The “Fable” trilogy is something of an odd bird. The first game was as generic and plain as vanilla ice cream, and about as flavorful. There was nothing new to it, there were no memorable events, the world was as linear as a straight line, and I couldn’t tell you what the plot was even if creator Peter Molyneux held a gun to my head.
“Fable 2,” on the other hand, brilliantly evoked a fantastic version of a Dickensian tale while still not quite sticking the landing in terms of storytelling (the whole point of the series being that you create your own tale inside of an overarching story that you can only solve one of two ways). The world was unique and overflowing with personality and character. The quests were creative, the game had energy to it, the addition of a dog as partner was perfect, and it looked beautiful. Tragically, the story rolled over and died three quarters of the way through, but just playing the game itself was so much fun that even managing an inventory from Hell wasn’t enough to detract from the enjoyment.
So now “Fable 3” comes along and what does it do? Rip off “Fable 2” en mass, jettison the inventory management entirely, craft an outline of a story where the mid-way point has you becoming king only to have to scrounge every penny in order to afford to face a kingdom-destroying enemy which is en route to your doorstep, and expand the physical boundaries of the game world of Albion.
The result is a mishmash where “Fable 2” lovers will be in Heaven, veterans of the series will appreciate some of the updates but (rightfully) consider them minor, and gamers who come to the series fresh will find a fantasy RPG that plays it safe from start to finish. To be fair there is a great deal of content here that is quite fun to play and the entire game is charming top to bottom. Several quests will surprise you with how clever they are (the D&D nerds for starters), and the villain is genuinely scary and menacing.
Maybe this is why I keep playing it night after night…
Despite the claims of always presenting the player a choice of whether to be good or evil… oh wait, that’s what the game does. Well, isn’t that a bit, um, limiting? I mean, it’s not like role playing games in the past haven’t given players multiple options to choose from per conversation where the results alter the entire game around them… oh wait. So, what does “Fable 3” have to offer that other RPGs don’t? Well, um, not much then. Well aren’t you a sodden lot of ungrateful folk? What did you expect? Golden chickens flying about that let you ride on their backs as they sail across the skies? Well, I suppose they could rip-off “World of Warcraft” for “Fable 4” but, hang on then, “Fable 3” has quests! Lots and lots of quests! And you get to own whole towns too! You know that sod what you didn’t like in the third grade? Here you can buy his house, evict him, then yank up the rent like you’re puttin’ on your trousers and charge him an arm and a leg to live in his own house! How’s that?
In case you were curious, the preceding paragraph is pretty much how every conversation in “Fable 3” plays out regardless of circumstances. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking to a ghost as a spiked ceiling slowly descends on you and he’s the only one able to let you out, or if you’ve just rescued a damsel in distress who now fancies you more than the boyfriend who hired you to find her in the first place. Everyone has their quirks and their problems with life and will then proceed to tell you all about it at length. This may see quirky and/or humorous in merry ol’ England, but after the 300th NPC starts prattling on about their mum or their spouse, you’ll start to consider just how many NPCs you can slaughter before going full-tilt evil.
Hey Lionhead, it’s not considered great writing when every NPC sounds like they’re reading the dialogue from the same character. Just a helpful FYI from me to you.
Yet I keep playing it night after night…
One thing Lionhead got absolutely right was the look of Albion. As gorgeous as it all was in the previous installment, the world has simply exploded in terms of size as well as detail. Walking through Bowerstone Marketplace is an entirely different affair this time. The layout is the same, but it’s deeper, the buildings are taller, the detail is much more nuanced, and it feels far more like a city at the height of an industrial revolution. The entirety of the game feels just as expansive and historically accurate (sans magic of course) as the backwater holes such as Silver Pines look and feel like a group of travelers decided to stop and stay right where they were while the more industrialized sections of Bowerstone feel plucked straight from the late 1800s.
But be careful when cranking the video settings too high. One of my main beefs with the series is Lionhead’s obsession with light bloom on practically everything. If you up the settings too high, the bloom becomes so overpowering it’s like staring into the sun. Also, my machine is a pretty solid rig top to bottom but it did chug ever so slightly with everything turned up to an 11. I dropped the draw distance down to a slightly elevated level, reduced shadows down to about ¼, and voila – a visually stunning game that runs perfectly fine on my machine. The series currently verges on going all-in with a steampunk vibe, something I wouldn’t have much of a problem with to be honest. As it stands, the cities feel like they were lifted straight from the pages of a Dickens classic while the more remote areas are appropriately harsh towards weary travelers.
