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Fable (Xbox)

100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  אולג 小奥 (168688)
Written on  :  Jun 07, 2005
Platform  :  Xbox
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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Somewhat superficial, but engrossing and fun in a weird way

The Good

Just a couple of days ago, I finished "Fable", wrote a rather negative review of it and posted it on MobyGames.

After a while, I noticed I was willing to play the game again. "Hey, but it wasn't that good", - I said to myself. - "It is pretty shallow, and you know you are into heavy epic stuff with lots of story and dialogues and such stuff. Stop thinking about it".

And yet my thoughts kept coming back to "Fable", refusing to let go. That is why I decided to re-write the review, after I have "cooled off" a bit a have a clearer mind to analyze the game once again.

So let's add some stuff to this "Good" section, that was left out when I was writing the review, irritated by the game's many shortcomings.

First of all, the atmosphere. There is something magical in the atmosphere of "Fable". It is your standard medieval world, but created with such detail and care that it engulfs and enchants the player. And that is achieved not only by the fantastic graphics, music, and sound effects, but by the behavior of the characters and their reaction to everything you do.

You know how most games are populated by "important" and "unimportant" characters, all of which are standing (or walking) in their prescribed places, waiting for you to initiate a standard conversation, during which they will provide you "valuable information" and chat about various stuff? Well, in "Fable", there are no such characters. You could say there are no characters at all, and this is both good and bad. Bad, because lack of characters with names, dialogue lines, etc., reduces interaction and makes the world less credible. Good, because nothing seems scripted in the game, you have an illusion of complete freedom, you don't feel forced to initiate conversations just to advance the plot or to gather information.

I know it sounds like a contradiction and doesn't really make sense, but you have to see yourself how things work in "Fable" to understand it. The point is, although the characters have no names and there are no real dialogues, there is still plenty of interaction. More often than not the interaction with the characters is astonishingly refined and in-depth. Since you don't talk in the game, the characters react not to your words, like in most games, but to your appearance and to your gestures. Your looks affects the townsfolk's reaction. Certain haircuts work wonders when you want to charm some ladies. Dark armor looks intimidating and makes people afraid of you if you wear it. Come to think of it, there is a great deal of realism in this feature. Imagine yourself being a peaceful trader in a small town who suddenly sees a handsome young man of heroic appearance, clad in a bright, beautiful armor, entering the town gate. You probably won't run away when you see him, but become attracted by his charismatic appearance. On the other hand, imagine you see an intimidating, horned, red-eyed warlock walking around with an unsheathed bloody sword. You'd run away in panic. And that is just what the townsfolk in "Fable" does. They don't just stand there and mind their own business, they react to you. This is an amazing feature, even though it doesn't appear very deep at first.

Your appearance is influenced by two main factors: your behavior towards other people and your own free customization. There are plenty of things to try in "Fable", as far as character customization is concerned. You get a title that depends on something you have done in the past. It seems most people who have played this game (including myself) got the infamous "Chicken Chaser" title, because they couldn't resist the temptation of kicking a chicken during the childhood part of the game. People will talk about you, saying: "Chicken chaser? Why is he called like that? Does he chase chickens?". You can go to a barber and make yourself a haircut. You can visit a tattoo specialist and make yourself a tattoo. All those are treated in a true RPG fashion - haircuts and everything else have an "attractive" and "scary" factors, so you can literally build up your characters to look attractive, scary, or anything in between.

Of course, your looks is not the only thing that evoke townspeople's reaction. Your deeds - in case people have heard of them - will influence people as well. That's right, there is the "good/evil" system in "Fable", a kind of moral ambivalence that almost became obligatory for modern Western RPGs. The cool part about this system is once again the reaction of the NPCs. If you are known for your good deeds, villagers will greet you and clasp their hands the moment they see you. If you are a brutal murderer, people will run away the moment they see you. This is something you don't see in other games, where good or evil alignment will perhaps change the storyline or dialogue options, but not the very behavior of simple, unimportant characters. There is a "renown" level in the game, which determines your fame and popularity, be it good or bad. You'll automatically reach the "famous" renown level by completing the story quests, but you can raise this level by doing extra quests, and by other means. For example, you can "boast" before starting a quest. You can stand on a platform an announce you'll complete the quest without a scratch taken, or without any armor worn. This will net you additional renown points. You can also walk around with the trophies from your great heroic deeds, and show those trophies to people to draw attention to you. It is nothing short of amazing how people react to the moral choices you have to meet in the game. For example, at a certain point in the game you'll have to decide whether to kill or to spare the life of a comrade with whom you've 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". "For every choice a consequence", say the back cover of the game. In a certain way it is true.

The NPCs in the game also do a lot of realistic stuff that is absent in most games. For example, they talk to each other - a simple but effective feature. Like in Ultima games, they follow their own schedule, getting up, going to other places, sleeping at nights. A day/night cycle is always a plus, and it is present in "Fable".

