Designed by the near legendary Peter Molyneux, and said to contain a revolutionary gaming experience, Fable quickly garnered much attention after its initial announcement almost four years ago. Now that the game has finally been released, is it worth picking up, or does is crumble under the weight of its own hype?
Fable puts you in the shoes of a boy from a land called Albion who is orphaned and finds refuge at a training ground for heroes. There, you train and transform from a puny runt into a fine young hero, ready to venture out and help (or hurt) the world. The core storyline revolves around the mystery of what really happened to your family the night you were orphaned. The plot itself isn’t revolutionary by any means, but it suffices and is certainly enough to maintain your interest in the game.
One of the big touted aspects of Fable was that it was ?supposed’ to be extremely open ended, letting you go and do whatever you wanted. Sadly, the game is not as open as some people might hope. The map of Albion is divided into several small roads that branch off in different directions, leading you to more roads. You must stay directly on these paths and there is little to no wandering off for exploration. For those who are looking for a game that contains vast landscapes to explore, I’m afraid that you won’t find them here. Each section of the map is clearly defined and presented to you when you enter specific areas; some may see this as a fault, but it seems that giving Fable the same huge world maps to explore (such as the ones in Zelda) would only pad in extra hours of gameplay that may not have necessarily benefited the game because of the way the game is structured.
The main portion of the game is played out through quest cards, which you can pick up from the Heroes Guild. Most will be side quests that you can pick up to earn experience, gold, and renown, while others are marked as specific plot forwarding quests. You can mix and match both side and required missions in any order for most of the game.
When selecting a quest, you can choose to boast about your greatness and how you will complete the quest. Boasting requires you to step on a platform and choose from several pre-determined claims while villagers stand before you, cheering and/or booing you on. If you complete the quest and make good of your boast, you will earn yourself extra gold and fame, while failure leads to the exact opposite, losing you both gold and respect from the townsfolk.
Quests usually entail some sort of search and rescue, or protect and serve sort of mission. As you travel along to complete the quest, there will be markers on your map telling you exactly where to go – which is a nice addition. While on your travels, you will most likely meet bandits, monsters, zombies, and all sorts of other creatures that you must battle against. The combat system is broken down into three distinct parts: melee, archery, and will (magic). The thing that makes this battle system so unique is that instead of the usual picking one of the three, you are able to mix them all in real time as you battle. You can start out by sniping a bandit with an arrow from afar and then, as his friends rush you, pull out your sword and start slicing them up. Getting overwhelmed? No problem: just summon some creatures to your side to help you during battle.
Each time you strike someone with any of your weapons, you earn experience toward that discipline, which you can spend back at the Heroes Guild. The upgrades are split into three categories, each reflecting one of the main combat options. Each one pulls experience out of its own independent pool of experience. If there isn’t enough in that particular pool, it begins to take out of the general experience, which is earned after defeating an enemy. There are many upgrades to choose from, such as increasing your strength, accuracy, or learning new magic skills. There are even some magic attacks that you can only master if you are good or evil.
Your alignment is one of the big elements in the game that affects your character and how your character is treated. Throughout the game many of your actions will either add good points to your alignment or evil points. The interesting thing about this is that the points are awarded quite realistically. For example, if you are in a town and see a treasure chest lying around, opening it will result in you earning evil points since the chest wasn’t yours to open in the first place. Committing a crime in a village will result in guards being alerted and a fine being placed upon you. You can either choose to pay the fine and have the charges dropped, or ignore the guards’ warnings and hack your way through them. The system seems to work pretty well, except the fines do not seem to properly reflect the crimes committed. During your travels, you are bound to pick up hundreds of thousands of gold pieces, but the fine for murder is only a couple of thousand? Also, if by chance you just bought something expensive and don’t have enough money to pay the fine, the game will automatically choose the ?don’t pay’ option for you, which is annoying for those that want to become a goody two-shoes hero and accidentally hit the wrong button and punched someone in the face. I think, for the less wealthy heroes, an installment plan to pay fines would be better and, after a couple of days, if the fine hasn’t been repaid fully, then that would be when the guards come hunting for you.
Your alignment isn’t only for determining how people react to you, though. It also changes the way you look. As you drift further and further toward one side (good or evil), your appearance will begin changing to reflect that. Becoming a hero of light? You will begin to attract butterflies and sport a halo around your head. Are the temptations of evil too strong to resist? Your eyes will begin to turn red and horns will sprout from your head.
Other things that affect your appearance are tattoos, hairstyles, clothing, and your age. Everything you do to your character will not only make his on-screen appearance different, but also determine how piously attractive or ruggedly frightening he looks. Every piece or armor, each hairstyle and tattoo all come with alignment, attractiveness, and scariness modifiers, which will affect your character’s stats. For example, if you wear something that a bandit usually wears then villagers will be a little more frightened of you, and your alignment will take a turn towards to the evil side. On the flip side of that, wearing full chain mail armor and basically looking like the traditional knight will make your character appear very handsome. Aging works a little differently from simply changing your clothes. As you progress through the game, you will begin to become older; your hair will turn white and your face will become wrinkled, and this is all in real time. There isn’t much you can do to control the aging process, though using magic will make you age more quickly. You will continue to age until your 65th year, when you will stop growing older.
