Friday, September 28, 2012

MadCap's Game Reviews - "Fable III"
Xbox 360 Box Art
What can be said of Peter Molyneux and Lionhead Studios’ magnum opus, the Fable series? It’s the next generation of Role Playing Games!…if by “next generation”, you mean a hack and slash adventure that has a storyline.  You can go anywhere and do anything!...provided it’s along the very linear and rather restricting game world.  It’s moral system is something that RPGs have never had before!...except done with more depth in better RPGs. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike the Fable games, there’s actually a lot to like. I avidly played through II (the one that got me into the series), and picked up Fable III thinking it would be just as good.

Lionhead, you guys messed up on this one.

And, to be fair, I like III, I really do, but they made just a few problems in the mechanics department that kind of distract me from your polished (if cartoony) world. And with Fable: The Journey coming out in a few weeks, I figured it’d be nice and topical to go ahead and review this (though we’ve been assured that Journey is not Fable IVA New Hope), so here we go. 

Fable III picks up fifty years after Fable II, with the Hero from that game having become King over the land of Albion in the time between the last game and now, except now he’s dead and his jerkass older son is ruling the country with an iron fist and his devilishly evil Michael Fassbender voice.  Sadly, however, you don’t get to get his job until later in the game.  You play the role of the younger brother (or sister), who is never named, and have apparently not been paying attention your entire life whilst your brother has been crushing the populace under his heel.

However, much like the real life British royal family, everyone prefers William to Charles, and so your general and childhood mentor King Théoden gets together with a man who laments his parrot being no more and decides you’d be the perfect individual to lead a full scale revolution against your brother. You having exhibited no signs of having the three Hero traits of Strength (melee), Skill (ranged attacks), or Will (magic).  Thus, you make a trip to rob the grave of your parent (the game makes minor cosmetic changes if you have save files from Fable II, but otherwise remains the same throughout) for a Guild Seal that lets you commune with a bitchy trampoline who shows you the path before you and sends you on your way.

What follows is you performing tasks of various kinds to gain the use of several allies in your battle to take on your brother.  Most of the first half of the game is taken up by doing this, or doing the incredibly arbitrary task of gathering Guild Seals either through defeating foes in combat or by completing a variety of quests in each of the settlements that you are forced to rigidly follow in progression.  The Guild Seals you need both to progress in the storyline (apparently your leveling up is somehow related to how much people are willing to follow you) and to level up your character on the “Road to Rule”, an irritating and tedious system that really has no business being in this game.

The level up system involves you travelling into a mystical alternate dimension that consists of nothing more than a long path with a series of gates that leads up to a faux-Bowerstone Castle.  Visually, this is fine, it’s even rather interesting to look at.  But it serves no practical sense and becomes incredibly tedious for those who want to unlock everything and have to go back through the various gates to get those chests we didn’t open to receive the upgrades (you don’t actually have to unlock all of them behind a gate to progress further). If you’ve opened all the gates and want to go back to find a chest you haven’t opened, you either have to walk from the end of the road back down to wherever you’d like to go, or use a teleport pad located at every gate to go all the way to the beginning and walk down.

Couldn’t this have been solved with the leveling system in II? By comparison, there was nothing wrong with how things were (and why are EXPRESSIONS part of the leveling up now?).

And because the spoiler warning should be kind of obvious (it’s also been almost three years since launch), I have no shame in telling you that you get a message from a soldier loyal to your cause that you’ll find allies in Aurora, a land across the sea that was mentioned in Fable II’s “See the Future” DLC that was a bunch of foreshadowing that led up to this.  In Aurora, the first thing you run into are some natives from the neighborhood of Lovecraft, who proceed to try and consume you. Finding natives there who are apparently peeved with your brother for showing up some time ago - promising an army to save them from Cthulhu and never getting one – and agree to join up.

Long story short, you come back home and kick Fassbender right off his throne and take his place.  But you learn that you have only a year before Cthulhu comes knocking on your front door asking if you and the rest of Albion can come out and play.  So, you have to raise around six million gold in the royal treasury in order to combat the terror and keep the post-main quest world from being completely devoid of NPCs (what a thrilling goal!).

This brings up a rather big question – why six million gold? Why such a random, arbitrary number? Sure, buy up enough property (I recommend buying only shops – in a stupid change from two, you actually have to repair housings now, but not shops) and you can make the gold in a few hours (read:  a day or two) and then some. But wait! You have your allies that you made your promises to and you can either fulfill them or break them in order to raise gold and…y’know, save everyone.

This is kind of a big problem I have with Fable in general. You can either be good or bad.  For a game that its developers parade their karma system as though it’s the greatest thing ever, you don’t get any shades of gray.  It’s just black or white.  There’s no option for telling everyone to get over themselves for a year so you can, y’know, save everyone, and then maybe we can look into your urban renewal projects. But well, no.

The game almost attempts to try to make you better understand your brother’s choices as King, but I’d understand it better if I could choose more options than holding doors for little old ladies and helping the blind to see or running amok burning down orphanages and eating baby seals (delicious, by the way). But in nearly every situation, you only get a “good” option and a “bad” option.  It’s been said of Fable that every action you have has consequences. More or less, it just comes down to this game in everyone else loving you or hating you.

No, really, you either become a paragon and either grind for gold to save your kingdom from total destruction or just waste what resources you have to pay for your little army’s pet projects, or you become a tyrant the likes of which would put your dear brother to shame and crush Albion even tighter within your grasp in order to save it.  Both of those seem so strangely not appealing.

As I said before, don’t get me wrong, I do like this game...okay, that's a lie, I really don't.  I really wish that Peter Molyneux and Lionhead Studios would quit trying to tell us this is an RPG when it’s not, it’s a hack n’ slash with some shooter elements that just happens to have a decent-ish storyline attached to it. There’s no real role playing, and I’ve seen games that can do role-playing (Neverwinter Nights? Neverwinter Nights 2? Baldur’s Gate? I could go on…). So why can’t Fable? Even with a voiced protagonist in this one, he/she is incredibly bland, you get no dialogue options, and it’s all in all just you making an almost mute man/woman a saint or a villain instead of a completely mute man/woman.

Anyway, I look forward to Fable IV where my son and daughter (who were born at different times but are somehow still the same age) lead a rebellion against me in my totalitarian empire.

Yeah, not that much looking forward to The Journey, maybe my opinion will change.

Fable III is now available from Microsoft Game Studios and Lionhead Studios for the Xbox 360 and PC.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version.