Jan 5, 2011 – I sat upon my newly won throne, looking down upon the former king, my brother, the man I had despised the most these past months. It was he who oppressed the peoples of Albion. He who betrayed everything our family stood for. He… who sentenced her to death. I knew now what had driven him to such evil, and the weight of that responsibility was bearing down upon me, but still I hated him. He looked up at me, seeing the emotion behind my eyes, and I could see his certainty, determination and even… relief, behind his. I held his life in my hands. A life I had sworn to snuff out in vengeance. And I felt pity for him. I decided to be a better man than my brother that day and do for him what he did not do for Elise. I spared his life.
Fable III is a game built upon promise, choice and consequence, and it meets the challenge of doing these things admirably. The first half of the game is dominated by political intrigue, alliances and rebellion. The second half is dominated by what happens after you win the crown. You are called upon to make moral decisions and either keep your campaign promises, or break them. While moral quandaries are nothing new in videogames, keeping or breaking the promises made in a bid for kingship is a novel concept that is rarely explored in videogames, and while Fable III isn’t built to treat it with the true gravity such a situation might call for, they manage to capture it to a degree yet unseen. Furthermore, these decisions are not all black and white. Do you keep the promises you’ve made to your followers now, and possibly doom them all later, or break your promises, earn the enmity of your former friends, but save all their lives? Lionhead Studios, and its charismatic leader, Peter Molyneux, have created a very good follow up to Fable II, and while the game still has many of the problems of its predecessors it manages to chart new waters to create the best Fable experience yet.
The land of Albion is caught between two worlds, the past and the future. It is a time of industrial revolution, a Dickensian world where orphans work in sooty factories, mercenaries carry flintlocks and muskets, and the aristocracy rides high on the backs of the lower classes. You are the prince, brother to the king, and you worry about the people of your kingdom under his ever more tyrannical rule. When you confront him about it you are forced into an evil decision of life against life, and so the fire of rebellion is born in you. But you need allies, and so you travel the countryside, winning the support of the impoverished and disenfranchised. With their aid, you will overthrow your brother, the tyrant, and bring peace to Albion. Or so you might believe. But there is another threat that nears Albion. One far greater than any mortal foe you’ve yet faced.
The story of Fable III is the most well-developed, intricate and interesting to date, and the world is unique in videogames, taking place during a time rarely visited. The characters are well made and feel unique, with distinct motivations and great voice acting. The fantasy elements are very much present, but all the more enjoyable for their uniqueness in Albion. This isn’t a land of sword-and-sorcery with wizards and elves around every corner, and I find that to be refreshing in a time when fantasy in videogames is either World of Warcraft or Dragon Age. Really it’s more similar to the high fantasy of The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire, though obviously much lighter-hearted.
Fable III goes a couple steps further than just providing a great tale for the main story; it also provides a number of side quests, most built to add to the humor and charm of the game and provide a fun distraction. Sometimes these little quests provide as much or more satisfaction than the action in the main story, with particular standouts being quests such as being sucked into the table-top game of a bunch of nerdy wizards, acting out the plays of a long-dead playwright in another dimension or playing deadly chess against a psychopathic treasure chest. The variety of the side quests are hardly lacking, and hours could be spent doing them alone. You can even complete many of them after the game (assuming your choices haven’t closed them off) relieving people who want to finish the game first and deal with other things later.
One change that will be either loved or hated is the way the menus and upgrading is done. The menus are all represented in three-dimensions by the “Sanctuary” a special place that acts as a sort of Bat-cave or Fortress of Solitude for the Hero. For those of you who don’t get the references, think of a very spacious and multi-roomed closet. Inside you see the actual outfits, weapons, multiplayer elements and wealth you accumulate. Some will hate it on principle because they will say it slows down the pace of the game. In truth, it doesn’t slow it down that much, and there is no lag whatsoever when you press the start button to go to the sanctuary. Furthermore, there are ways to skip through the sanctuary that should make complainers happy. What the Sanctuary adds is immersion and interaction, which I’m actually quite fond of.
Similarly, the Road to Rule is a mystical road that you can travel to which represents your plot progress as well as your upgrades in the form of chests that you can open with Guild Seals. Guild Seals simply represent your Experience points. Again, it adds a nice sense of interaction and atmosphere. By never seeing an actual menu the game pulls you in more effectively. If only the loading screens didn’t work against that in their own way.
