat than you might first realise. Beyond the additional longevity that chasing multiple endings affords, there’s also a real substantive cleverness to how this system is handled too.
Rather than just having the player plough through one ending scenario after another, there are actually four ‘truths’ that can be uncovered which help to inform your choices on successive playthroughs. One example of this is completing a scenario where you get betrayed by a companion and then that betrayal is enshrined as a truth; a constant fact that never changes which then allows you to steer your decision making in a different direction the next time you play. In tandem with the excellent voice work, what really makes this whole dynamic function so well is just how self-aware Stories is of its branching structure; the narrator playfully and frequently reminding the player of transgressions inflicted upon them by the same characters in previously played scenarios.
Away from the overarching narrative structures of the game, Stories actually acquits itself fairly deftly on the ARPG front too. At the centre of its ARPG beats is the combat system, which feels like a union of Diablo and the Batman Arkham games. In reference to the former, Stories has you nipping about the place, cutting up barrels and chests all the while you lay the smackdown on a bunch of raven-faced enemies. There are no real spells or ranged attacks in Stories, outside of a grappling hook that can stun and steal the shields of your enemies, so basically all the time you spend laying the smackdown on your enemies is done so up close in melee range and it is here that the similarity to Rocksteady’s Arkham games rears its pointy, bat-shaped noggin.
Just before an enemy makes an attack, an exclamation mark will appear over their head to warn the player of the incoming strike and during this brief window of opportunity a counter can be triggered that stuns the enemy, allowing you to finish them off in quick fashion. While melee countering systems are common to many games, few manage to ape Arkham Asylum’s yo-yo style where you can literally leap from one countered enemy to another, yet Stories manages to do this; creating a real feeling of combat momentum in the process.
When you’re not smashing fools into the floor then, you tend to find yourself rummaging about the skill tree menu screens and it’s here that you can plough experience points earned from flat-lining enemies into such categories as increased health, faster movement and even the ability to slow down time to make countering during combat a far more relaxed affair.
In addition to shoving points into these skill trees, you can also scoop up ore and other materials from fallen enemies to construct new swords and ability buffing gems. In the case of fashioning fresh long pointy things, these new blades serve a dual purpose as they not only allow you to deal various types of elemental damage in combat but also can be used as keys for correspondingly coded doors in order to access the loot within. This proves to be an intriguing mechanic in particular as some doors cannot be accessed on early playthroughs simply because you won’t have the right swords to open them. However, each time you finish a scenario you get to keep all your abilities and gear in order to access places that were previously impossible to reach.
As much the Groundhog Day meets Bastion concept is a neat one, it does open itself up to a fair degree of repetition. From running the same areas to fighting the same raven enemy types over and over, it can sometimes only be the promise of a different ending that gets you through some of the later playthroughs. In particular, the issue of repeated enemy types is exacerbated by a real lack of boss encounters; something that the Diablo hardcore will almost certainly take issue with.
All told though, Stories is an undeniably beautiful looking game. Awash with generous swathes of colour, vibrancy and oodles of character, Stories looks like the sort of game that Rare would have made before they decided to stop making games and start making whatever it is that they make for Microsoft these days.
It’s a shame then that despite that for everything that Stories does right, and it does do a lot right, a smattering of technical foibles succeed in tarnishing the entire affair to a limited extent. For a start, the impressive visual veneer of Stories is frequently undermined by an unstable framerate that at best occasionally dips during heated encounters and at worse drops to an absolute crawl when there’s a lot happening on the screen.
The most troubling of its technical transgressions though remain rooted in the myriad of glitches and bugs that can plague any given playthrough of the game. On one level where you have to scale a mountain peak for instance, you can find yourself stuck in the graphics and with no way to escape or kill yourself, you are forced to restart the level from the very beginning. This happened to me three times and it was pad crushingly frustrating to say the least. Further afield, other players have also been reporting other similarly serious incidents such as the game glitching and crashing out on certain endings and other such related problems. As such, it’s abundantly clear that Stories probably need a little longer at the editor’s house before it was ready for publishing.
Stories: The Path of Destines is a wonderful little ARPG that really does bring something compelling to the table in the form of its wonderful dynamic narration and branching story structure. It’s just toweringly disappointing that a big old bunch of technical issues tragically detract from what is otherwise a real page turner of a game.