Check out screenshots of The StoryTale and you’d be forgiven for feeling underwhelmed. It looks like an overly traditional 2D platformer, with the usual pixel art and repeated enemies. The two main characters, switching between levels, are as generic as they come: a Princess who has hopped through a portal to another world for a spot of adventure, and an Immortal Prince, who always seems to be out of her reach. The one smidgeon of interest is that the Immortal Prince’s immortality is more than just a title, as the Prince bounces off attacks like a pinball.
What won’t come across is how exceptionally generous The StoryTale is. In pure quantity terms, you are getting 70 levels for the remarkable price of £4.19, and while they start short and extremely easy, they can develop into ten-minuters. Most of them have two, completely optional, ways of dredging more out of them: a heart is hidden on the level, often behind a ‘challenge door’, while friendly goblins will ask for an item that’s been lost in the level, and you can fetch-quest it back to them. As a result, these 70 levels aren’t flimsy: they have a decent amount of depth, and it’s completely up to you whether you engage with that depth.
As a note, we recommend that you at least do the fetch quests. There’s a lovely mechanic at play, as bringing an item to a friendly goblin – often a staff, sword, food, teddy or their grandma – not only notches an achievement (these run out about halfway through), but that friendly goblin will replace enemy goblins in future levels. You are effectively reducing the difficulty of future levels. This is a great little touch, and something we’d love to see in other games. It’s not perfect, though, as friendly goblins aren’t distinguished from enemy goblins well enough, so you’ll often be dodging what you think are enemies, but hey – you have to appreciate the idea.
70 levels could soon grow tiresome, and it’s true that they don’t maintain the pace. The opening dozen or so aren’t varied enough, and there’s every chance that players will duck out early with a sneer. There’s not enough glueing the levels together, either: while there is a story, it’s extremely lean, and voiced introductions for each level are well-performed but ultimately irrelevant, including fluffy poems and stories about the Princess’s grandad. The heart collectibles you earn don’t really have a purpose, and mechanics switch in and out slightly too regularly per level, making it feel like you are playing a series of Super Mario Maker levels, or a game constructed by AI, rather than something particularly authored.
On the flip of that, The StoryTale never sits still, and that can make it an exciting game in bursts. It constantly mixes up the rules of each level, handing you new abilities at every turn. Maxim Nuriev, who should take a bow for what he’s achieved on his own here, has built a toybox, and he can’t help picking up and putting down different toys on each level. It can feel disorienting, but it certainly keeps you on your toes.
The Princess in particular will pick up spells that can make her giant, float, drop springs on a whim, build cloud platforms, swim, move in slow motion, and control time through movement, like a bite-sized Braid. Sometimes you’ll get to choose from these spells; other times you’ll cycle through them on a timer. The Prince gains a hammer that can catapult him in different directions, while his levels feel naturally different (and easier), as he has the whole invulnerability thing. The StoryTale has so many ideas and gimmicks that it could have viably created a game around each of them (and lesser designers likely would have done).
The slow motion spell in particular (introduced with a not-so-subtle reference to the game SUPERHOT) is a dream. The world is slowed down, yet you can move increments faster than it. It works brilliantly, as you can pinpoint your jumps perfectly, duck under jumping enemies and generally get all Neo. It’s a wonder that it hasn’t been attempted (at least, to our knowledge) in a 2D platformer before – at least, as themes for entire levels rather than just a power-up.
Other abilities are hit and miss, although the hits do outweigh the misses. The Braid ability works as well as it did in Braid (although the levels aren’t quite as clever), and super-sizing your Princess into an Incredible Hulk never gets old. The poorer abilities butt up against the game’s engine and cause infuriations. For example, the Hammer can send you flying, but you can only use it on a flat surface or it won’t work, so you are often maneuvering to find a flat place to use it. Creating clouds is fine, but the rules around where you create them, and whether you can create them reliably mid-jump, is appropriately foggy.
Tech infuriations and weird design quirks do plague The StoryTale. The camera wanders off at points, leaving your character at the top or bottom of screens. The designer has put in a fantastic safety net, in the form of ghostly, red shadows on the fringes of the screen to show that spikes or enemies are waiting, should you make a leap of faith, but it can feel like it’s papering over the camera’s cracks. The platforming controls are okay: a little slippy and hard to judge arcs, and in congested areas with a lot of enemies you don’t have the precision that you need. The difficulty curve peaks and troughs wildly throughout the game, which exacerbates that problem: you can absolutely chew through dozens of levels before hitting one that is spectacularly difficult, and that is just as likely to happen at level 10 as it is at level 70.
But just as you encounter a bewildering design decision that you can’t account for (playing a level entirely made up of invisible platforms is absolutely, definitely not fun), the game does something completely new. As an example, you get coloured keys, and those coloured keys open chests. Boring, right? Well, those chests contain a new colour of key, which you will need to open the next chest, up until you get the hallowed green key that opens the level’s exit. What makes this so great is that keys persist over death, so you have two separate checkpoint systems in the game: the actual checkpoints found in the level, and the keys. It creates one more way that you feel like you are progressing, which also allows the designer to make the levels more difficult. It’s rare in The StoryTale to feel like you have been overly punished; that you have to backtrack or complete a feat that you have already completed.
It’s the constant back-and-forth between great ideas and not-so-great ideas, technical shortcomings and imaginative solutions to those shortcomings, that define The StoryTale on Xbox. For every step back, it takes one forward. But The StoryTale doesn’t let that stop its attempts to innovate: even with a 50% hit-rate on its ideas, it keeps trying them out, and that should be celebrated. If you have patience, a touch of forgiveness and a love for 2D platforming, then The StoryTale is an absolute embarrassment of riches at the bargain price of £4.19.