If there’s one thing all the Fable games have managed to do well in spades, it is their charm. The design is beautiful and whimsical. Characters walk a fine line between pomp, formality and ridiculousness. The music is floaty and enchanting and the world is full of a particularly British humour. Just watch the opening cinematic to see what I mean. Perhaps it is something only possible in the hands of a British studio, much like the outlandish and weird nature of games like Bayonetta is only possible in the hands of the Japanese. No matter how it is accomplished it is one of the game’s greatest points and always makes the Fable games worth playing. Fable III follows in that tradition, but like Fable II it still cannot quite grasp the full fairy-tale feel of the original game.
But the game lives up to its heritage in unhappy ways as well. Fable III tried to ditch the tedious nature of RPGs by eliminating the health bar (a welcome move in my book,) but they failed to eliminate the true perpetrators of that particular fault. An easy way to gain Guild Seals (Experience Points) is to make friends with villagers and accept friendship quests from them. The problem is, these quests are essentially currier or fetch quests. The wonderful variety found in the other side quests is completely lacking when it comes to these friendship quests, making their completion an exercise in boredom. Worse is the job system which is fun for the first five minutes and a chore for the next five hours. It might not have been such an issue if you got more money for each success, or if your final victory in the game wasn’t so closely tied to your royal funds. Essentially if you don’t buy every building in the land, don’t do enough jobs and don’t save up through hours and hours of game time your ability to get the best ending is utterly screwed. While the mechanics of the idea aren’t utterly broken, it turns much of the latter half of the game into a chore, bringing your process to a halt.
Like the previous games, the graphics are good but iffy at times and plain buggy at others. Textures pop in and out, character models sometimes spawn inside of one another and I saw more than one Balvarine stuck in a tree like a transporter accident out of Star Trek.. These glitches aren’t anywhere near the technical travesty of a game like Fallout: New Vegas, but they can be very upsetting when encountered.
Furthermore, while many of the moral choices are presented in interesting gray terms, you’re still essentially funneled down either the good or bad path. It isn’t a dire criticism of the game as it does harken to that fairy-tale element that I enjoy so much about these games, but it should still be noted.
Despite that qualm, the moral choices are still the heart and greatest strength of the game, providing structure for the plot, and creating world-changing consequences. Should you preserve the natural beauty of Bower Lake, or should you drain it to build a mine for funds that could save the Kingdom? If you choose to drain the lake, you open up a whole new area to explore and new quests to take, but all at the expense of one of Albion’s prettiest sights, hidden items at the lake and your morality meter. This is only one choice that can literally change the game. As king you will find yourself very much in charge of your destiny, and never more responsible for the denizens of a virtual world outside of the Sims games.
Fable III is not going to change anyone’s minds about the Fable franchise or Peter Molyneux and his unique vision. What it does do, however, is provide the best Fable experience yet, by telling a great story with lots of charm, humor and wit. If you’re up for rebellion, high fantasy, political machinations and kicking chickens while wearing a giant chicken suit, then you really have to try out Fable III.
STAR RATING: (4 and ½ Stars out of 5)
For those of you who stuck around after the rating, I’ve got a extra segment for you called Spoiler Talk. It’s a segment in which I discuss what I thought of certain elements of the story or themes that are too spoilerish for the main review. What I say here doesn’t ever trump my review, instead it might give insight into what exactly made me give something the score I did. So let’s get started.
“Damn it! Why didn’t I choose to let the villagers die instead of Elise? And why do I have such an emotional reaction to the death of a character I hardly know?” That was the quandary I found myself in less than a half-hour into the game. “Surely,” I thought, “I’ll still be able to save her. They won’t kill off a character who is obviously so important to my main character, right?”
Actually, they absolutely will. And now I think I know why I had such a strong reaction. The whimsical nature of the world of Albion, the charm and humor, all seem comforting and safe. But this belies the tough and real choices, some of which have no fully good outcome, that riddle Fable III. I wasn’t prepared for it, and it shocked me in a way that games rarely do. I was tempted to restart the game then and there, but instead I soldiered on, and that shock and pain became a part of the story of my rebellion. I became attached to the story.
It is a testament to how good the team at Lionhead are at giving their creations character that I already felt I knew Elise for a long time after such a brief span. There isn’t a main character in the game who doesn’t feel wholly unique, and if not realistic at least likeable.
In retrospect it might come across as a cheap way to grab the audience, killing off the girl like that. But it was my choice that sent her to her execution, and so it gained so much more weight and importance for it.
It was the little (and sometimes big) tugs of emotion that really got me hooked, and it’s those same emotions that will have me remembering Fable III in the years to come. That experience won’t be the same for everybody, but the experience did inform my final score.