Fortunately, “Fable 3” comes with a bevy or armor, weapons, spells, and the like to combat the plague of werewolves balverines, trolls hobbes, and pirates pirates. These are scattered throughout the game with the right amount of breaks in between fights that you aren’t too overwhelmed. As you increase your strength and fighting skills, the combat becomes just as ridiculously easy as it was in the first two installments. By this point, Lionhead isn’t even trying to fix the issues with combat – I firmly believe that. They may have tweaked the moves and thrown in flourishes for good measure (I don’t recall whether that was a part of the second game or not) which insta-kill an opponent, but it’s all for naught in terms of a challenge. Even when you ratchet up the difficulty level, the only thing that seems to change is that your health doesn’t regenerate after the fight.
You have a slew of potions, spells, guns, and swords at your disposal but unless you’re a clothes horse who enjoys tricking your avatar out at the drop of a hat, then you might play as I did – by finding a set of weapons and gear that worked for me and sticking with them through the end. Scattered about the land are legendary weapons which are all upgradeable provided you meet certain requirements like killing X amount of foes in broad daylight and Y amount of foes in the darkness. Stuff like that riddles the game, and by “stuff” I mean “excessive grinding.”
So why do I still keep playing?
By this point, I’m convinced that the “Fable” series constitutes a guilty pleasure. It’s hard to stop playing them because they’re so bloody charming, yet there’s absolutely zero sense of ultimate danger even when surrounded by trolls hobbes or worse. There isn’t much in the way of noticeable improvement from the previous installment to this one (they even threw in a dog again) beyond the one massive, glaring change – the lack of an inventory.
“Fable 2” had some of the worst inventory management I’ve ever seen and I’ve been doing this for 20 years. “Fable 3” tosses it completely out the window by setting up a sanctuary which you can leap to at any moment by hitting the ESC key. Instead of going right to an inventory or a main menu screen, you pop back into your sanctuary where your butler (conveniently voiced by John Cleese) updates you on what’s happening in the kingdom, new items that may have appeared in the sanctuary shop, etc. You have different rooms available where you can change clothes, weapons, spells, check achievements, or hook up with other Windows Live players. When exploring the world, items you pick up that can be used immediately are pinned to your item bar which is numbered one through four. Jewels and trinkets that are useful only as gifts are stored in a way that you can’t access them unless you try to sell them in a shop or give them to that special someone. After literally decades of inventory and stat management, my subconscious fought tooth and nail against accepting such a radical change, but after playing for several hours I realized the benefits. The removal of, frankly, the clutter inherent to the genre allows one to focus solely on the game instead of dressing your ragdoll.
But that’s not to say the option isn’t available. Once you secure enough funds via real estate purchase or good ol’ fashioned barbarianism, you can hit all the stores throughout the kingdom and buy all the gear you could ever want to dress up in. Of course, your appearance affects how you are perceived in the world and if you’re looking to court someone then you need to look the part. It also helps to have the right emoticons (for lack of a better term) unlocked via the Road to Rule.
This is also a new concept (for those keeping score at home, we’re up to two) in respect to character building. As you progress through the game, your work racks up a number of Guild Seals. Upon completing major story moments, you are instantly whisked away to a long path called the Road to Rule where you can open chests based on the amount of Guild Seals in your possession. A certain amount will upgrade your melee damage, or your spell damage, or your ranged damage. Other chests will give you the ability to own real estate, or put on different types of make-up, and so forth. Like the inventory change-up, this lets your focus remain on playing the game instead of messing with your character for hours on end. It also completely disrupts the flow of the story by ripping you out of it so the blind seer lady from the other games can talk cryptically at you for five minutes before you get more upgrades. There had to be a better way of fulfilling these obligations yet this is the path they chose.
It may seem like I’ve been slagging on Fable 3 a lot throughout this review, and to be fair I have. I also want to state that it’s still a good amount of fun to play but if you’re not into more casual role playing games then you’re not going to dig this one any more than the others. If you’ve never played a Fable game, then by all means check this one out because it manages to feature everything that works and everything that doesn’t work in the franchise all in one bag. Also, I counted on one hand the number of true choices that would determine a good or evil future, which I find funny considering most of the pre-release hype centered on how choice would factor so heavily in the game.
It doesn’t. And if you don’t like being evil, eat a lot of tofu. Seriously. Tofu redeems you. If that sounds funny and works on your wavelength, then get to buying “Fable 3” because there’s tons more of that in store for you. The narrative overall works better than in the second game, but it’s such a long time before the real threat to the kingdom even appears that you will already be on the verge of, if not already, being so strong that the challenge of the game melts away.
Oh well. If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to redecorate a house and see what else in Albion I can buy. For a game that I didn’t think much of, I just cannot stop playing it. If nothing else, “Fable 3” is absolutely this season’s guilty pleasure. Not unlike Spice World.