If any game series in the history of our pastime has a penchant for over-promising and under-delivering, it’s definitely Peter Molyneux’s prized creation Fable. From its first inception, Fable promised to bring us a fully realized world that would change according to our actions, where trees would grow from tiny acorns to mighty oaks in real time. Of course, since the original game debuted on the Xbox, the console’s processing power couldn’t harness the time-warping ambition of Molyneux’s design so the final product was somewhat neutered. It was still a fun, addictive game, but nevertheless far from what we were promised.
Thus the stage was set for the series where a new game would be accompanied by Peter Molyneux leading the hype train making all sorts of wild boasts that we knew would never, ever come true no matter how badly we wanted to believe. Fable 2 has come and gone and now we’re on the third title. As the old saying goes, is the third time really the charm?
Out of the the three games, Fable 3 comes the closest to realizing its promise. I feel that’s partly because Peter Molynuex managed to keep his expectations under control but also because the game is just a charming, well put together and fun RPG. From your not-so-humble outset as the Prince (or Princess) of Albion to your eventual takeover of the throne, Fable 3 oozes with the obvious care put into a lot of the game. The writing and voice acting are among the sharpest I’ve ever seen in any medium, and for the most part the quests are clever and engaging. There are a few stumbling points, but they are fairly few and far between.
One thing I think Lionhead Studios managed to do really well with the Fable series is nail the look and feel of Albion, the fictional world in which your adventures take place. Though the setting has changed from medieval to industrial throughout the course of the trilogy, Albion has always been consistent and it’s still a great joy to return to the world. Like I mentioned before, the game has charm coming out of its ears, and this is one of the very few recent RPG titles where listening to random a passerby isn’t going to make you want to tear your hair out (or make you wish for a nuclear winter). Albion’s citizens always have something witty to say and there isn’t one piece of poorly delivered dialogue. Of course, in a game that stars Ben Kingsly, Simon Pegg, John Cleese and Stephen Fry that’s almost a given.
Fable 3 also brings back the expression system from the other two games but manages to streamline it even further this time around. Instead of opening a menu and selecting different expressions, the game offers you a choice of three: good, bad and funny. You hold the selected button until you’ve sufficiently wooed or scared the desired villager. While this system does cut down on the excessive options, it does get kind of repetitive having to choose the same expressions over and over. This time though, I wasn’t able to get anyone to marry me by farting at them, so I’ll cut it some slack. The area where interactions really stumble are the relationship quests. To improve your standing with anyone, you have to engage in a fetch quest every time you want to make someone like you. Multiply that by the hundreds of people in the world, and you’ll be feeling like a glorified courier before long.
Another area where Fable 3 trims the fat is the combat and the RPG progression. You have your choice of melee, guns and magic and the use of each will change your avatar accordingly. Skilled melee combat makes you brawny, gunplay makes you taller and magic affects your body with an other-worldly glow (that’s what it’s supposed to do anyways. All that happened to me was my tattoos turned bright blue). The fighting is fairly simply: depending on your chosen weapon, you can just mash X, B or Y until your target dies. You can block and use flourishes to deal extra damage in close range combat, but you’re better off taking the magic route. Since you can combine two spells this time and you have no limitation on how often you can cast, this will turn you into a magical wrecking ball. Combining the fire and shock spells is a devastating combo that’s almost game breaking. Once you figure out something that works for you, no foe will stand in your way, making combat a breeze. I feel I should mention here that your weapons were supposed to evolve with you according to how you use them, but this doesn’t really work that well in practice. The only time your weapons change is when you level up your skills, so I was a little disappointed by that.
Speaking of leveling up, Fable 3 throws out the common RPG tropes of stats and levels and replaces them with the Road to Rule, a mystical path that charts your progress as you wage war to take the throne. To gain new powers and abilities, you spend Guild Seals which are accumulated through quests and interacting with townsfolk. Besides being able to upgrade the standard stuff like the amount of damage you do in combat, you also have to unlock the various expressions or the ability to buy businesses and rent homes. It’s hard to obtain every single upgrade in the game, so spend those Seals wisely!
The last part of the interface that got a complete overhaul from Fable 2 is the pause menu. Instead of attempting to salvage 2’s frankly terrible menu, Lionhead threw that out and replaced it with the Sanctuary, what I believe I’ve referred to before as a “magical bat-cave”. The Sanctuary is accessed with an easy press of the Start button with a slight pause before you’re transported there. From the main room, you can access your wardrobe, treasury, armory and the map of Albion. I feel that the Sanctuary made the often cumbersome menu manipulations of RPGs a breeze, and being able to fast travel anywhere in the world made a huge difference. I think it’s a masterful solution to the menus of the past, and I expect that we’ll be seeing this more in future games. The one thing that did irked me about Fable 3’s menus, however, is that there is no shortcut to get to the map. Once you have a lot of quests on the go or a burgeoning real estate empire, you’ll be accessing the map pretty often to manage everything. The back button has nothing assigned to it, so I have no idea why it didn’t get put there.
While I don’t want to spoil anything about the game’s last half, I do want to spend a couple sentences on the mechanics of being a monarch in Fable. The first half of Fable 3 consists of building your resistance force and bears a lot of resemblance to the previous games. Once you take the throne, you’re constrained to Bowerstone Castle for a large part, and most of the gameplay boils down to making tough decisions for your Kingdom. The choices you make directly affect the endgame, and I deliberated over a few of them. A couple of choices are real nail-biters, and I’m glad that Lionhead decided to make being a ruler no easy task.
Co-op gameplay is back once again, but this time Lionhead managed to make it a useful part of the game instead of a quick throw-away. Instead of using a random henchman like in Fable 2, you can bring your Hero into another player’s world and adventure around with them. You can start a business partnership, get married and yes, even have a baby together. While you still earn Guild Seals and gold and can carry that back to your game, story progress is not saved.
Fable 3 is a lot of fun to play, but unfortunately it’s dragged down by some pretty glaring technical issues. Framerate drops are very common and there’s a lot of draw in even at close range. While the game is capable of some beautiful vistas, running around at 10 frames per second does ruin the illusion. There’s also one really strange animation bug where any character that gets more than a few paces away from you will begin dropping frames and start stuttering along the ground. Additionally, trying to do the quick-time event jobs like Lute Hero or blacksmithing gets really frustrating when you start losing your combos because your button presses are ahead of the game.
I was originally hesitant about Fable 3 because I was so turned off by 2, but this game completely changed my flagging opinion on the series. I’ve played the game through twice and I’ve enjoyed it both times. The main quests are fantastic, particularly one which spoofs the common themes of role playing games, and even though the combat is fairly simplistic I could mix it up equally with swords and magic. Being a monarch was a lot harder than I was anticipating, and you can adventure around the world after the credits roll to complete any collection quests or errands you have left outstanding.
Peter Molyneux once said that he believes he’s never made great games, only good ones. He can finally rest easy, because this game makes the grade.
So, that’s what I thought about Fable 3! If it didn’t have the terrible technical issues, this game would have been an easy A, but I feel that this, plus some other little nagging points, drag it down into the B area. It’s by no means bad, and it’s the closest Fable has come to being a truly epic title. What do you guys think of Fable 3? Have you played it and what’s your opinion?
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