It's been in development longer than the Xbox has been on store shelves. It was once the ultimate game, an RPG so massive in scale and concept that it seemed impossible to be real. It's had three different names through the course of its development, finally settling on Fable. It's been a damn long wait, but finally one of the most-anticipated RPGs in the history of gaming has arrived.
There's been so many ideas about what Fable would bring to gaming that even for someone who's played through the game twice, it's difficult to sort some of the fact from fiction. If you are expecting Morrowind, you are going to be disappointed. Though Fable is indeed a game about freedom and choice, it is not nearly as wide-open as Bethesda's mammoth RPG -- and for that I am a little thankful. No, Fable is a lot more along the lines of an adventure game. It is easily on track to becoming Microsoft's personal Zelda franchise, should the big MS choose to sponsor a few sequels. It's an incredibly fun game, even though most of the genre-busting elements have been removed.
There are no more branching story paths, though you can veer towards good or evil as you choose, you can't take the clothing off your victims, children will not change their hairstyles to look like you, and your competition with other heroes in the world is much more of a story element than a true gameplay mechanic. Before you start crying over these lost features, you should know that I absolutely love Fable. Despite some faults and a lot of highly-touted ideas that have gone missing, it's one of the most enjoyable games you can find on Xbox. So please, put down knife, there's no need to commit Seppuku -- I think you're gonna dig Fable.
A Tale of Fable
RPGs are typically defined by their stories. A great RPG needs a great and epic story -- just look at Knights of the Old Republic, Chrono Trigger, or Kingdom Hearts. Fable's story is serviceable, but not extraordinary, which is really what keeps it from the upper-echelon of role-playing games. A simple tale of revenge, you play the role of a young boy whose village is raided by bandits. Your mother and sister are taken captive, your father murdered -- the typical crap day for a young adventurer. Your mission, from that point on is to avenge your father's death and discover the whereabouts of ma and sis. And while there are a couple of relatively obvious twists along the way, the story unfolds pretty much as you would expect. Unlike Knights of the Old Republic, which has one of the greatest twists in RPG history, Fable isn't so much about the story, but your journey that takes you to its climactic conclusion.
Fable is an open-ended game, with specific story points that help guide you towards its conclusion. Once you've finished your training at the Heroes' Guild (which could last a few hours if you choose to take your time), the world is completely open to you. Right off the bat, you can wander to the majority of areas in Albion, a sizable medieval world packed with hundreds of NPCs who all eventually become focused on you and your journey from nobody to the greatest hero the world has ever known. Of course, the deeper you enter into Albion's wilderness, the more dangerous the path. So, while you could technically make your way to a lot of Albion the moment you enter manhood, you probably wouldn't survive long.
Welcome to Albion
Outside of towns, you will usually be confined to specific paths. Each area (which require a short 10-second load upon entry) often have several paths to choose from, preventing you from running along the hillsides, Sound of Music style. Though you are often enclosed, there are some areas that are a bit open. No matter where you go, though, the incredible details in the environments really make each area feel much more dense and open than they actually are. Whether you are traveling in the golden autumn fields of the Greatwood Forest or searching for an exit in a massive stone stronghold, I doubt you'll ever see more exquisite surroundings in any other Xbox game. Some of the areas simply floored me.
Albion has been aged to perfection. And I mean that it has literally been aged by the designers. You'll see overgrowth on walls, wear on buildings and popular travel paths, and a true sense of history in a fictitious world that could easily have no history at all. There is seemingly a story behind just about every item in Fable. There are legendary weapons, each with a little bit of background if you want to learn it, and even clothing has its own specific purpose in the world. Want tattoos? Each one also has its own story as to why it exists and who typically wears that tattoo. There are numerous books and tomes you can find out in the open and hidden throughout Albion that explain the history of dragons, of former heroes, and mythical locations. All of this is packed into a large world that is surprisingly dense. There is never, ever a place you'll go to that doesn't have something to do, someone to talk to, or something to fight. There is no wasted space. That's what I love.
