Peter Molyneux is one of those shady characters in the gaming industry, lurking in every corner. You never know what he will come up with next. He was part of Bullfrog, who gave us such masterpieces as Syndicate and Dungeon Keeper, and after leaving Bullfrog he formed Lionhead Studios, which gave birth to the quite unorthodox strategy game series Black & White.
So when there was first rumour that he would also take on an RPG, rumours were flowing freely, and the question everyone asked themselves was “Will he be able to create a game in this narrow genre with the same charm and attractiveness as he has in other genres in the past?”.
From the moment Fable was introduced to a starved gaming community, it was clear that the magic word was “freedom”. So, does the game deliver as promised, or is it merely another of the numerous mediocre action-RPGs out there, collecting dust on a shelf?
And indeed, Fable is an action-RPG. Combat and movement is simple, controlled with the keyboard and mouse. Attack, block and flourish are where it’s at, and there’s nothing more to it. A simple, but effective control system ensures that battle is smooth and you will be swirling around in combat, throwing spells left and right while shooting arrows simultaneously in no time.
A very helpful feature, which the game would have been considerably harder without, is the ability to lock on to an enemy, which makes the Hero automatically follow him in combat. If it had not been implemented, finishing enemies off would have been a lot more confusing as there is no visual indication of how injured they are.
The interface in the game is a mixed bag. Most confusing is that the developers decided to make the menu, inventory, quest book and character overview into a single system. After finishing the game twice, I would still click on the wrong bars in the menu system when trying to reach my inventory. And clicking all the way through it just to use the same item several times is rather tedious.
A good thing about the inventory system is that it’s freely customisable…at least up to the nine slots you have available. More slots would have been welcome, with a possible toggling-key between them…as it is now, one would like to be able to have both spells and certain items readily available without trudging through the above mentioned inventory system, but no such luck.
Another feature which there can be mixed feelings about is the save feature in the game. The game is constructed in such a way that as long as you do not have undertaken a quest, you can save a game with the “World Save” option, which saves your location as well as all your items. By reloading such a game, you spawn in the area (at a predefined point, it seems like) where you saved your game.
Whenever you start a quest, there is the option of “Hero Save”, which saves all your accumulated experience and items in the slot you choose. This means you can complete the same quest over and over again, and by just choosing Hero Save, it automatically overwrites the character in the World Save. This is a golden opportunity for anyone who wishes to power-level, but hardly a desirable feature overall.
The most annoying part of this is that there are some very long and tedious quests that you will have no clear idea of whether you will have to replay the hour you just spent if you manage to die. Even more confusing is that in a few particular places, the Hero Save will actually save your current position in the middle of a quest.
…Albion, places and events of interest
Speaking of quests, this brings us to the main story and the overall pleasing layout of Fable.
Without spoiling too much, the game starts with the character as a young boy (no character customisation, I’m afraid) who watches his father killed and his entire village burned to the ground. He is rescued by a mysterious stranger who introduces him to the Heroes Guild, a central place in the game world that is Albion. In this Guild the player guides the young buy through his trials on the arduous road to becoming a Hero.
It would have been nice to be able to skip this part, because after having finished the game once, there’s really no point in learning to attack straw dummies with a bow or a stick.
The story that follows is nothing spectacular, and in some places it is sorely lacking, not to mention predictable. The logbook is filled automatically, but the entries are short and in all it feels as if there was not enough effort put into making the player actually want to learn more of his history (or destiny, for that part). There are also some books in the game, which is always a plus, but these are seldom longer than a single paragraph.
And thus the Hero journeys throughout Albion, solving quests given to him by the Heroes’ guild or fund on his own. There are not many of these non-guild quests, but there are a few ones, more or less complicated.
It is in the world of Fable that the strong parts of the game shine through. The environments vary from deep forests to snowy coastlines, and in all this there are no restrictions of how you act. Ambush traders and kill them for their gold, break into houses, vandalize, steal. Just make sure there are no guards around. Interestingly enough, there doesn’t seem to be any connection between the towns, since you can go on a killing spree in one town and then walk around unhindered in another. Still, it is refreshing not to be attacked on sight for merely being evil. And of course, all this affects your character; Not only visually, but also how people react to you.