For every good or bad deed, you gain good or bad points, respectively. The choices pop out on many occasions. While most of them don't influence the story directly, they do influence the kind of fame you have, your attractiveness or scariness level. I generally love moral choices in games. The greatest choice of all is in the very end, after the final battle. It really concludes the game in a very meaningful way. But there are also choices you'll have to make during your quests. Killing someone or sparing this person's life is the most common one. Sometimes killing is the easier way. Nothing stands between you and the darkness but your own conscience. be a saint, be a devil, or anything between. Needless to say how much such stuff enriches a game.

All this kind of experimenting is really, really fun. Sometimes silly fun, but fun. I feel almost like confessing a sin, but I enjoyed playing "Fable". A lot. This is coming from a person whose priorities are first and foremost story and characters, not the "amount of stuff you can do", and who usually frowns at games that offer such kind of entertainment at the expense of story. But I can't deny that: the little gameplay gimmicks of "Fable" are fresh, unique, and enhance the game to the point of becoming the very core and essence of it.

Beside the great moral choices, there are plenty of other things to try out in the game. Most of those things are of a very superficial nature, but they are something you won't see in other games. 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 and shovel and dig any spot in the game. You can walk around farting and belching. Cool, isn't it? This is just what I mean when I say "silly fun". To receive a world-saving quest from the respectable Guild Master and to burp in his face after hearing "You are the only one who can stop evil!" is certainly amusing. Talk to a country girl, give her chocolates, make her fall in love with you, and then fart at her. Okay, it is silly. But I can't say it was a bad idea to add such actions to the gameplay. After all, you can choose not to make them.

Of course, you can do some more important stuff other than those rude gestures. You can really marry in "Fable" - seduce a girl by wearing cool armor, giving her roses and candy, and finally buying a wedding ring. Then you can 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 (hmm, I guess the game was primarily designed for married people...). Then she will divorce you, and you'll get evil points. By the way, you can also be gay in the game and seduce men. I know many of you will say "So what", but... damn it, sometimes the little things are those that matter, really!

The battle and experience system is robust and works very well. I'm not a fan of real time combat, I prefer turn-based party RPGs by a long shot. I can't say I enjoyed fighting in "Fable" that much - most of the fights were a bit on the easy side, and yet somehow annoying, especially when you had to fight a large group of enemies at once. However, this is just my opinion, because I'm not very skilled in real time combat and feel much more comfortable with games that don't demand from me to react quickly. But objectively, the combat system in "Fable" works very well. I was personally very glad the game wasn't too difficult. This game is about fun exploration and things to try out, not about challenging action battles! There is nothing frustrating in the combat. The balance between melee, long-ranged fighting and magic is pretty good. You allocate experience points by yourself, upgrading various combat skills. This is always a plus, as you can customize your character to a certain extent. Later in the game you'll probably specialize in at least two of those three areas, and you'll generally be able to create a fighter of your own style. Since the game is not too difficult and doesn't demand you to level up and to invest points in "indispensable" skills, you feel free to experiment the way you like. Do you think this spell will come in handy? Try to invest points in it. Should I spend all the points I have and upgrade my health to the fourth level, or should I better distribute them equally among lower-level abilities? The choice is yours.

As for the story, this is where I have most complaints, so refer to the "Bad" section for more information. However, I cannot say the story of the game is bad. It feels underdeveloped and shallow at times, but it suffers mostly from lack of in-depth characterization and details; the actual plot line is pretty fascinating. You are a little boy who has lost everything - your village was burnt down, your mother and sister kidnapped and probably killed. You are taken to the Heroes Guild, where you train to become a great warrior, longing for revenge. Of course, later the story develops into a standard "save the world" kind of thing, but the very personal motive behind the hero's actions is always good and keeps you interested in the story. With a little imagination from the player's side, this story actually works well. It is unbalanced and uneven in quality, it is not very well executed, but there are still some moments to be remembered afterwards. The first meeting with your sister was a complete surprise and her story was quite shocking. There were some really good moments in the story - not enough to make it stand out, but enough to "forgive" its shortcomings and to continue playing the game.

The graphics in "Fable" are fabulous (sorry for the bad pun)! Some locations are really magnificent, such as for example the graveyard or the mountain road in Barrow Fields. It is obvious a lot of effort has been put in those graphics. I particularly liked the slightly comic look of the graphics, especially for characters. Characters tend to have weirdly proportioned bodies and expressively grimacing faces. This certainly makes "Fable" look different from your usual "realistic" 3D game. It also adds a lot of charm to the game, making it really more fable-like.

