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SummaryChicken-kicking and its consequences
The GoodFable, an unreasonably hyped-up project by the ambitious Peter Molyneux, was supposed to be a fully open RPG with wealth of options far outweighing the competition. The actual game turned out to be a much more modest experience, delivering a harsh blow to the fans' rose-tinted glasses. That doesn't mean, however, that the game isn't fun to play.
Fable is superficially original in several ways. The game's world is essentially conceived as a playground for testing the actions of our on-screen incarnation. Human beings populating its world are treated as objects for our curious experiments rather than real characters. Since you don't talk in the game, they don't react to your words, but to your appearance and to your gestures. Certain haircuts work wonders when you want to charm ladies. An intimidating, horned, red-eyed warlock walking around with an unsheathed bloody sword won't become the soul of the party in the local tavern.
Your appearance is influenced by two main factors: your behavior towards other people and your own free customization. You can go to a barber and make yourself a haircut. You can visit a tattoo specialist. Everything you attach to yourself has special ratings determining simple folk's reactions. Your deeds - in case people have heard of them - will affect minds as well. If you are known for your charity work, villagers will greet you and clasp their hands the moment they see you. If you are the brutally murdering kind of celebrity, people will run away the moment they see you. At a certain point in the plot you'll have to decide whether to kill or to spare the life of a comrade with whom you grew up together. I decided not to kill this person. Shortly afterwards, I visited a town and heard some people saying to each other: "Do you see him, this is a great hero, he spared the life of another hero he could have killed". This is all nice stuff, and stuff that should be in RPGs.
There is plenty more. You can go into a tavern and drink yourself into oblivion. If you drink too much, you'll puke. You can break windows in somebody's house and get arrested for vandalizing property. You can fish in rivers or grab a shovel and dig any spot in the game. You can walk around farting and belching. This is silly fun, but it's fun. Receive a world-saving quest from the respectable Guild Master and burp in his face after he says nobody can stop evil but you. Talk to a country girl, give her chocolates, make her fall in love with you, and then express your feelings by loudly farting. You can eventually get married, buy a house and live in it with your wife. You can visit her and buy things for her, or you can ignore her and even beat her up. Then she will divorce you, and you'll get evil points. By the way, you can also be gay in the game if you so wish.
Fable doesn't forget more mainstream forms of entertainment, either. There is a solid amount of items to find, and the world (despite its narrow structure) is theoretically open to you almost from the very beginning. Finding shortcuts and trying to get ahead of the linear plot can be done as well. NPCs talk to each other, and, like in Ultima games, follow their own schedule, getting up, going to other places, sleeping at nights. The hero ages with time, and this process is displayed graphically.
The balance between melee fighting, archery, and magic is pretty good. You allocate experience points by yourself, upgrading various combat skills. Later in the game you'll probably specialize in at least two of those three areas, and generally be able to create a combatant to your own liking. Battles are fast-paced and fun, though they do have an arcadish flavor that is hard to shake off.
Fable has quite a lot of atmosphere. Its visual style walks the middle ground between realism and cartoon, and it works really well, perfectly fitting the title itself - something that stands between a fairy tale and a serious ethical maxim. Some of the locations ooze charming beauty. Characters tend to have weirdly proportioned bodies and expressively grimacing faces. Exploration of this slightly bizarre world is complemented by a broad symphonic score, and the "British" voice acting is uniformly solid.
There's also a bit of humor spread around. A prison guard recites to you a ridiculously bad, boring poem he composed himself, while you are busy stealing his keys. After the poem is over, the guard says something about misunderstanding true art and "philistine ears". One of my favorites was spelling the name of a fearsome demon with the letters H, T, S, and I. What is the first word that came to your mind? And yes, you can spell it out, and the demon will react to it, get angry and attack.
The BadThe problem with Fable is its superficiality. It is full of interesting gimmicks that would enrich any good RPG and make it even better. But they are precisely what they are - gimmicks. Tricks to try out, extra stuff added to the basic mechanics. Unfortunately, it's just those mechanics that remain all too basic.
Here is one example to illustrate this. Getting married is an undeniably cool idea, though Fable is certainly not the first RPG to have it. In Quest for Glory V you could marry three different girls if you played your cards right. The point is, those girls had personalities, and you had to do different things to conquer their hearts. In Fable, the girls don't even have names, and the path to matrimony is frighteningly simple. All you have to do is be famous enough (which you become automatically anyway) and wear light armor! Then girls will come to you with a big heart floating over them. All you need to do then is to buy them a few gifts, and they'll propose marriage to you themselves.
This can be applied to most other aspects of Fable. Its morality system doesn't go very far, restricting itself mostly to cosmetic stuff - unlike, say, the system of Ultima IV, where your deeds were rated in deep ethical categories, or Fallout, where your choices could affect entire cities. But even the existing system is prone to weird glitches. There is no crime in Fable so awful that you won't be able to get the "holy" rank in spite of it. If you wear dark armor, people will be afraid of you no matter how many times you saved them from bandits.
Analyzing the more essential mechanisms of RPG design in Fable yields even more remarkable results. The game world is populated by nameless drones with no hint of anything resembling a personality. Sure, they react differently to your actions, but they don't differ from each other! They blurt out the same lines, they look the same, they act the same. Also, there is no player-controlled dialogue whatsoever. The hero of the game doesn't talk at all. He is never asked anything. He cannot ask anyone about anything. He is lost in the sea of guinea pigs that look like humans, a kind of pagan demi-god acquiring wives with candy boxes and cruelly mowing down guards who disliked his new beard.
The game's console origins are unfortunately all too obvious. The game world is too small; while it can be explored at your own pace, the actual areas are cramped and linear. You run along the road, and everything you can explore is in the immediate vicinity of that road. Frequent loading destroys any illusion of seamless traveling. Lack of jumping, climbing, crawling, swimming, and other physical activities negatively impact immersion already marred by the questionable world structure. The size of this world is comparable to the length of the game: there aren't enough sub-quests and other activities to make up for the disappointingly short playing time.