Way back in 2011, Supergiant Games made waves with Bastion, the isometric brawler with a gorgeous aesthetic, deeply satisfying combat, and a fantastical story brought to life by a gifted narrator. Now, in 2016, all those same righteous descriptors apply to Stories: The Path of Destinies, a PS4 and PC action RPG set to debut on April 12th (as part of PlayStation's Launch Party 2016 event this summer). I got the chance to play through a brief demo at GDC, and all the brilliant games it brought to mind - Bastion, the Batman: Arkham series, Armello, the criminally underplayed PS3 platformer Puppeteer - have rocketed Stories to the upper echelons of my most anticipated games in 2016. It's that good.
Looks can be deceiving: though the colorful world and cast of anthropomorphic animals could make you mistake Stories as strictly for kids, the plot is actually a complex, mature scenario (hence the Armello comparison). You play as Reynardo, a roguish fox (and ex-pirate) who's a key player in a rebellion against an oppressive emperor. Though Reynardo doesn't yet know it, he'll actually be the deciding factor that determines which side wins the impending final battle - but this isn't an all-or-nothing scenario set in stone. Much like Tom Cruise's character in the time-looping action flick Edge of Tomorrow, Reynardo is able to relive the events leading up to the climactic conflict thanks to the magical Book of Destiny, and in turn rethink all the choices he's made along the way.
Those choices are crucial to the overall tone of Stories. You'll frequently be forced to pick between two options that take the plot in wildly different directions: perhaps you'll opt for the goody-two-shoes, friendship-is-power path like I did, or maybe you'll go for the nuclear option and rebuild a legendary weapon known as the Skyripper to assure the rebellion's victory. There are dozens of choice combinations to be made over the course of a playthrough, and only by seeing them through will you discover which choices lead to the most favorable results. With this newfound knowledge, you can warp back to the beginning and try to stack the fates in your favor.
To help formulate a plan to take down the emperor, I chose to rescue my captive bunny buddy Lapino from a pack of burly raven soldiers. This led to a brightly lit, picturesque vista full of colorful decorations and breakable objects (I was told the other choice could lead me a down a path towards elements of Lovecraftian horror, but I just can't help being the good guy). As with Bastion, everything in Stories' world is voiced by an endearing narrator, including some amusing quips during gameplay. All the voicework is done by this one man, who - much like the delightful narrator of Puppeteer - will shift his pleasant, elderly tone into a variety of voices to match whichever characters are currently in the spotlight. It gives the whole game an air of being told an old bedtime story by a spirited grandparent - only here, you get to live out all the fantastical fights yourself.
Combat in Stories is fun, flashy, and incredibly gratifying. The tempo of Reynardo's swordfights closely mimics Batman's thug-pummeling beatdowns in the Arkham series, but simplified so that almost everything can be accomplished with your basic attack button. Tapping Square will either attack or counter an enemy's incoming swing depending on your timing, while holding it down will grab the nearest target to be thrown at other mooks or off perilous ledges.
Though these fight mechanics could theoretically reduce the swordplay to simply mashing the Square button, I was having a spectacular time trying to perfectly link up every sword slash and counterattack in a wondrous free-flow rhythm, which (much like the Dark Knight's many fistfights) awards bonus experience based on your performance. Interestingly, Stories' combat also takes some inspiration from Fallout's VATS system: if you choose to do nothing after connecting with a hit, time will slow to a crawl, giving you the opportunity to perfectly plot out your next offensive maneuver. Again, while this could theoretically make losing encounters nearly impossible, it feels so immensely satisfying when you're playing that I was practically entranced by the ebb and flow of every skirmish.
I barely had any time to mess around with Stories' many other intriguing features: multiple swords you can swap between on the fly, each with their own power (including gloriously chaotic explosions); crafting to buff up your arsenal or create gems that enhance your abilities; an entire skill tree that sticks in Reynardo's mind even after he goes back in time. I absolutely need to know where Reynardo's many choices will take him, and how my heroic saga will twist and turn as a result; I'm told that even the music in Stories will be a reflection of all the decisions you've made. But the bottom line is this: when a game reminds me so strongly of Bastion, it's pretty much guaranteed to be a good time. And from what little I've played, I can already tell that Stories: The Path of Destinies is going to be amazing, in many of the same ways as Bastion but also in its own right.