As good as Fable II was, it wasn’t the experience we were told we’d get. With a severely limited online element and fewer customization options than were promised, the finished product was less robust than what many fans expected. Fable III, with the exception of Kinect functionality, has seen significantly less “pie in the sky” declarations, leading some to wonder if the game would simply be a touched up version of Fable II. In many ways, those fans had a valid concern, as Fable III retains many similarities to its predecessor. Fortunately, those familiar concepts have been augmented with some innovative new ones, and while they aren’t all successful, the overall package is an impressive, if imperfect RPG experience.
Fable III starts off fifty years after the events of Fable II. Players take control of a new nameless Hero, the son or daughter of Fable II’s protagonist, in a version of Albion that’s going through something of a technological revolution. While magic and swordplay are still prevalent, the introduction of gunpowder and steam power have changed the world into a slightly more modern place. It’s also a world led by a tyrannical king who allows his people to starve, makes children work in factories, and kills innocent subjects with impunity. This oppressive ruler also happens to be the Hero’s brother, and after a particularly heinous act by the king, the Hero’s mission is clear; gather an army from the ranks of the various disenfranchised groups throughout Albion, and overthrow him.
The path to leadership is marked with tons of combat, decision making, socializing, and exploration. Following the main quest leads the Hero on a series of challenges that aim to prove his worth as both a military strategist and a benevolent potential monarch. Upon encountering a new group the Hero wishes to recruit, he’ll usually be asked to perform a certain task, like convincing a neighboring town to share its food, defeat a group of enemies, and gain the trust of the citizenry. This is accomplished by interacting with people until they ask the Hero for a favor. Performing that favor will gain their friendship, and increase the Hero’s standing in the community. Completing all these tasks will bring another local army under control, and push the story forward.
Of course, this is a Fable game, so exploration is heavily rewarded and side quests are abundant. Not only can the Hero perform favors for any citizen in the kingdom, he’ll also be asked to help with all manner of problems, from the serious (rescue a little girl trapped in the woods) to the utterly ridiculous (help three nerdy wizards complete their role playing game). Every type of unlockable from Fable II has returned, which means the Hero will spend a lot of time looking for treasure chests, silver keys, demon doors, and secret areas. There are also plenty of houses and shops to purchase, people to sleep with, and families to start (and abandon, if you so choose), and all these elements seem to work better than they did in the previous game. Interacting with individuals, instead of with whatever crowd happened to be gathered nearby, is a particularly noticeable improvement.
Nearly everything the Hero does, from defeating enemies, to wooing citizens, to finding treasure chests, gains Guild Seals. These seals are used to open up new story missions, but they also help advance the player’s progression through a new system called the “Road to Rule.” This system transports the hero to a long pathway that represents their growth as a Hero. Along the path are treasure chests, which require specific amounts of Guild Seals to open, and unlock new abilities and upgrade the Hero’s skills, allowing a fair amount of customization in the way they are played. It’s an interesting system, and one that adds to the game’s epic, mythical feel.
The other big new system is the Sanctuary. Essentially, the Sanctuary is your pause screen, replacing the clunky, frustrating menus of the last game. This interactive pause menu is manifested as a four room metaphysical castle, containing areas for navigation, wardrobe, weapons, and achievements and online play. Every option that’s normally presented in menus is done so in a physical format here, such as mannequins that show off your clothes, and a large table that serves as an interactive map. While the new system does take a few extra seconds to navigate, and a little getting used to, it never feels unwieldy or unnecessary, and is actually a fantastic approach to the menu. My only real complaint is with the map, which is charming, and offers plenty of information about buildings and missions, but isn’t to scale and is utterly useless when it comes to navigating the world. It might not be so bad if the “bread crumb” trail, which returns from Fable II, weren’t so completely unreliable, but as it stands, it can be extremely difficult to determine where in Albion the Hero actually is, much less where to look for undiscovered areas.
When the Hero isn’t exploring, investing, or socializing, he’ll spend most of his time fighting off fantastical creatures and nefarious criminals with a combination of melee combat, magical spells, and firearms. With each type of attack mapped to a face button, the combat is free-flowing and exciting. It’s highly satisfying to quickly throw out a tornado spell, hurling enemies in the air, blast one of them out of the air, turn around, slash another, then fire over your shoulder to take out yet another. Don’t expect a challenging combat experience, however. Enemies aren’t terribly bright, and even early in the game, the Hero feels overpowered, and by the end of the game, he’s a nigh-unstoppable wrecking ball of destruction that tears through hordes of enemies like rice paper.
