“Fable III” Review

Albion needs a Hero. Albion needs a King.

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.

Though he didn't deserve it, the Jerk!

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.

And John Cleese Is Your Butler!

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.

YOUR FAMILY!!! Well, actually no, something even worse than that, but still...

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.

The plot is actually quite good.

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.

Will you be evil or good?

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.

You can choose various weapons and upgrade them through use.

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.

You will suffer the loss of allies and friends along the 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.

The opening cinematic really is fantastic.

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.

Peter Molynuex is a great guy, but his vision doesn't always work out.

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.

Dream of Freedom, little chickie.

Closing Comments:

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)

Four and one-half Stars

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.

Spoiler Talk:

“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.

Or hate, whichever is more appropriate, actually. Hm... love to hate?

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.


“Final Fantasy XIII” Review

Final Fantasy XIII

It’s Not For Everyone, But It Is Definitely For Me.

Jul 24, 2010 – Final Fantasy is one of the longest running franchises in video-game history. Unlike most other franchises that span similar time frames like Mario or Zelda, Final Fantasy is different each time, with new characters, new worlds and even new mechanics and game design philosophies. For many years this has allowed the games to stay fresh, and for each entry to stand on its own merits and flaws. But as time has marched on, Japanese game development hasn’t evolved with the times as much as their Western counterparts. What was advanced and ahead of its time in the NES, SNES and Playstation 1 and 2 eras have become icons of the old guard.

The Cast of Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy XIII uses the franchises key ability to reinvent itself each installment to experiment with new modes of gameplay and new design philosophies in an attempt to stay relevant. What comes from this chancy bet by Square Enix is a game that feels both very different from all the final fantasy games that came before it, developing inventive and great new mechanics, and yet still feels like home.
The very Japanese method of storytelling will either draw the player in or turn them away. If you can’t stand the stories of anime, manga or any other JRPG you should probably turn around now and not look back. The story is difficult to summarize, not only because it involves a large ensemble cast weaving in and out of dense layers of the plot, but also because there are specific terms that you must learn to make sense of anything. Fal’Cie, l’Cie, Cie’th, a Focus, Cocoon, Pulse, etc. If you aren’t willing to pay close attention and read every event summary in the datalogue at the beginning of the game, you will soon be lost.
If, however, you enjoy Japanese storytelling and archetypes, and if you are fine with reading all of the supporting details (like me,) then you will find a story that is involving, epic in scope and ever evolving. It is a story that wraps small character details into the bigger picture and makes them all mater by amplifying each other. For balancing all of the different plot lines and characters, the game does an excellent job of it.
Cocoon is a world on the inside of a massive rocky shell, inhabited by humans who are provided for and looked after by Fal’Cie, who are sort of like gods. Cocoon hovers above the world of Gran Pulse, a wild and expansive place. Long ago, Cocoon and the former inhabitants of Gran Pulse fought a war against one another. Cocoon won, but only after taking heavy damage. Ever since then, the citizens of both Pulse and Cocoon have loathed and feared one another. This makes the surprise appearance of a Pulse Fal’Cie on Cocoon all the more frightening.

Lightning Leaps Into Action

The main characters find themselves wrapped up in the events that follow, either for personal reasons or due to bad luck and being at the wrong place at the wrong time. They all find themselves branded as Pulse l’Cie, servants of Pulse, who bear an unknown Focus. If they fail their Focus, they will turn into mindless monsters, the Cie’th. If they succeed they will turn into crystal, which is the promise of eternal life from the Fal’Cie. They do not know if their Focus is to destroy Cocoon or to save it, and they are terrified to find out; but they all set out to find their way nonetheless. What follows is a tale of fighting fate and gods, struggling through personal loss, never giving up hope and faith and standing up for one another.

Sahz Is A Great Character

The characters are typical Japanese Archetypes. There’s the girl that’s way too peppy (Vanille,) the whiny kid who’s admittedly down on his luck but needs to shut-up already (Hope,) the hero who knows he’s a hero and is always determined (Snow,) but despite these Archetypes the characters largely manage to surpass them to become deeper, more three-dimensional people. Vanille’s personality is realistic (No, seriously, I know a girl who’s just like her) but annoyingly happy until you realize that underneath the veneer she’s “not all smiles and sunshine.” Hope grows up and puts his childish ways behind him (something that never happens to some whiny brats I could name *cough*cough* Shinji from Evangelion *cough*cough*) And Snow backs up his ridiculous hero persona with genuine feelings for his fiance, and self doubt that occasionally shows when things seem absolutely bleak.
That’s forgetting to talk about some of the other fantastic characters, like Sahz (my favorite) an older down to earth guy with a baby chocobo in his Afro. He’s a believable father figure and regular guy sucked up into a mess that is way over his head. He has a scene with Vanille that is wonderfully done and very raw emotionally, and any scene between him and his son is fantastic. Lightning is, as many people have pointed out, Cloud with boobs. Nevertheless, she’s very cool, powerful, independent, and her relationships with her sister and her sister’s fiance (Snow) are believable and full of dramatic tension. Fang is the character I liked least, and yet she too has various motivations and desires warring inside her. Even the bit players like Cid Raines are more than they appear and have dramatic arcs.

