Review: Fable III

By Pete Haas 2010-11-07 21:30:59 discussion comments
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There are many games that end with the player becoming king, and ones in which the player is the king the whole time. Rare, though, are games that chronicle the player's rise to power and then challenge him to wield it effectively. Fable III is that sort of an experience. It's an enormous concept with plenty of potential for disappointment but this is actually the most playable Fable yet.

Fifty years have passed since Fable II. During that time, the hero of Fable II became king (or queen) of Albion and passed away after having two children. His first-born, Logan, now rules the kingdom with an iron fist. You play his younger sibling, who leaves the castle and begins to organize a rebellion. The story starts a lot quicker than previous installments; the event that spurs your character to rebellion happens within minutes.

There was really no need to do another plodding introduction sequence, anyway. The Fable series has always been very simple compared to other roleplaying games. It's designed with an eye toward people who have never played an RPG before. The combat is the clearest example of this. Your magic, gun, and melee attacks are each bound to a different face button, which you can just mash until everything's dead. Your health regenerates when you're not taking damage (as though you were in a shooter), you can simply spam the dodge button for a few. If you do "die," you instantly hop back to your feet. The only penalty is that you lose your progress toward your next Hero point (the currency you spend on upgrades). This is a game with a quick, gentle learning process.
This isn't an "easy to play, hard to master" situation. There's no mastery involved. The later battles aren't much more complicated than the early ones. You'll face the same half-dozen or so types of enemies throughout the game and each can be handled with the same basic tactics (the aforementioned button mashing). The lack of enemy variety means that the only way the game can challenge you is by throwing progressively larger amounts of them at you. Even that's not challenging - it simply makes the fights longer. If I can kill ten Hollow Men by myself, does it prove anything to make me kill an additional twenty? The regenerating health and lack of death make longer fights merely tedious rather than a test of stamina. While it's admirable to make a game that will be accessible to newbies but it seems like a mistake not to test hardcore players at all. There's an Achievement to finish the game without being knocked out once, but that's the only challenge the games puts forth for action RPG vets.

One weird bit of newbie coddling is the game's approach toward interfaces. Apparently the designers didn't want to scare off neophytes with menus (or maybe they thought it would "ruin players' immersion") so there aren't any. If you want to change your weapon, you don't open up an inventory menu. You hit pause and go to your Sanctuary, a magical hideout. Then, you walk into your armory and pick up a different weapon off the rack. Similarly, you level up skills by going to this magical road and opening chests that cost Hero Points. For example, opening one chest will boost your melee skill while another will give you a new spell. This looks a lot cooler than a menu, truth be told, but is it making anything easier? If anything, it leads to a lot more running and loading. In this case, the attempt to make the game easier actually led to something more complicated.

The upside to the game's simplicity is that it means everyone will be able to get through the whole game and experience the storyline. The storyline is worth experiencing, too. The player travels to different parts of the world to recruit allies for the coming rebellion, and you win them over by completing quests. When the plot really catches fire, though, is after you attain the crown. As I said, most games end with a coronation or begin after it. It's far more interesting, though, to see someone rise to leadership and then grow into his new office.
While you're trying to recruit allies to help unseat your brother, you're making all sorts of promises. You win the support of a disgruntled military officer by agreeing to appoint him commander of the royal army, and you tell the leader of an urban resistance group that you'll stop the exploitation of workers. It's just what they want to hear and they gladly join forces with you. Once you've won the throne, though, these allies are going to try to hold you to your promises. If that wasn't bad enough, you've now got a whole kingdom of subjects looking to you for aid.

Morality is usually a simple affair in video game, with simple good and evil choices posed to the player. I believe the first Fable I had a "save the puppy or kick it" choice in its opening hours. Ruling in Fable III is not so straightforward, though. Soon after coming to power, you learn that there is an impending disaster that could wipe out the entire kingdom. To prevent such a fate, you must make extensive preparations - preparations that will require a lot of gold. Every loading screen will show you two statistics: the amount of money in the treasury, and the expected casualty total from the upcoming disaster. If you try to please every subject by honoring their requests, you'll quickly deplete the treasury and put your country and all its citizens in danger. If you refuse to help any of your subjects, though, you'll lose support among your people. You're forced to balance short term versus long term goals, personal responsibility versus national responsibility. In the process, you may have to spurn old friends or embrace former enemies. Being a politician is a lot more complicated than being a wandering hero.

Fortunately, you can still duck out of your castle to go on adventures. Albion is filled with quests both large and small. There's admittedly a lot of filler errand quests, rendered meaningless by the fact that you can quick travel. However, when it tries to, the game can serve up some entertaining adventures. In one quest, you're miniaturized and play through a table-top game designed by three wizards while they comment on the design throughout. The gameplay still amounts to the same thing as a simple "kill enemies" quest - lots of button-mashing battles with hordes of weak, nameless foes - but the clever, funny writing carries the day. Not all of the quests have this level of wit, though.
The other usual Fable diversions are available as well. You can still get married and have kids with denizens of Albion. The game even offers you the option of doing this with your co-op partner, too. There's no real point to mating and marriage in the game other than Achievements, though. This part of the game still feels like empty simulation. I'd think the mating/marriage process would be a bigger deal for a King or Queen - what with succession and all - but the idea isn't really explored.

Earning money is now more essential, as you can deposit it directly into the royal treasury. You're no longer simply amassing a fortune for the sake of amassing a fortune as you might have in previous games. You can purchase property and earn a steady stream of revenue over time, or you can perform a job. The jobs - lute playing, blacksmithing, pie making - are rhythm minigames that task you with pushing a series of button at just the right time. You do this over and over again, earning a multiplier for your cash gains by hitting streaks of buttons flawlesssly. It's a dull grind and is only made difficult by strange frame rate issues. In other words, this is pretty much the same economy system from Fable II. I get the sense that the developers decided not to spend too much time on "old" features but instead just put all their energy into making new ones.

Fable III does not solve the flaws of the first two games. The core experience, warts and all, has remained largely intact. If you didn't like the combat or you felt the simulation aspects were boring, this one might not win you over. However, if your complaints about Fable I and Fable II were about the story, then the third installment could be what you wanted. It has a much more focused plot than previous games and puts players into an unusual role for video games: the conflicted ruler. While it might not be all that much fun to marry a villager, play the lute for peasants, or even slay Hollow Men, it feels good to wear the crown.

Players: 1-2
Platform(s): Xbox 360
Developer: Lionhead Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
ESRB: Mature
Rating:
discussion
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