Pity the poor Fable series. Once upon a time, it was a proud steed that carried whimsical yet deep role-playing gameplay away from the land of PlayStation into the kingdom of Microsoft. But in recent years, its cruel master has forced it to haul too many rickety contraptions, like the cynical Fable Pub Games and the uninspired Fable Heroes. Now the poor broken-down thing has been hitched to the increasingly disreputable Kinect with Fable: The Journey, and it’s heartbreaking to watch it collapse in the road, its big brown eyes silently pleading for the misery to end.
The Journey is easily the worst of the spinoffs, because its very premise makes a mockery of the Fable series. The Journey casts the player as a humble cart driver whose trip to market is hijacked by the seer Theresa. In previous Fable games, meeting Theresa launched you into an open-world adventure where the choices you made reshaped both your character and your environment. But in this game, you’re plopped onto the slot-car path of a typical rail-shooter. You steer your horse down the road, you shoot baddies, and then you repeat that, over and over. It’s like the game is actively mocking players who come to a Fable game expecting the rich choices that once defined the series; sometimes your character even asks Theresa if there’s another path, only to be brusquely ordered to do as you’re told.
Even if you set aside your expectations of a Fable game, The Journey is still taking you on a ride through a thoroughly uninteresting corner of Albion. The swirling fabrics and lights that defined Fable II’s look can’t be reproduced in a Kinect game, so you spend most of your time riding through a fantasy world that would have been underwhelming on the PS2. Even the writing, which should be improved by a more strictly bounded narrative, is weak. The story is full of the kind of the portentous solemnity that the previous Fable games gently mocked, and jokes that show all the wit of a suburban kid yelping Monty Python punchlines.
Shooting in the game is a staccato aim-and-fire affair that only emphasizes how difficult it is to make your movements correspond to the system’s invisible bounding box.
But the game’s biggest problem is how poorly its Kinect controls have been implemented. Child of Eden, the one great shooter for the peripheral, used a lock-on system and quantized sound effects to encourage fluid gestures that were both fun to do and easy for the Kinect to pick up. Shooting in The Journey is a staccato aim-and-fire affair that only emphasizes how difficult it is to make your movements correspond to the system’s invisible bounding box. Steering the cart should be better adapted to the Kinect’s steady hand tracking, but it always feels jerky, more like shifting between lines on a graph than gently pulling reins. And considering how much of the game is spent sitting back and riding down the road, it’s profoundly obnoxious that the game freaks out if you reach over the grab a drink or scratch your nose.
I wish I didn’t hate the experience of playing the game so much, because there are moments when I could sense some decency in its conception. The monster designs are creative and delightful, and the act of tossing enemies up with your telekinetic powers, then blasting them on the way down, is a lot of fun on the rare occasions that it works. Most charming is the game’s genuinely sweet determination to bond you with your horse, even throwing in frequent breaks where you hang out at camp and pet the handsome creature. But your horse never reacts specifically to your movement, and as soon as the game sees that you’ve put your hands in the right position, it switches to a pre-rendered animation that hustles you through to the next event. There’s absolutely zero feeling of reaching into a world, just a tedious arranging of your limbs into a position that’ll please the camera so you’ll be allowed to move on.
Obviously, the Kinect’s fuzzy subjectivity was never going to suit the precise decision-making of Fable’s traditional action-RPG gameplay. But there should have been a way to translate the idea of a world shaped by your actions, which is both the Fable series’s gameplay fundament and its moral premise, to the Kinect’s ability to simulate direct contact with a virtual universe. Instead, the developers just mashed together what’s worked in the handful of previously successful Kinect games without improving on any of it. The badly conceived mechanics mean that none of it feels right, and a Kinect game that doesn’t physically feel good just has no reason to exist.