Every change in your character looks amazing, along with everything else in the game. Fable is easily one of the most impressive looking console games to be released in quite some time. Massive amounts of detail have been injected into creating Albion’s aesthetic, from its lush forests and dank swamplands, to its bustling towns and villages; everything looks incredible and has its own distinct flavor. Character designs are also quite well executed. You will frequently meet characters, both enemy and friendly, that have some great design aspects. It’s obvious that LionHead and Big Blue Box did their homework when coming up with some of these designs.
Fable also sports some impressive visual effects such as lighting and particles. These are mostly apparent when casting spells such as summon or lightning. These effects are used sparingly, though, and don’t really floor you, but they do look rather impressive.
Most cut scenes in the game are done with the in-game graphics engine, and they look quite good, though for important scenes in the story, beautiful stained-glass representations of the story are shown, with a voice narrating the scene. This method of storytelling is unconventional, but very effective, as it adds to the whole feel of creating your own legend.
There are a few downsides to the graphics, though, the main one being the repetitive looks of all the NPCs. In a game where NPC interaction is supposed to be one of the main draws, it doesn’t do much to encourage that as there are only a handful of NPC models and voices, which become slightly annoying as you encounter the same person over and over again during your travels. Another complaint is the frequent slowdown problem experienced during combat. There are many times when you will be pit against dozens of enemies at the same time, and this is where the game will begin to stutter. Also, the load times are much too frequent. Each portion of the map takes around ten seconds to load, and every time you access your menu, it takes a couple more seconds to load. Given the fact that you are going to be passing through many regions in the game, the load times are too long and too many. Sometimes maps and characters load while you are playing, which are distracting and odd to say the least. Imagine walking along and suddenly, when you enter a new area, all the detail in the land has disappeared, leaving an ugly, green smear where blades of grass once stood, and NPCs missing faces and textures. Then, after a few seconds, they pop in and everything is returned to normal.
The soundtrack of Fable is worth taking note of, especially the main theme, which is composed by renown movie composed Danny Elfman. The rest of the game is filled with some pretty good tracks, all fully orchestrated, and befitting this type of game. The sound effects are also an aural treat for the ears, especially some of the inhuman noises that the enemies make. Your spine will shiver with both fright and delight as you defeat an undead warrior and he screams as his soul is released, or when the balverines send out a blood-curdling snarl, right before they attack.
Like most current RPGs, Fable features a large amount of voice acting, and I’m pleased to say that it is all very well done. Not only are the key characters voiced to perfection but the NPCs aren’t badly realized either. Once again, though, like the graphics, the NPC voice range is not very large. As far as I can tell, there are only about two different voice samples for each gender of villager, and a couple of extra ones for the likes of guards and traders. They also tend to say the same thing over and over again.
Though it is fun and interesting to change the way your character looks and decide whether to be good or evil, the sad fact remains that when boiling it all down, these elements are pretty much cosmetic. Sure, doing certain things will cause NPCs to run at the mere sight of you or fall in love with you (yes, you can get married), but none of these things have a direct impact on the way the game is played outside of how you interact with NPCs. Whether you are good or evil, handsome or ugly, you will always go through mostly the same missions, and follow the exact same storyline. Attempts to remedy this problem are apparent, as you can adopt different approaches on the same quest (provide protection for a prisoner transport, or help bandits attack it), but they aren’t enough. Branching story arcs would have done wonders to this game, making it much more replay friendly. As it stands, most people will probably play through the game once and just mess around the second time to see what it’s like pursuing the opposite alignment. It’s also worth mentioning that the game does allow you to continue playing after you finish it, but no new goals or quests will appear. You simply get to finish whatever side quests you never got to do and simply explore the game world a bit more. There are quite a few secret doors and chests to be opened, which add to the replay value a little, but there’s really no incentive to do so besides trying to achieve a ?complete’ game status. The good thing about all this is that Fable doesn’t wear out its welcome. Instead of trying to be some epic 40-hour adventure, it knows its place as a short but sweet romp through a mystical land. Most people will finish the game in a little over 10 hours, though perfectionists might play for about 20. It’s not a long game by any means but, this way, the novelty of doing all these little NPC interactions stays fun and intriguing.
The bottom line is that Fable is a very good game, though it isn’t revolutionary in any way. The real-time aging and alignment modifying is great, but the game doesn’t take advantage of it. I see Fable as a stepping-stone of sorts; it has a lot of good ideas, but doesn’t use them to their full potential. Still, the game is certainly fun and a great addition to any adventure fan’s library.
Editor’s Note: Incidentally, the initial American release of Fable is not region coded. Therefore the game WILL play across all geographical boundaries.