Fable is made of several layers of detail. Casual gamers who want a quick experience and some fun can run around the surface of the world, complete the main quest and sidequests, and get out after 15-20 hours of play. However, those who want a little more detail can read into the history of the world, learn a bit more about why certain events have importance. Then you can go a little deeper if you like, interact with NPCs, get married, have censored sex, buy and rent property, sell merchandise, kill everyone in a town (though they will respawn over time), play with kids, terrorize kids, kick chickens, or just get piss drunk and vomit all over yourself. And there is another layer after that. If you really want to spend a good 50-100 hours in Fable, you can. Go searching for all of the Easter Eggs -- Unlock ever silver chest, stumble upon time-sensitive events, figure out how to get hold of the Sandgoose, whatever that may be, or conquer the world with a frying pan.
It's these layers that make Fable accessible to a much larger audience than a truly open game like Morrowind. That doesn't mean that games shouldn't strive for branching story paths and completely open exploration, but Fable is a game that can be played by a casual gamer and a more hardcore gamer and be enjoyed by both on different levels. There aren't that many Xbox games that do that, as most are basically a one-note experience, even if it's a great note at that.
Play Your Game
Forget the publisher's line about "for every action, there is a consequence." That's not actually what Fable is about. Instead, Fable's motto is more along the lines of a Burger King ad -- Have it your way. You wanna play it fast and get on to the next game? Done. You want to spend the rest of your life marrying women and then leading them off into the forest to kill them? Sure, you go have fun doing that from the comfort of your mother's basement. Fable's breakthrough is not in the ability to do anything you want at any time (sorry, but you cannot marry a chicken), it's in the true evolution of your character based on how you play the game.
When you finally get full control over your character's destiny, you'll just be leaving your teens. There is no character creation system in Fable -- everyone's character will look pretty much the same heading into the world for the first time. Everyone's gonna be young, slender, with scruffy brown hair -- so we're all gonna look like adorable little Joey Lawrence for just a wee bit. However, once that required training section is over your character will quickly begin to change to reflect how you play your game. There isn't just one factor that affects this change, but a multitude.
There are several things you can do to make your character look the way you want. You'll come across roughly 100 articles of clothing -- gloves, boots, shirts, dresses, pants, hats and helmets -- that can be mixed and matched how you like. However, all of these items alter the way others perceive you. So if you wear an assassin's outfit, guess what, you're gonna look a little more evil than someone wearing bright plate mail (the proverbial knight in shining armor). You can change clothes at any time, however, and can even drop to your Union Jack skivvies. What I found was that I would actually use two sets of clothing. I'd have one set of clothing with a high armor rating that perhaps made me look less attractive. That's my work outfit, the one I wear on a quest, when I go to slaughter some bandits or what not. Then when I come home to one of my four wives (spread across different towns so they never find out about one another) I put on my evening dress, you know the nice clothes that make me look like a good upstanding and handsome citizen.
Along with clothing, you can go to the barber shop in Bowerstone or to a traveling stylist (no, that really isn't a joke) and get your hair cut or groom the whiskers on your face. Different barbers have different styles available, plus there are style cards that can be found throughout Albion to unlock new looks, including one very modern haircut that I just couldn't possibly bring myself to spoil for you -- just know it's worth finding. Haircuts and facial stylings in all their many varieties alter your scariness and attractiveness ratings, which in turn affect how people react to your character.
So yes, putting on a dress, getting a Mohawk and a handlebar mustache are the first things to do in Fable, but my favorite alterations are the roughly 30 tattoos you can get inked on your body. Not only do tattoos look cool, but every one of them has some little history to it, further enriching the world of Albion. These also alter your attractiveness and scariness, so that not only can you have a specific look, you can also increase the fear you put in the hearts of men (and women) when you enter a town.
While all of those things are under your control, there are a number of factors you can't control that also alter your appearance. Scars are a very real part of Fable and something you will find almost impossible to avoid. A heavy hit from an enemy can cause scars to your face or any other part of your body. Armor will help shield you a bit, but it's inevitable that at some point you're gonna earn some battle wounds and your face is the most likely casualty.
Scars come in varying degrees of severity, so some may be large, thick and pink, and others may look more like deep scratches. There isn't just one scar model for each body part -- you are gonna see all manner of scarring. If you play the game once, you may get a big scar running from forehead to lip, deep and ugly. Another time through you may get raked over the face and find three parallel scratches starting at your cheek and running across your nose. Scars, like your character, will age. After many battles you scars will fade and new scars will appear. Heck, even your tattoos fade over time and get scarred over. Your whole body becomes a living history of your battles -- and your inability to use the block button. Pretty amazing stuff.
