Fable. The name implies a mythical story, an imaginary legend and a heroic yarn. It’s appropriate, then, that the game once known as “Project Ego” carries this name, because in many respects, it has aspects of each. The developer’s story focused on creating “the best RPG ever made.” Its development, therefore, is virtually the stuff of legend. Yet now that Peter Molyneux’s Fable is on store shelves, only gamers can decide whether the developer is the new hero of the role-playing genre.
For many months we’ve been skeptical of Molyneux’s venture, playing it at E3 and leaving largely unimpressed. Yet having now played a final build of Fable, it’s time to eat crow. Fable is not the type of game to digest in a single sitting. It’s not the type of game where “quick impressions” give a true idea of what the game has to offer. Instead, it’s a deceptively approachable action RPG that, like more in-depth games, takes a few hours to get into. But once Fable gets going, there are only a few things holding it back from living up to the hype.
(Click on each image for its full-size version.)
Unlike many role-playing games, Fable starts players with a set character, offering the chance for customization later rather than at the beginning. The first two levels of the game serve more as a tutorial than a plot-advancing setup, but this introduction to the gameplay and plot seldom feels tedious. In many respects, being thrown into the game before creating a character actually makes it easier to connect with Fable’s virtual world, but some people are bound to argue that a real RPG would have more customization.
Yet if those players follow Fable long enough, it’s apparent that the customization and stat-tracking is definitely there. From your level of renown to the farthest distance you’ve kicked a chicken, Fable tracks it all and does it with aplomb, making it easily the best Xbox RPG since Knights of the Old Republic. Where KOTOR succeeded in attracting “traditional” role-playing fanatics, though, Fable will attract both the role-playing and non-RPGing crowd. How? Through its innovative use of experience points (XP) and its focus on action.
Where most RPGs have a single pool of XP from which players can level up, Fable’s system is comprised of three distinct areas, each of which accumulates its own points: Strength, Skill and Will. There’s also a General category, which collects XP that players can spend to level-up in any category.
Most RPGs, with their single-pool XP system, give players the opportunity to upgrade whichever aspects of their character they like, be it more-powerful melee attacks, more-accurate ranged attacks or new magic spells. Yet Fable actually monitors how you play the game and assigns XP accordingly. For example, if you continually fight mano a mano, the XP you earn will go into the Strength category. Conversely, if you prefer to use magic and seldom use melee attacks, the game will give you hundreds of Will XP while doling out minimal Strength points.
That’s not to say players will end up with characters who are one-trick ponies; General XP can be spent on any upgrade you wish. If you’ve been fighting primarily with melee attacks and have only 200 Skill XP, you can borrow the remainder for a Skill upgrade from the General XP pool, presuming you have enough. Likewise, if your next magical upgrade costs 9,000 XP but you only have 7,000 in Will, you’re free to take 2,000 from the General category to make up the difference.
Actually having the game monitor gameplay tendencies and assign XP accordingly lets gamers truly create the character they want to create. Yet it also affords some freedom, since the General category helps fund useful upgrades even if the player doesn’t have lots of Will XP to spare.
So with all this XP to be stored, the question is: how do you actually accumulate it? The same way you accumulate it in all good RPGs: through conversations and combat. Conversations throughout the world of Albion unlock side quests, unfold pieces of the family-driven story and provide an occasional helping of comic relief. With these side quests come combat, which leads to XP, but also , potions and other treasures that can help throughout the game.
The combat is generally straightforward, with two buttons for melee attacks, one for ranged attacks and one main button for magic. Locking-on to an enemy is accomplished by holding the left trigger, and pressing Y allows the player to block and roll. And although melee attacks often feel like button-mashing, it’s only in the same sense as Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. In other words, it’s still a blast and has a level of block/attack strategy.
Using magic, on the other hand, can be somewhat challenging because of the sheer number of options. To use magic, players must press the right trigger to bring up spells, which are assigned to the face buttons. Once you’ve purchased more than three spells, though, you have to press the Y button to draw up the others from your “reserve,” then press the corresponding face button for each spell. Because the combat is in real time, using magic can be an exercise in dexterity, since players have to hold the left trigger to keep enemies targeted, press the right trigger to activate the use of magic, press Y to select a later-level magic attack, then press the correct face button to cast the spell. And that all happens while enemies are swarming around you.
The instinct, then, is often to use a Force Push (yes, Fable has it) or a wide-arcing sword maneuver. But such all-inclusive attacks exploit one of the game’s ironic combat issues: freedom. As explained above, Fable lets players play as and create whichever type of character they want, be it a powerful hero or a magical thief. With that open-endedness comes the ability to attack whomever players want to attack, even friendly villagers.
As a result, when players press the left trigger to target a different enemy, it’s entirely possible to accidentally select the very villager(s) you’re trying to protect. And, if you’re not aware of what you’ve just done, deal them a death blow. So much for that angelic reputation.
Graphically, Fable is good stuff, although the development cycle clearly resulted in some downgrades from the original movies. Before the game’s release, much was made about the main character’s body and face changing based on his age and the player’s gameplay tendencies. Those aspects are all intact, with melee-friendly players bulking up more quickly than thieves, and evil characters having a more “pasty white” appearance than sun-soaked heroes. The changes are all incredibly subtle, and it’s easy to look at your character after three hours of play and realize only then that he’s changed dramatically.
The real-time day/night cycles were also touted before the game’s release, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been seen before (think The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker). The environments in Fable are also highly detailed and all illuminated with real-time lighting, but Big Blue Box used monochromatic textures and color palettes, and they overdid the bloom effect.
What wasn’t overdone was the audio. With a score produced by Danny Elfman and solid weapon effects, the game maintains an ethereal quality that fits perfectly with its medieval-like mythology. The commentary and voice acting are also well-done, with non-playable characters changing their banter depending upon your reputation, and scripted audio that sounds perfectly natural.
Like the aforementioned KOTOR, Fable allows players to take multiple paths in the game, although the distinct good vs. bad storyline in KOTOR is much more cut and dried than that in Fable. In Fable, players can take an incredibly heroic role, start another game as a heinous villain, then start yet another game (or two) if they want to pursue a “career” as a landlord, fisherman, trader or professional thief. Such multiple play-throughs are more feasible than those in KOTOR, since Fable is shorter than LucasArts’ game, which makes for a surprisingly high replay value, in spite of Fable being a 20-hour single-player game.
But it’s not the length of your RPG that counts, it’s how you use it. And Microsoft and Big Blue Box have definitely used their RPG the right way. Fable isn’t always awe-inspiring, and its combat lock-on system can be frustrating, but what it introduces to the genre is fantastic. “Watching” gamers’ playing tendencies and assigning experience points accordingly is ingenious, and it really makes players practice their skills. In the end, Molyneux’s product may not be the stuff of legend, but it’s certainly worth a good look.
- Gameplay: 9.1
- A great leveling-up system and generally solid controls make it a winner.
- Graphics: 8.8
- Easy on the eyes, unless you’re sensitive to white bloom effects.
- Sound: 8.7
- A good soundtrack and voice acting, but limited surround-sound support.
- Replay: 9
- Easier to replay than KOTOR, and just as much fun.
- Overall: 8.8
- An addicting romp, if you can ride out the tutorial and occasional lock-on snafu.
— Jonas Allen