In sound department, the game truly shines. The music is perhaps the single best thing in "Fable". I loved those broad symphonic tracks. They set the mood for the game perfectly, and remain that way not only during exploration, but also when accompanying cut scenes. The sound effects are excellent throughout. And I was absolutely delighted by the voices in the game. All the characters speak with a kind of British accent that is simply great for this traditional "ye olde medieval" setting. It sounds, once again, like a little thing, but it does add a lot to the credibility of the world.

"Fable" can get quite humorous at times, not only thanks to its graphics. In fact, at certain moments you'd almost suspect you are playing a comedy game. Many of the phrases said during cut scenes or even uttered by random NPCs are very amusing. For example, when a guard escorts the hero to a fighting arena, he philosophically concludes his speech: "Every generation needs its heroes!", and then adds: "Hey, that was profound, wasn't it? You may quote me if you like". Or the guard in the prison who 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". And my personal favorite: at a certain point you'll have to open a "demon door" (one of the doors guarded by a demon for whom you'll have to perform a certain task if you want to open the door). The demon will ask you to spell his name by hitting nearby stones with letters engraved on them in a correct order. Those letters are 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, become angry and send some enemies at you!

The Bad

If you have read some of my other reviews, you know that 80% of them, if not more, are overwhelmingly positive. The reason is simple: I know what I like, and I usually play only what I like. Rarely I come across a game that disappoints me. But "Fable" was close to that. Both in story and gameplay departments, it has problems that almost ruined the experience for me.

What are the indispensable ingredients for a good role-playing adventure? The story should motivate the player, help him to identify himself with the hero, make him curious to continue playing in order to find out what comes next. A story is the focus of a game, its essence, its soul. It is important to encounter interesting characters, to be able to talk to them, to care for them. And the gameplay should help the player to immerse himself in the game world, offer many things to experiment with. Does "Fable" fulfill at least one of those requirements? Unfortunately, not quite.

"How come" - you would say, - "But you just raved about how you can do lots of things in the game, such as buying houses, getting your hair cut, and even get married!". Yes, that is true. And those are certainly nice, interesting gimmicks that would probably enrich any good RPG and make it even better. But they are precisely what they are - gimmicks. Some tricks to try out, some extra stuff added to the game. The problem is, there is not much in "Fable" they can be added to. In other words, "Fable" lacks substance.

Getting married is an undeniably cool idea. I might as well remind you that "Fable" is anyway not the first RPG adventure to implement this idea. In Quest for Glory V, you could marry three different girls if you played your cards right. The point is, those girls were characters, they had personalities, and you had to choose different approaches and do different things in order to conquer their hearts. In "Fable", the girls have no personalities - not even names. Why would you like to marry one of the many female clones, none of which is even remotely interesting? What's more, to marry a girl is much too simple in "Fable". You'd think you would have to choose your words wisely, make compliments, impress her somehow? No! 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! Really, I'm not making this up! Albion must be a terrible place to live in if its women can be seduced with a couple of chocolates, provided the seducer is a knight in a shiny armor. So the whole marriage business is actually pretty useless in "Fable" and serves only as a light diversion. It is fun, but it could have been more than just fun.

Same applies to all the other tricks you can perform in "Fable". "For every choice a consequence", they wrote on the back cover. While partially correct, this mostly applies to the gameplay mechanics (such as NPC reaction), not to real consequences for the story. In terms of choosing your alignment, "Fable" does nothing more than other games didn't do before, only in a better and more convincing way. Is the memory of gamers so short that they forgot the immortal Ultima IV where your Avatar could do whatever he liked, bearing the consequences? You could advance the story only after performing enough good deeds to qualify as an Avatar, and among the bad deeds were deep and unique things such as backstabbing fleeing monsters or underpaying a blind reagent seller. Now this was a true "for every choice a consequence". I know, I know, "Ultima IV" was a legend, a one of a kind game, but it is a pity "Fable" couldn't come close to this, although it certainly promised that. The morality system in "Fable" is not very strong. First, there are no ethical systems in "Fable". Nothing like the virtues of Avatar in Ultima, the Jedi and Sith philosophies in Knights of the Old Republic, the Law and Chaos paths in Shin Megami Tensei. The Hero Guild does nothing but train people to be strong; many of them become villains, but the Guild doesn't seem to care (as it doesn't care for your own alignment). Second, the story of the game will remain the same no matter how you act. There is no branching storyline with different endings in spirit of Shin Megami Tensei. Your deeds, good or evil, do not affect the story at all. The moral system of "Fable" cannot quite be compared to that of "Knights of the Old Republic". There, many things depended on how you behaved. You could lose your beloved one forever or you could gain her back; you could face the final enemy out of greed and will for power, or out of the wish to save innocents. But I could have lived with the fact morality had no influence on the story in "Fable" - after all, this is something that is really hard to implement (although bear in mind "Fable" was hyped precisely for that! But we'll leave the hype question out of the picture...). But there are some annoying glitches with the NPC reaction as well. There is no crime in "Fable" that is so awful that you won't be able to get the "holy" rank despite of it. Guards are too easy to kill, so evil way is a bit too tempting in this game. There are also some really strange decisions - for example, if you wear dark armor, people will be afraid of you no matter how many times you saved them from bandits, even though armor is supposed to be of secondary importance compared to your deeds and fame. There are few moral situations in "Fable", not many true moral problems to solve.