Age will also be a factor. Time passes as 48 minutes for every game day, but using magic will age you much, much faster. In fact, magic ages you far too fast. In the span of 20 game days, when using magic heavily, you will easily reach the max age of 65 (at which point you just stop growing older). It's meant to represent the strain of using magic, but it's far too severe and could keep some folks from using magic as much as they should, which is a shame. However, if you do want to stay young, you can avoid using magic and take a different path to beating enemies (which I'll get into in just a bit).
If you sit around all day drinking beer and eating pies, you'll begin to resemble John Belushi instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger. There's actually a caloric intake to exercise ratio, though you really will have to work at becoming a fat ass (I know I did). Spending more time in the sun tans you a bit (this is more of that pasty British tan than a real American tan) and excessive moonlight dancing makes you almost bright white.
Big Up Yourself
Think that's it for changing your character's appearance? Uh, nope. This is an RPG and as such you are gonna be earning experience points and spending them to increase certain traits. Your character's abilities are separated into three different attributes: Strength, Will, and Skill. Each governs a different way of playing Fable. Strength is good if you want to perform melee combat with any of the dozens of available weapons, will is for using any of the 16 upgradeable spells (which may age you, but also look incredibly f'in' cool), and skill is for using ranged combat, thievery, and bargaining tactics.
Unlike a D&D game, where you have to choose to be a fighter or a ranger or a magic-user, Fable enables you to be any three or a mixture of all three. Be a spellwarrior with both might and magic to aid you in battle or be an incredibly strong thief, whatever you want, it's all dependant on how you play the game and spend your XP. That XP is earned mainly in combat. You'll get general XP for anything you kill, but then bonus XP for the way you handle yourself. Use strength often and you'll earn extra strength-specific XP. The way you play governs the way your character grows.
I started this discussion on XP by suggesting it affects the way your character appears and your attributes most certainly do that. Characters heavy in strength will be muscular, thick, and imposing, while a stealthy character will be thin and nimble. And yes, you can have incredibly muscle definition thanks to your strength and still remain slender thanks to heavy use of stealth tactics.
My Character, Myself
Your alignment also alters your appearance somewhat. You are truly open to doing any number of good or evil deeds in Fable. Yes, there are a few quests that offer distinct "good" and "bad" choices, but the majority of malevolence is caused on a whim. Kill a passing merchant and you get some evil points. Save him from some attacking bandits and you get a few good points. As you grow more and more bad you'll begin to sprout horns and attract some rather nasty flies. Bad guys are generally less attractive and are best suited for dark and unflattering outfits. Good guys eventually earn a perpetual halo over their head and a flock of obedient butterflies to flutter about as if Disney had suddenly taken control of the project. You even get a luminous glow thanks to generous use of bloom lighting. You simple look great when you are good and when you're evil, well, red eyes and horns are pretty damn cool too, even if not all the ladies like 'em.
Fable's level of character customization and growth is outstanding. This is the first time in any RPG -- even one with a good character creation system -- where I felt like my character was a true representation of the way I played the game. More importantly, I actually cared about how my character looked. I got pissed when I got scars (even though they look mighty cool) and sometimes I wore less-protective armor simply because I dug the way something else looked. This is a video game, an action game, and here I am making decisions based on appearance? That's kinda nuts.
I have to admit, halfway through my first play of Fable, I started thinking about how I would play the game differently the next time through. Having used a lot of spells, I got old very fast (thankfully just an aesthetic thing) and I was scarred severely from the get-go. I knew the second time through I wanted to use stealth and archery to get through. I still was scarred early on, but my character looked so radically different at the end of the adventure, it's hard to believe he was once that sweet-looking lad from 30 hours prior.
To me, that's a pretty big deal when a game can involve you that much in your own character. Unlike Zelda or Final Fantasy, where I feel like I am basically renting out Nintendo and Square's characters for the duration of those great games, with Fable it feels like it's my character from the start.