All reactions in the game seems to be based on “Renown”, how well known you are. If you are simply a malicious character without much prowess or an impressive Hero name, people will boo at you and curse you. When you are more powerful, they will run and cower in fear of you. All this does not have any real effect in the game, but it is a nice touch.
What would have been interesting is if the bandits in the game had not attacked you on sight, but instead offered you quests. As it is now, any quests (both good and evil) can be taken by any character. This limits the replayability value considerably.
There are also a number of interactions to be had with NPCs; you can flirt them, dance around, try and impress people and show off your trophies. This will increase your renown, and some people might like you more. There’s even the possibility of getting married, and although this is all very shallow and the NPCs more often than not don’t even have names, it’s an interesting option.
Houses and shops can be bought, and then rented for some extra money. Is there a certain shop you’d like to own, but that isn’t for sale? Follow the owner home and assassinate him, and voila, there’s suddenly a shop available for sale. This won’t make you popular, but then again, if that’s the way you play the game, it’s not exactly a priority, is it?
Just a regular fantasy world, or?
The world itself is a charming place, and the name ‘Fable’ definitely have a right to its name. There’s a certain charm in a world where the populace expects there to be Heroes and it is considered a job as any other. It is very hard to describe, but it feels as if Fable aimed to be both a parody at the whole fantasy genre at once, while at the same time praising it. And they managed it quite well. Such a small thing as the comments that the guards make in the childhood part of the game can make one chuckle.
However, the areas of the game are far too small to be called “maps” in the same way as e.g. Oblivion. They are usually more similar to a wider road filled with monsters leading to the next area. This is a shame, because these areas feel alive with birds and small animals in your path.
Graphics and sound
Graphically, the game is dated by today’s standards, but running it at full resolution, there are really no major problems. The character animation (especially facial animation) could be a lot better, but this is a game more focused on action than dialogue or a deep intrigues, so that is forgivable. The quaintly designed villages and forested areas are well done, and they manage to convey just the right atmosphere.
As for sound, there’s really nothing unusual. The usual sword sounds, grunts from defeated enemies and sizzling spells. What stands out is the music. Russell Shaw (and Danny Elfmann in the first theme) has managed to put something special together here. Whatever tune comes out of your speakers, there is a certainty that it fits whatever is happening in the game. When trudging through the mysterious Greatwood, strings and other instruments come together to form something akin to Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King. The soundtrack to the game has been released separately and is highly recommended for anyone who likes classical scores.
As any respectable RPG has, there is of course character development included. A good choice from the developers was to divide the experience points into category specific (Strength, Will, Skill) and general experience points. This means that for every foe you vanquish, you will both get experience points depending on the method you used and also general experience points. These general experience points can be spent on anything, but the category specific points can only be spent in that specific category. This way, it is quite possible to develop a fierce mage who is also able to deal out a great damage with physical weapons.
It’s a shame there are next-to-none really interesting special items. The special items that are acquired can be found in the world through ancient “Demon Doors” (who require something specific of you, more or less humorous), but there are rarely any special abilities to them. Maybe I am just spoiled, but when I put on an assassin’s outfit, I expect some extra sinister abilities, or a bonus to my sneak skill, not just a cool appearance.
But the game is also far too short, and far too easy. Playing at a normal place as it’s meant to be played, with no accumulating overly much experience points, I still had no problems at all beating the final boss in the game, and only slight problems beating him in The Lost Chapters. There is no difficulty setting either, which I have not seen in any RPG before this one.
Fable is a game that tries so much at the same time, and where it succeeds in some parts it fails in many others. But the game has “it”, that makes you pop the CD into the computer just for another hour of game play. It’s simply good old-fashioned fun, even though it may not be all that it was hyped to be.
Are they dead? Yes. Unlike you they have but one life...and they wasted it for your sake!