Another Take – Fable

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For Every Flaw, A Distinction

Fable was developed by Lionhead Studios and originally released on the original Xbox in late 2004. A year after its first release, it was released on PC and again on Xbox with ‘The Lost Chapters’ subtitle. This release extended the end of the game including new areas, along with more quests and other improvements. In 2014, Fable Anniversary was released for both Xbox 360 and PC. This release is essentially ‘The Lost Chapters’ with graphical overhaul. I have played through both the 2005 PC release, the Xbox 360 version of Fable Anniversary and I also own the original release for Xbox. I’ll be taking all these versions into account with this review.

Fable is both fondly remembered and notoriously disappointing for falling short of the lofty expectations that grew during its development cycle. The cause of the latter is the infamous over-promising of Peter Molyneux, the lead designer who arguably cemented this reputation with Fable. Nothing in the years since has done much to crack this image, especially with his more recent project, Godus. It would be unfair not to also include the many media outlets who were happy to promote this unrealised ambition. Whatever you may think of this reputation, Molyneux is a legend, having created influential and fondly remembered games like Populous, Syndicate and Dungeon Keeper. Fable is another game I would include with these titles, based totally on its own merits.

For those with no knowledge of the series, Fable is an action/adventure game in a medieval English fantasy setting. The game begins with your character as a boy in Oakvale, a village in the world of Albion. It is your sister’s birthday and you are initially tasked with helping villagers to earn money to buy a present for her. You are acquainted with this peaceful world just long enough to see it torn down. From here you wind up in the Heroes’ Guild where you quickly grow up while learning the games various mechanics and being introduced to important characters. The early part of the game is over quickly and you are soon able to adventure outside the guild and explore the world as a grown man.

The Heroes’ Guild is the hub where you take both story quests and side quests. Story quests are marked with gold markers and side quests with silver. There are also quests that can be found in the game world from inhabitants. An interesting feature with the quests is the option to take extra challenges for quests in the form of “boasts”. Your hero character will stand on a podium and you can challenge yourself to complete quests without armour, without taking damage and or with a variety of other conditions. Doing so will give you extra rewards. If you want to carry on with the story quest, it is always clear where you need to go. The game is paced in such a way that you are gradually opening new areas so that you’re never really lost for where to go or what to do. While the world is never overwhelming, the ability to quick travel or warp through “Cullis Gates” is too limited. This is especially so late in the game where you will have to travel back through multiple areas because there is no nearby Cullis Gate. The Darkwood area in particular could have used a central Cullis Gate.

One of the most touted features of Fable at the time was the morality system and the game was originally promoted with the motto, “For Every Choice, A Consequence.” In practice this is not quite as deep as the language may imply. Throughout the game you are given choices which are invariably in the extremes of nasty or nice. One of the earliest side quest options has you choosing between defending a settlement from bandits or helping the bandits slaughter everyone. You are also often given choices such a keeping something valuable or giving it back to the person who owns it. Outside of this you can choose how you interact with people around town. You can help them, steal from them, marry them, kill them and many combinations there of. All of these actions will contribute to your moral alignment. Characters with evil alignment will look devilish and good characters will literally have a halo on their head. Your alignment also affects how people in Albion react to you, either singing your praises as you pass or cowering in fear. It is certainly a fun feature, especially for the time but it lacks the nuance of more recent games where the consequences of actions are far less knowable and choices far less binary.

The progression system is designed similarly with every combat encounter giving you experience. The leveling isn’t automated so all points will have to be spent manually at the Heroes’ Guild. The general experience points can be spent anywhere but you can also earn specific points for use with the three combat systems; melee, ranged and magic. The more you use one of these, the more points you will earn. In all my playthroughs, I found myself preferring to use melee but it is generally wise to upgrade all as all three systems are useful in the world. You’re also able to upgrade in other areas such as extending your health and magic power and increasing your resistance to damage. This aspect of the game is one that I particularly enjoyed as there are no restrictions with your stats and it is possible, though certainly time consuming, to make your character formidable in every way. In practice this won’t be necessary as you will likely reach the game’s end long before achieving this.

The gameplay varies based on the version you play but the mechanics are generally easy to learn. My most recent playthrough for this review was with the Anniversary version which includes controls similar to Fable II. Three of the face buttons are related to specific combat systems making it easy to switch between them. Combat is basic with simple combos, a dodge roll and block systems in place. Most enemies throughout the game are easy to defeat and the only real challenge comes from being attacked in packs which is made more annoying when the framerate slows down too. Items as well as spells can be used to restore magic and lost health and are abundant to the point where you’ll rarely run out of them. What I found most cumbersome are the menus which took a while to get used to. Items can be assigned for quick use but just getting them set isn’t all that intuitive. There are plenty of clothing, armour and weapon upgrades in the game which are accessed in these same menus.

While there are plenty of characters you can talk to, these people will usually only give you information or instructions. Most interaction with the games characters come in the form of canned expressions and actions. These will provoke many responses from dislike and disgust to love and laughter. Striking poses, dancing, laughing, glaring and breaking wind are there more for the players enjoyment, as they don’t have any impact on the direction of the game. Charismatic actions can cause people to fall in love with you and as mentioned, you have the option to get married. The lack of relevance to the quest isn’t really an issue as these aspects add a lot of character to the game and interacting with villagers is something I found myself sinking a lot of play time into. Additionally, there is also the option to buy property including homes and even shops. Again, there is no overall purpose to this other than adding variety to the game.

The overarching story is compelling if not all that original. There are some twists along the way and plenty of interesting characters. What makes Fable stand out though is the character of the world itself. For lack of a better description; the game is very British. This is something evident throughout the world’s design but the voice cast in particular do a lot to bring Albion alive. There is a lot of humour in the game from the sardonic to the slapstick. This comes through in interactions with characters and what you hear as you travel through towns and along roadways. Even today, there aren’t really any games quite like Fable. This is something that certainly I and many who have fond memories of Fable, will remember above everything else.

So Fable is a definite recommendation to those who haven’t experienced this now classic action/adventure title. Much of the criticism you may have heard is no doubt true but the game is so unique that even today, I can overlook its many flaws. As for which version you should play, I would recommend the PC release of Fable: The Lost Chapters as the most stable (and cheapest). The Xbox 360 version of Fable Anniversary froze frequently for me both when installed on the HDD and running from the disc. Even without these issues, the graphical upgrades and  few other enhancements aren’t enough to warrant preferring it over the previous versions. Although many may disagree, I also don’t think the extra content released with The Lost Chapters makes the first release any less worth your time if it’s all you have access to. Despite not reaching the ambitious goals of its creators, Fable is a excellent game on its own terms and certainly a modern classic.

October, 2015

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