The Lone Hero
One of the major elements dropped from the game is a sense that the other heroes in the world (and there are a few other heroes out there) are competing with you for recognition. While there are some story elements that pit you against other heroes, it's not like they wander the world for you to easily run across. That's a shame, because the dynamic of fighting with heroes for different quests and for earning the respect of the people was one of the most thrilling ideas discussed for Fable. Without it, the heroes still have some merit in the world, but it places most of the focus of the story and the NPCs on you, which makes the world less dynamic than it could have been.
On the other hand, this does put all of the world's focus on you. NPC's don't so much discuss the events of the world or their own lives, they basically exist to react to your deed and to help measure your success and progress. Renown (your fame) is perhaps the most important stat in Fable. There are seven levels of renown and as you kill creatures, complete quests, and earn XP, your renown will grow. Since you aren't fighting other characters for fame, you'll have an easier time earning respect in Fable than you might have otherwise. Still, it's exhilarating to watch as your character goes from a nobody -- garnering scorn from NPCs -- to being a true hero of the land.
As your renown grows, people will take notice when you enter town. By showing off trophies you can increase awareness of your deeds. Towns have their own knowledge of you, not just the people. So one town can love you while another fears you, particularly if you've done some evil acts in that town, such as trying to kill everyone in sight.
Reactions will change drastically based on your alignment as well. I've covered this thoroughly both for good and for evil in previous articles, but suffice to say that people fear the wicked and literally love the good. Be relatively good and then get high renown and the women in every town you enter will be madly in love with you. Fable turns you into a rock star and you can be either the angry grunge guy that trashes his hotel room or Donny Osmond. Either way, the ladies (and some of the men) will love you for it. That's quite a difference from most role-playing games, which often make the hero one of the nameless thousands in the world. It centers Fable on you, the hero, and a little less on your quest, which leads to a less thrilling story, but a more unique experience.
How to Talk Dirty and Influence People
General NPC reactions tend to be limited to a handful of phrases. So, if you walk up to an NPC and hit A (which initiates a conversation, though there are no dialogue trees), you will tend to hear the same things over and over and over and over. Now, the cool thing is that there are a lot of responses for your actions taken in the game. When you pass certain story points where a decision of good or evil is necessary, people will actually comment on it. Some will even jeer you if you've been heartless or applaud you for being moral. And then some will actually mock your morality!
NPC reactions are overall dynamic thanks to a series of behind-the-scenes calculations that judge an NPC's tolerance for different things versus your own character's appearance and actions in the game. When you do get new reactions, especially to things you've done in the game, it can be thrilling and often very funny. At the same time, you will often hear the same crap again and again, so that it almost becomes tiresome to pass merchants traveling the wilderness, because they seem to say one or four or five different things. I do like that you can play in the sandbox in the towns and discover reactions you'd never expect to be there. The more active you are with NPCs, generally the more varied the response (once you slog through some of the monotony).
When you couple the repetitiveness with the overall lack of variety in NPC models, and one NPC begins to look and sound like the other. Every bartender in every town is the same damn dude. Lots of the women look the same, almost all of the men. Heck, there are only three different traveling merchant types and you often see three or four "twins" on the road at any one time. That just sucks the vitality a bit from the entire NPC community.
You can get some great reactions by simply trying crazy crap. Like hit on a straight guy and he may say, "You do know I'm not a woman, don't you?" It all depends on how deep you want to go with Fable. While I have probably heard women say, "Oh, he's like a dream" 4,000 times, even a second time through Fable I ended up hearing new phrases, simply by getting myself in hairy situations.
To add to some of the interactions, you'll earn different expressions while playing Fable. Mapped to the D-Pad, expressions allow you to flirt, curse (literally), flip off, insult, apologize, and even pose for NPCs. You can do an expression at any time, even while fighting, though it won't elicit any response from your enemies.
This is how you eventually chat up women and get a wife (or a husband if your gate swings that way), but the mechanics of expressions don't allow for true interaction. What generally happens is you stand in front of an NPC and cycle through expressions, eliciting a different one-line response each time. To get a girl to love you, you can offer gifts, but most of the time you will go through your three or four different poses and flirts again and again to slowly woo her. It's a bit tedious and certainly one of the weaker elements of Fable, but it's also more of a peripheral, sideshow attraction anyway.
