Peter Molyneux’s aim with Fable was to make a truly next-generation RPG—next generation as of the early 2000s anyway. If Halo was meant to be Combat Evolved, this was, much like Black & White, meant to be World-Building Evolved. Indeed, the world of Albion is still a work of impressive, forward-thinking ambition, which is ironic since everything else about playing within it is straight out of the mid ’90s. This anniversary edition of Fable has a fresh Unreal Engine coat of paint and a few minor benefits of the fine-tuned sequels, mostly with the control scheme, but the graphical upgrade, though welcome, can only hide so much of what’s ultimately a very brass-tacks western RPG. You’re a hero of destiny, your family dies, your hometown is burned, you’re trained to be a hero, and go out to make your fortune, while plotting revenge.
To its credit, the game leaving its core mechanics intact means that its positives shine brighter. Specifically the fact that, for a 10-year-old game, the world of Albion feels like an active, responsive world on par with the current gen’s heavy hitters. People will praise your recent works, guards remember your mischief. Walking into town as a fresh-faced hero means you are lavished with attention; riding in as a scoundrel means townsfolk cower in fear. Enemies appear to be going about their days in a way that no one bothers to program into NPCs. On this front, Molyneux gets to claim a measure of success.
Strip away the complex veneer, however, and you find that like most RPGs, Fable is little more than a numbers game. It’s the constant grind through steadily harder enemies until someone offers you better swords, better armor, shinier shoes, or, in this game’s case, a less Biebery haircut. Most players expect that, so the question is really whether the game succeeds at making the actual gameplay and story built around those numbers engaging. For gameplay, Fable offers a painfully stiff, unresponsive combat system in service of 20 hours of fetch quests and escort missions, coupled with an unwieldy menagerie of social interactions, humorous gestures, and inventory to access and manage and map. It’s too unwieldy for a console, too remedial for a PC game. The game does throw players a current-gen bone in the form of some well-conceived SmartGlass enhancements, allowing you to view the map, treasure locations, a strategy guide, and comparison pictures of the 2004 version right on your mobile device, but the game could’ve used the second-screen breathing room for a plethora of other things.
The story has some minor twists and turns, but most of them can be seen from miles away, and its best characters and moments come and go in the cutscenes, not as part of gameplay. It’s telling that the most interesting story in the game, the tale of how the Hero’s sister was blinded and became executioner for the bandit leader, Twinblade, is a two-minute exposition dump. Fable has its share of fun diversions from the main quest, but the game doesn’t necessarily care if you do any of them. Ultimately, getting married, buying a house, and starting a family only comes down to more resources for better numbers, and leaving home for years at a time doesn’t really make a lick of difference to the game world. Setting up the deeds of would-be heroes or villains as having world-wide effects and then rendering most of those decisions inert two hours later is crushing to a game like this. In 2004, it came off as Molyneux’s mouth writing a check his game couldn’t cash; in 2014, in an age where Mass Effect happened, where your smallest decision can come home to roost 70 hours later, it just seems hideously primitive.
That pretty much encapsulates the problems with the whole series thus far. There are major ambitious ideas at work in the Fable games, none of which have bearing on the reason you’re playing this particular role to begin with, and none of which have the fun factor to make that not matter. If Molyneux’s statement through Fable is that mundane life is pointless and hard work and exploration is only worthwhile for bigger numbers, celebrating the game’s 10th anniversary seems like a rather depressing reminder of the time we’ve spent not really saying or doing anything worthwhile.
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