But perhaps the weakest aspect of "Fable" is characterization. I was expecting an engrossing RPG in style of Baldur's Gate, with many characters and many dialogues. Get this - "Fable" has no characters at all. That's right - no characters! You have a couple of key figures in the story (such as your sister), but the world itself, the world you live in and are supposed to interact with, the world of NPCs, 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. But that's not all. Get ready for the next one - "Fable" has no dialogues. Seriously. No dialogues at all. There are a couple of cut scenes during which key figures say something. There are generic lines that are shouted by all the NPCs. But there are no dialogues. The hero of the game doesn't talk at all. He is never asked anything. He cannot ask anyone about anything. When you approach a NPC and try to talk to him, he'll either offer you to trade items, or blurt out some of the common "NPC lines". You cannot initiate even one conversation in "Fable", the basic "question-answer" mechanics are not there. Without the most basic gameplay tool, the game suffers greatly.

If at least it had some physical interaction, like for example Ultima IX (not to mention "Ultima IX" had plenty of dialogues, of course!), this terrible flaw might have been partially forgiven. But there is very little physical interaction in "Fable". First of all, the world itself is quite small and strictly linear. You have narrow paths that guide you to the next destination. There are no areas which you can roam freely and explore. No, you just run along the road, and everything you can explore is in the immediate vicinity of this road. Second, you can't jump. Sounds like a minor issue, but with the lack of other, more important kinds of interaction, I hoped at least I would be able to jump! Lack of jumping, climbing, crawling, swimming, and other physical activities results in even less immersion in the game world. You can't go anywhere you are not supposed to go. You are confined to the narrow limits of the game world - granted, a beautiful world, but still a very limited one. "Fable" cannot compete with physically immersive, massive 3D RPGs like "Ultima IX", Morrowind , or Gothic.

And here comes the storyline. I didn't expect "Fable" to be able to hold ground against Japanese RPGs or Bioware's games. But I hoped it would tell its story appropriately, which it doesn't. For the most part, the story of "Fable" is unsatisfying. It is surprisingly thin for a modern RPG, even for a Western one. Maybe I was spoiled by Bioware's classics, but I didn't expect such a lack of quality. The problem is not the storyline itself; after all, how the story looks on paper is not important, important is how the game tells it. The basic plot line in "Fable" is not bad, but the way it is presented is sometimes almost pitiful. It doesn't develop naturally; there are a couple of important moments that come out of nowhere, and that is all. The supposedly dramatic scenes have little impact and are confusingly impersonal. You don't move along the story; most of the quests you perform in order to advance it have actually little to do with it. The lack of elementary background for the story is astounding. You learn nearly nothing about the world you live in, about your family, about yourself, even though all that is supposed to play an important role in the story! Of course, the lack of dialogues, the inability to ask someone about what is going on, makes the story an even more shallow. Worse than the story are the key characters, with very little personality, which are hard to care for. Your sister? Your mother? Could you describe them, say what kind of people they are? The ultimate villain is a total joke. And we learn nothing about him, nothing about his motives, about his life, about who he actually is! And there is no way to learn more - you cannot ask anyone...

The Bottom Line

I was one of those who did not follow the development of "Fable" and therefore didn't expect from it as much as those who were impatiently waiting for "Project Ego". I first heard about it after it was already released. I bought it because I like RPGs and games that are based on moral decisions. I didn't care, like so many gamers, for length, non-linearity, and replayability. I was ready to face and judge the game for what it is, not for what it was supposed to be.

So, what is the verdict? Hard to say. "Fable" has a lot of superficial, unpolished sides and is bound to be a disappointment to many serious fans of RPGs. In a RPG we usually need a gripping story and well-developed characters. "Fable" does not really deliver those. So, why should a RPG fan bother to play this game? Because, as immature and as superficial it is, it is still a very important step forwards in game development. It can be the starting point for broader character customization and truly refined character interaction. And it is impossible to deny the game has many unique sides and a distinct personality of its own. The atmosphere of the game is fantastic, and it manages to be immersive in its own way. "Fable" is "Fable", for good and for bad. Lack of a really great story and interesting characters is somehow compensated by the unusual gameplay possibilities and the whole unique-ness of the game world. "Fable" is an imaginative game that can be enjoyed to the full only if you take your time and allow yourself to become engrossed in its strange, yet appealing and charming world.