NPCs are far better used for evil purposes. I hate to say it, but Fable definitely offers greater rewards for evil as opposed to good, though you can certainly beat the game as a good guy (considering that it's quite an easy game to beat). When you have some renown and if you aren't so evil that everyone runs at the sight of your visage, you can command NPCs to follow you. Lead them out of town and into combat and then use them as a buffer between yourself and your enemies. Yes, if you are clever you can use NPCs as human shields. Hey, the rock troll's gotta attack something, better that dude from the shop than you, right?
Again, there are some real problems with the character interaction, just because it does become pedantic quickly, but you can also get some really fantastic responses when you aren't expecting them. My wife caught me hitting on some girls in town and she began cussing them out. I proceeded to give the girls some gifts, which flipped my wife off to no end. I found her later at the bar, drinking herself to the point that she could barely stand, cursing at me in the bar, wondering why she ever married me. A perfect re-creation of my own life. See, your character becomes a true representation of yourself.
Get a Job, Hero
Fable would be more like The Sims than an RPG if the only gameplay element was talking to other people and drinking all the time. The bulk of gameplay is actually focused on more traditional RPG/adventure elements with quests providing the direction for the story.
While a few quests are earned from people you may run into during gameplay, most quests are taken at the Heroes' Guild. Quests are noted as being vital to the story or optional quests. Take one and you can then stand outside the Guild hall and boast for extra renown and cash. Boasts are a way of increasing the difficulty of quests -- something you'll want to do, as the overall game is fairly easy -- and include such things as doing a quest in your undies or by only using your fists.
Though quests have a nice variety and none of them suffer from feeling repetitive, that's likely due to the fact that there are so few. I really wanted to have an endless supply of sidequests, but that just isn't that case for Fable. I'm sure if you do a full count of all the quests, the number will be somewhere around 30 or so total. While that number may sound impressive, when playing through Fable it seemed far too skimpy for my tastes. A couple of times I simply ran out of quests to choose from and had to either continue the main story or spend time in the sandbox. How hard is it to generate some random "kill X enemies in Y area" quests so that gamers can just keep adventuring as long as they want?
And then there are the optional quests themselves, which break the entire idea of "consequences" in Fable. Let's say you take an optional quest to help someone get to a certain location. If that person should die during the quest, you immediately fail it and your only option is to retry the quest. That's right, you can't just fail and lose renown, you must actually redo the quest again. That's just plain stupid. If the idea is to make me feel like I am constantly fighting to be a hero, then failure has to be a part of the equation. If I fail at a quest, it would make more sense to drop my renown and put pressure on me to boast and succeed in my next quest to redeem myself. At least give the option to either redo the quest or to let the results stand. I can understand a lot of things left out of Fable, but that's one design choice I can't comprehend.
And it's not like you are the one dying on the quests, it's some person who is only important for the duration of that optional quest. See, you just won't die in Fable If you do, well, you really need to brush up on your gaming skills. First, you will find an abundance of revival potions as if they were discarded pennies. Revival potions instantly restore your full health should it go to zero, essentially renewing your life before you have a chance to die. These alone make it almost impossible to die, even in the final two boss battles (which are quite cool). Fable's too easy for its own good. I understand making things a little less tough for the mass market, but this is "stroll through the park on a sunny summer Sunday" kind of easy. That's not to say you won't feel challenged in combat, but the reality of death just isn't there. There's more pressure to avoid getting scars than there are to avoid dying, especially if you learn the healing spell. Then you'll never even need a revival potion.
Though I'm a bit down on the optional quest structure and the ease of Fable, I do think that the overall story quests are very well paced and entertaining. I just plain love playing Fable despite its faults.
Completing these quests is gonna require some combat expertise. Fighting in Fable is fairly simple, as I've previously detailed. I love the blending of melee combat and spells. You can switch easily between your different types of attacks and if you are smart, you can combine certain spells to create some really fantastic results. There's quite a bit of combat to be found and you'll often end up surrounded, making blocking and roll-dodging very important. I also like the XP multiplier, which is a meter that fills as you fight and exponentially increases your XP earnings so long as you fight without getting hit. While you can get through Fable fighting like a doof, you can dominate Fable by fighting like a champion.
