Review: Fable III (Xbox 360)

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Steve Jobs isn’t the only person equipped with a reality distortion field.

Peter Molyneux’s evangelism of the first Fable touted it as a revolutionary step forward for RPGs. It was a bold claim, but when it came from the man with as many accolades as Molyneux, you had to wonder whether or not he could actually pull it off.

Once Fable became reality, however, it came up short of what was promised – yet the undeniable charm and fairy tale whimsy glossing over what it didn’t bring to the dungeon had found an audience that loved it for what it was. For adventurers that didn’t like poring over statistics or lists of equipment, Fable’s simplified approach to role-playing was a welcome mat to what might have been an intimidating genre to many.

Molyneux’s interviews for the third game had also stirred up their own share of controversy, but the waning influence of his reality distortion field has given way to frank answers on what Fable III is intended to be. “Action-adventure” and “not an RPG” were the words that he used to describe its gameplay in order to help broaden its scope and invite new players into Albion’s world. And he’s right. Fable III is exactly that. But in the process, the game has also lost some of that magic.

In Fable’s world, ‘Heroes’ are special people in whose blood flow special gifts that destine them to do great things – for good or ill. These Heroes rose up at key points within Albion’s history to change the course of events before disappearing back into the pages of fairy tales and legend. There had even been a sort of order that had trained such Heroes in the past before that, too, disappeared into the pages of myth.

In the third game, Lionhead has added a new twist to the story with revolution. As children of the last ruler of Albion, the Hero of Fable II, you start off as royalty. Big brother Logan inherits the crown but as time went on, it became clear that Logan isn’t the ruler that Albion deserves thanks to his penchant for high taxes and a hate for libraries. And unlike him, you are the one whom the bloodline has chosen to be the next Hero.

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For those of us that had been with the series since it began on the original Xbox, seeing Albion mature into Dickensian flavored steampunk colliding with the slowly dying world of fantasy at its fringes also parallels the changes that it has gone through – not all of them for the best. Although the third one answers several criticisms from the last game, some of the things that weren’t as broken had also disappeared.

One of the most dramatic changes was in making the world of Albion your menu. Instead of a menu when you hit the Start button, you’re zapped to a secret sanctuary where you can check out your weapons, wardrobe, join up with friends online, or compare stats through its rooms. The idea is that you never feel as if anything is between you and Albion.

But while it breaks down the walls, it also cuts out a number of little things that subtly added details to its world. Things like collected notes, scraps of journals, and even the ability to see just what you have in your inventory prior to decorating a house as opposed to having to go there only to discover that you don’t have that Luxury Bed that you could have used. It’s also context sensitive in that you won’t know just how many healing potions you really have to use until your health is low enough (there’s no health bar anymore) for it to appear, as another example.

Travel is now handled using a large, 3D tabletop map of Albion with each area flagged as a big icon. Zooming in reveals little details such as houses, stores, and even quest markers and fast traveling to where you want to go is as easy as moving the magnifying glass over a spot and hitting the X button. But it doesn’t often drop you exactly where you want to go.

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While it’s a nice, big, fancy table, burgeoning real estate empires are woefully ignored. Purchasing businesses and houses to earn a little extra coin was a wonderful option introduced in Fable II, although there wasn’t much that you could really do with all of that money once it started rolling in after reaching the top of the chain. In Fable III, it does a bit more to help spend that money – especially after becoming the ruler of Albion – but managing your properties became a pain in the ass.

Houses you own and rent out eventually go down in value because the tenants apparently kick in the walls and leave stains on the floor. Well, maybe not to those extremes, but keeping them repaired ensures that you’ll get the full rent. They’ll slowly go down in quality over time so its best to check on their condition every so often.

But there’s no easy way to do this other than in visiting EVERY HOUSE you own to fix them either from the map or in person. Forget about looking for a tab or an option for “fix all” because it isn’t there. It’s an incredible omission to make considering the effort that had gone into updating the ‘interface’ in the first place. At least the cash from your businesses and rentals are automatically dropped into your pockets every five minutes (you no longer earn gold away from the game as in Fable II) instead of being forced to also visit every place to get your cut of the action.

Casting spells has also changed and now requires the use of gloves. Having two hands also means that you can cast two spells at the same time to combine their effects. If you want to send fiery cyclones after enemies, feel free to incinerate to your heart’s content. It also no longer requires you to hold a button down just to cast the spell you want, only improve the power that you want to use them at. Combat is still the same hack ‘n slash affair, jumping is still verboten (though it would have solved a lot of problems), and the method for earning experience has also changed.

