The decision branch is a gameplay mechanic that saw mainstream success in Telltale and then several lacklustre attempts. Thankfully, Stories: The Path of Destinies takes the decision branch mechanic and drills it deeper, rather than wider. Instead of attempting a scope too vast and in reality delivering players with a surface experience where every decision will ultimately reap the same effects, The Path of Destinies explores every possible repercussion in often devastating depth.
This action PS4 title follows a pretty generic overall narrative as rogue fox pirate Reynardo seeks to defeat a tyrannical space ruler. What sparkles here however is the storybook framing of the action. Each level is a chapter in a fairytale, with each piece of dialogue and every event being lovingly narrated by Julian Casey and the story dipping in and out of pages in a storybook fashion. Each of the five chapters contains four crucial decision points which do indeed alter the fabric of the narrative, each decision takes you down a different path with alternate consequences and endings – it feels like how a decision based game should run. However, one play through lasts around half an hour and you’ll find the bulk of the game in retreading old territory in search of that fairytale happy ending. This is where the depth of the narrative takes over. The whole experience feels more like a universe itself, rather than a series of linear narrative events that the player is tricked into thinking are their doing. It’s a game built for depth, not scope, of narrative.
While some will find this repetition frustrating, others will revel in the chance to configure each decision appropriately and ‘beat’ the game. There are other mechanics along the way to make these re-runs a bit more bearable. Crafting is a major element to both the gameplay and story – throughout your travels you will gather ore and essence to create four different swords. Each of these swords can unlock new areas within chapters and feature their own unique attributes and attacks. There is at times however some conflict between the sword abilities and combat itself. Not only is combat often stiff, with a slight sticky lag after a sword swing and infrequent yet very present glitching, but the attributes of the swords you build often negate some key areas of combative gameplay. The healing sword for example keeps you topped up on health (no shit sherlock), however this renders every other weapon relatively meaningless – there’s nothing to lose, you are literally undefeatable. Nevertheless, the enemies are all brilliantly constructed and suited to different abilities earned in skill trees. They keep you strategising to an extent that making the actual gameplay decisions feel like a welcome cognitive break from the combat.
This occasional glitching is one part of a sad web of technical difficulties however. It can be easy to overcome the lag in combat, however the frame rate issues on PS4 detract significantly from the overall experience. There are times when a drop will lead to unresponsive actions and incredibly frustrating battle losses, as well as some environmental crashes that lead to a complete reboot of the game. While this is discouraging in the combat and exploration arena, it’s devastating when you look at the beauty of the artwork.
The effort and detail that has been applied to this game is obvious from the lovingly whimsical art direction. Bright colours contrast moody tones to perfectly complement the theme of the fractured storybook. Small details are brought to the forefront of player perception through the vibrancy of these colours, and though shading is rare and character rendering is basic it’s in keeping with the fairytale aesthetic and stylisation. On top of this there are a wealth of characters to meet along the way. Discovering the stories and personalities of these figures makes every decision carry just a little more weight.
Charming and addictive, Stories: The Path of Destinies takes the nostalgia of the simple fairytale and blends it with the exploration of top down dungeon crawlers and depth of the decision branch mechanic. With over twenty stories to take part in, the repetitive nature of the game can sometimes lead to boredom however it’s a necessity for the kind of dynamic narrative depth this game seeks to achieve. The repetition itself feels self-conscious – a nod to the way stories and fairytales sit in the mind of the child and become altered with time and memory while experienced again and again.
Developer: Spearhead Games
System: PC, PS4 (reviewed)