At the outset of the game, the Hero receives a set of weapons that belonged to his in-game parent. As the player progresses, these weapons will progress with him, taking on new attributes and even physically morphing to reflect the character’s moral standing. Weapons that are found or purchased will progress according to their own set of criteria. For example, killing 300 human enemies with a certain pistol will make it more powerful, while gaining the affection of 50 townspeople while holding a certain sword will give a discount on purchases. Sadly, these upgrades only apply to melee and ranged weapons, and not the magical gauntlets that allow the Hero to perform magical spells. Instead, these gauntlets can be mixed and matched to create powerful combo spells like flaming tornados and freezing force blasts, adding another layer of customization.
Once the player has gathered enough followers, he’ll mount his charge on the king, and begin the second half of the game. Ruling Albion comes with a terrible caveat; in one year’s time the kingdom will be attacked by a terrifying force of darkness that threatens to end all life. Leadership basically consists of making decisions about how the kingdom’s money will be spent, and trying to balance public opinion and promises made to your allies with the need to fill the military coffers in anticipation of the upcoming battle. Essentially, every “nice” thing the king does for his people will come at a cost to the treasury, while every “cruel” act will either save or gain money. It’s an interesting take on the “burden of the king” concept, but the mechanic feels simplistic and underdeveloped, and the game definitely suffers for it. Players will still be able to partake in side quests and other diversions, but even this feels off; why would the king need to perform fetch quests for his servants and subjects? As an exercise in the complexities and compromises inherent to leadership, it works okay, but it feels a bit tacked on for such a big part of the game.
In Fable II, co-op play was severely limited. Players couldn’t bring their own Hero into another players’ universe, and had to use generic henchman characters who were tethered to the main character’s camera.. Fable III has done away with this limitation, and now allows Heros to directly join each other’s games and travel anywhere they like. It’s a lot closer to the experience we all wanted in Fable II, and it’s nice to see it finally implemented. Player orbs, an innovation from the previous game, have returned as well, offering players a convenient way to know where their friends are in their adventures, share gifts, and join up for co-op play.
While it wasn’t much of a powerhouse in the graphics department, Fable II struck a pleasant visual tone. The sequel looks much better, with more realistically proportioned people and a vast, lush world of ominous forests, bleak deserts, murky swamps, and bustling marketplaces that invoke elements of Tolkienesque fantasy and early steampunk aesthetics. The upgraded visuals come at a high price, however, as screen tearing and pop-in are frequent, and frame rate drops are constant and severe. It’s a real shame that these technical missteps definitely break the immersive spell that’s so expertly woven by the game’s gorgeous environments and brilliant storytelling. The Fable series is well-known for its humor and high audio production values, and Fable III is the best in the franchise at this element. Whereas Fable II tended to hide its comedy in item descriptions and obscure references, Fable III’s sense of humor is right out front. Missions are often based on ridiculous premises, like a man who needs you to return his obnoxious talking garden gnomes, or a demon door who demands to see the player get as fat and poorly dressed as possible. Fable III’s excellent script is complemented by some truly brilliant voice acting by the likes of Ben Kingsley, Michael Fassbender, Stephen Fry, Simon Pegg, and John Cleese, who is especially memorable as Jasper, the Sanctuary butler.
Fable III maintains all of the charm, style, and distinctly British humor from its predecessors, and, in most cases, improves upon them with small details and large renovations that make the game more accessible and immersive. It also improves on the Fable combat formula with a more streamlined, more satisfying progression system and some very nice visual flourishes that get more impressive as your character becomes more powerful. Even the concept of decision-making and its effect on the way your character is viewed by the citizens of Albion and the player themselves has been expanded upon, with major consequences for choosing the dark or light path. Taking over as King of Albion isn't quite as satisfying as it should be, though, and I'm hopeful that the next Fable does something similar, but with a more distinct "kingly" experience. It’s a shame that the game isn’t more polished, as frequent technical issues mar the experience, but these hiccups shouldn’t deter fantasy fans from a purchase. It’s a deeply engrossing game with a memorable story, beautiful design, tons of customization, legitimately funny writing, and simple, but fun combat. If I’m not mistaken, that’s pretty much what Fable is supposed to be.