Combat isn't perfect, especially the targeting. The majority of fights take place with innocents watching and if you want to lock onto a target, you will sometimes accidentally lock onto a passing merchant. This can suddenly make your very saintly character do something quite evil. Friendly fire, even by accident, still earns you evil points. That can be annoying, but overall the camera is perfect 95% of the time and the combat's definitely enjoyable.
A lot of your battles tend to be against bandits, which are fine to fight, but certainly aren't that interesting. However, there are a number of brilliantly-designed enemies you will battle, including the truly fearsome Balverines. These werewolf knock-offs were among the first things ever shown when Fable was first being touted and they have made it into the final build. They are fierce and come in packs, making for a truly insane challenge at times (yet, I challenge you to die fighting them). The Balverines are among the best creatures I've experience in an RPG. Really, even some of the more stoic creatures that tend to just stand still in combat, such as the rock trolls, are gorgeous to look at, even if they end provide simple fights.
The Short and Winding Road
Size doesn't matter, or so I've heard. Well, if length is a concern, then you may be turned off by Fable. While KOTOR and your typical Final Fantasy game take 40 hours or more, Fable's main story can be beat in less than 20 hours. But remember the idea of layers. If you want to beat the game quickly you can. However, I recommend that you spend about 40 hours the first time through. After each quest, talk to NPCs, wander around. Don't use the shortcut teleportation methods. You'll be surprised at some of the time-based stuff you will find. Plus, Albion is a stunning world to explore. It's a dense and aged land that has more history than most RPG kingdoms. It's worth taking your time and enjoying.
So yes, the quests run out quickly, but you have multiple sandbox towns to play in and dozens of Easter Eggs in the game. There's a hidden area that few will ever find, secret weapons, talking Demon Doors with riddles and challenges that must be solved, even a few hidden quests. And once you finish the game, you can keep playing in the world of Albion. You won't get new quests (unless you find a hidden ones), but you can continue to search for Easter eggs and play around in the towns. I wish that new quests would generate to give purpose to my continued existence, but I believe the continued play idea was merely placed in Fable so that you could continue to use the sandbox without having to start a brand new game. For that purpose, it works perfectly.
There really are a lot of hidden goodies in Fable and quite a bit of history and facts you can learn if interested. I continue to play and look for more stuff, because that aspect's really enjoyable for me. It may not be your cup of tea, but then, you can always just ignore all of that and have a run through the main game. Thanks to some smart storybook-like cut-scenes, you'll be treated to some fine presentation and great voice acting. And because the game was made by a bunch of drunken Brits who never sleep, it's pretty damn funny from start to finish, whether its inscriptions on tombstones or the overreaction of women to your vulgar pelvic thrusts -- you are gonna bust your stitches before your adventure's at an end.
Vision and Noise
Were it not for some framerate drops that sporadically pop up during gameplay and some occasionally poor up-close cut-scenes (damn those shadows flickering on my hero's face), Fable would be one of the best-looking games on Xbox. As it is, this is a rare fantasy game that doesn't look like a D&D world. Albion is alive and vibrant with substance and beauty. The details in some of the textures are like chocolate syrup on a sundae and the heavy use of bloom lighting adds that element of fantasy similar to what we saw in Prince of Persia.
Though the NPCs are repetitive and have some occasionally dumpy animations, the creatures and your own character are handled brilliantly. Nothing in the world has more detail than your hero, which is as it should be, since he is the focus of the entire universe when you think about it. The sense of scale to the world is perfect and watching your character progress physically is something quite special and unique. Sure, you age way too fast and no other NPCs really do (expect some that you meet as a child), but it's still a great effect. Not perfect, but lovely nonetheless.
Danny Elfman provided the orchestral opening song, which also plays in pieces throughout the game. The mixture of flutes, lutes, and stringed instruments creates the perfect mood. I like to leave the game on, just to listen to the fairy-tale theme play in the background during my day. It really couldn't have been a better score.
The NPCs have a mixture of quality in voice. Some you will actually recognize from other games, and most are good. A few are just sort of, well, average. It's the unfortunate repetition of NPC sayings that really start to get monotonous, particularly if you spend a lot of time in towns. More NPC dialogue would have been golden. As it is, big ups to the writers for keeping the majority of big scene dialogue from sounding corny. Sure a lot of it is suitably melodramatic, but none enough to make my lactose-intolerant grandmother ill from all the cheese.
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