Cocoon Sits In The Sky OverGran Pulse. A Constant Reminder Of The Stakes At Hand.

All of the characters are made that much better by their excellent voice actors. Vincent Martella’s Hope begins as a whiny brat, but thankfully he never sounded like a deep-voiced female (*cough*cough* Shinji *cough*) and the voice actor was able to convey that change in attitudes well. Troy Baker’s Snow manages to bring some authenticity to the moments when his character shows he’s something more than a loudmouth with bravado. All of the characters share similar results with perhaps only Vanille’s voice acting needing some improvement.

But Don't Sell Her Short, She's A Good Character

The way the story is told effects the gameplay and overall experience directly. The story is mostly told through numerous cut-scenes, all of which are gorgeous. If watching the story unfold during long cinematic breaks sounds dull to you then this is not your game. The story is rigid with no room for customization or choice. Like all Final Fantasy games there is one way to do something, and only that way. You progress from A to B. In older games, however, there was an illusion of freedom. You could wander around an overworld, take some missions out of order and so forth, but in the end if you didn’t follow the correct path you were dead. Final Fantasy XIII largely does away with this illusion. The game is exceedingly linear, and one could draw the game’s path nearly enough to be one giant hallway which only becomes a full room at the very end (it opens up at Gran Pulse.) This feeling of guidance will kill the experience for players who want to effect the storyline or choose which direction to go at any given time. Fallout 3 this isn’t.

Chocobo Riding Makes A Welcome Return

However, this gives the game developer a lot of freedom with how to tell their story. They are able to structure the world in such a way as to give a sense of purpose and place that can be elusive in other RPGs. Like first or 3rd person shooters, they are also able to pump up the graphics engine, making the surroundings really sparkle. Fallout 3 has lots of Freedom and Choice, but it’s game engine isn’t going to be receiving any beauty awards.

Yes, Airships Make An Apperance, But Yo Can't Fly Them Yourself

Final Fantasy XIII is certainly beautiful. I would find myself stopping to look around at the environments more times in this game than most others. Gran Pulse alone is an amazing place full of wildlife, plains, cliffs and vistas that make me feel like I walked into Jurassic Park. The scale of your character to some of the creatures in the environment, and the awe which it elicits, is only topped by God of War 3 and Shadow of the Colossus. The game moves smoothly between cut-scenes and gameplay with little noticeable differences, and the battles are beautiful and flashy.

Dr. Grant, my dear Dr. Sattler. Welcome to Jurassic Park.

That’s not to say there aren’t moments when you’re kicked out of the experience. As good a job as the animators did at capturing accurate lip movements for the wording, it isn’t perfect and could really use some motion capture techniques. During some scenes which use the in-game engine instead of pre-rendered cut scenes, the animations can feel stiff. Oh, and if these characters aren’t using gallons of hair gel I’d be shocked. But then, that’s the way it is with every anime flavored character design and I love it anyway.
While I loved the story and characters it would have been hard to get into the game if there wasn’t also a great battle system. Thankfully, this battle system is easily the best of the series and one of the best in the entire JRPG genre (f not THE best.) In many ways I dread ever having to play a turn based system again.
Each character has access to three primary “roles,” such as Sentinel, Medic, Ravager(mage), Commando(fighter), Saboteur and Synergist. Each role can be upgraded with Crystarium Points(exp.) to gain new abilities and greater hit points, magic and strength, and each role specializes in certain effects. A Sentinel has extra hit points and takes less damage for instance, while a Commando deals out heavy physical damage and Ravagers build up chain gauges quickly that can Stagger an opponent. The real hook of the battle system is the Paradigm Shift. A paradigm is the combination of roles in your party, which are customizable in the menu. A paradigm example might be Relentless Assault, which would be Two Ravagers and a Commando, or Combat Clinic, which would be a Sentinel and two Medics. In battle you can shift at almost any time between paradigms.

Scorpion Robot Thingy Must Die.

Knowing how to create useful paradigms and when and how to use them in the heat of battle is the crux of Final Fantasy XIII’s battle system, but just as important is the Stagger Meter. As an opponent takes damage their Stagger Meter goes up. When the opponent becomes staggered they take many times the usual damage. Some opponents are nigh impossible to beat without Staggering them first.
As an example of the system, a player may start with Espionage (Saboteur, Saboteur, Synergist) to gain buffs and cast de-buffs, then switch to Relentless Assault to build the Stagger Meter and do damage, and switch to Combat Clinic to heal up when in danger. There is a lot of forethought, strategy and quick thinking involved. In the beginning of the game it amounts to little more than pressing the X button (A on Xbox,) but button mashing will get you nowhere later on in the game.

You can let the competent auto battle system control minute details, or take full control of your character.

Closing Comments:

Whether you like Final Fantasy XIII or not is highly subjective. If you love open worlds and choice, western styles of storytelling and few cut-scenes, this isn’t for you. However, if you’re like me, you will fall in love with the characters, the story, and the world they live in. Nothing, in my mind, can honesty question the excellent battle system, and the music is up to the high standards of the series. Square Enix’s gamble paid off, and they’ve given us a triumphant departure from the franchises’ roots while remaining true to the heart and themes of its legacy.

STAR RATING: (4 and 1/2)

Four and one-half Stars