In Fable II, you earned experience ‘orbs’ based on what attacks you used. Using melee weapons allowed you to improve your melee attack skills, for example, as it was for magic and guns. In Fable III, you earn “Guild Badges” instead which vastly simplifies combat options by not having to worry about what tactics to use to get what you want outside of fulfilling conditions for empowering legendary weapons.

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Spending Guild Badges is done on the Road to Rule, a mystic path accessed through your sanctuary. The Road is lined with chests, each with a specific Badge cost, upgrading a number of things ranging from how much damage you can do with Melee Weapons to the level of money you can earn from side jobs such as Blacksmithing. It’s all laid out without having to worry about where to find new expressions to wow friends with or learn skills based on what you do.

It’s not a bad system, but it also simplifies things to the point where you don’t need to think about much of anything in Fable III and perhaps that’s the point for all of this streamlining. The casual focus is much more slanted towards players that don’t want to bother with reading books purchased from booksellers (they’re only there to help train your dog) or with menus in general.

Once you become the king or queen of Albion, you get to make the choices that will determine the fate of the kingdom which is now living on borrowed time. Fortunately, you can literally walk out on having to make a decision and adventure around while time stands still. Ruling the kingdom is also an expensive experience making all of that gold you should be earning by this point go towards several pet projects. Or pocket the money yourself, not that there’s really any reason to.

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As exciting as that sounds, playing at the throne is over all too quickly. When you ‘finish’ the main quest, don’t expect to sit on the throne and make occasional random pronouncements, judge on new matters, or hear petitioners as any ruler would normally do. Once you finish what you are supposed to do, as in Fable II, there’s not a whole lot left to look forward to other than the adulation – or fear – that Albion might shower you with and in tying up a few loose quests along the way. Or kiss and tell with any number of villagers if that’s more your speed.

Leaving more of an empty feeling was the lack of any real challenge throughout this adventure. When I think back on the Jack of Blades in the first Fable, the arena challenges of Fable II along with the end battles at the Spire, there’s nothing on the scale of any of those experiences in Fable III that I had to worry about other than a few sticky balverine battles. I fully expected something worse to appear after the last fight only to be disappointed in learning that it WAS the last fight. You got me out of my Luxury Bed just for that?

The rich history and mystery touched on within Fable II’s story, or the resurrection of Heroes in the first game, make Fable III’s backdrop in the last half of its own tale bland in comparison thanks to a generic evil. The trip to get there held most of the enjoyment, but when it began to running out of steam, it didn’t leave me with as much of a feeling of triumph as it did disappointment at how un-epic a note it had ended on. Here’s your thrifty ending, thanks for playing. There’s nothing more to really do here.

Just as surprising was the slowdown in many parts of the game that the sharp visuals can’t hide, especially if you’re in the middle of one of its mini-games earning cash. Or all of the invisible walls that keep you from wandering too far off of the beaten path, some of which made themselves a little too obvious in keeping you fenced in where the designers want you to go. My hero can’t get over knee high rubble? Again?

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Multiplayer options have also gone through a little polish allowing you to see, via orb icons, where friends might be in their own Fable III games if they’re online. You can even join up with them, as a henchman, and adventure together, compare stats, and trade weapons and gems for those that might not exist in your world. There’s even an achievement for having a child with another player online.

Taking a break from some of the more serious RPGs for an adventure elsewhere, or simply indulging in a little whimsical fairy tale with oddball (and occasionally overwrought) humor, is right where Fable III sits. At the same time, it’s also hard not to feel the deja vu riddled throughout the experience which seems built to boast more of what the new interface is than in providing opportunities to truly empower the player and build on what worked in the last two games. There simply feels that there is less to do here or get involved with.

In an interview, Molyneux had said that a simpler approach was needed in order to bring in new players for a game of this caliber to break even. Maybe he’s right in that respect. On the other hand, by sacrificing some of the magic in order to draw in a larger crowd with as little effort as there was in actually ‘ruling’ Albion, I can’t help but feel as if my experience within Fable III’s world felt as sterile as it could have been truly legendary.

Fable III
Microsoft Game Studios / Lionhead Studios
Xbox 360 / Windows PC (reviewed on Xbox 360)
Rated: M for Mature