off my trolley on overpriced beer. Stumbling home a few hours later,
I stopped to vomit in the neighbor's garden before coming through
the front door of my house and punching my wife square in the face.
Bizarre as this is going to sound, it's only when I had my character
brutally abuse his wife for no reason that the game really started
to get interesting.
From there, things began to degenerate rapidly. The neighbors heard
the commotion and ran off to go get the guards as the beating continued.
After kicking my soon-to-be-ex wife down the of stairs of our porch,
one of the town guards came running up the hill and tried to arrest
me for assault and battery. I reached for my trusty battle axe with
a sneer while the guard drew back in alarm, and while the specifics
are a bit hazy after that (my hero still had plenty of beer in him)
I wound up slaughtering the entire town in the course of a single
evening. I remember at one point running out of alcohol, and then
chasing that cheapskate bartender down to the beach, lopping his
head off and kicking it into the ocean when he wouldn't serve me
more. True, I'd just hacked apart half the village so it was a little
strange for me to drop everything and try to re-intoxicate myself
mid psychotic rampage, but if he'd just kept his wits about him
and served me like I asked, his head would probably still be on
his shoulders right now so it's his own fault. So there.
By the end of the whole ordeal most of my hair had fallen out, and
I'd grown some uncomfortable-looking horns from my forehead along
with an annoying tendency to attract biting insects wherever I go.
To make matters worse, the local guards would attack me on sight
before I could even get anywhere near what was left of the town,
so I couldn't go back and admire my own handiwork, something every
real psychopath looks forward to greatly. So, rather than go gloat
over all the corpses, I went out and got a tattoo to commemorate
my descent into madness. Nothing says "I went batshit crazy" like
a big spiral tattoo on your face.
Now, as the game wore on, my natural tendency to not be a complete
jerk got the better of me and my Paladin eventually redeemed himself,
but his story was made much more compelling because of it. Not only
had my character suffered a massive fall from grace, but there was
no laid-out path for redemption: it would have been just as easy
(if not easier) to finish the game in full-on evil mode. I use this
example because that's Fable in a nutshell: Your character is only
as colorful as you make him, and the empty shell of a plot is only
compelling if you fill it in yourself. The game simply provides
a lush backdrop for you to do your thing, whatever that may be,
and that's going to determine how much you get out of it. If you're
a die-hard Japanese RPG fan or are more inclined towards the heavily
character-scripted BioWare games, then Fable is going to take some
adjustment to be fully appreciated.
Peter Molyneux (creator of the game and a surprisingly normal man
if you ever talk to him) is well known for creating games where
you can do whatever you like. His games have always had a bit of
a dark streak to them, but up until now the player has always been
removed from the consequences -- Molyneux pioneered the "God Game"
genre, spawning several games that essentially gave the player a
large sandbox full of morally ambiguous tasks to accomplish that
they were free to do in any way they saw fit. Since the player was
also given near-omnipotence, there was really no particular reason
to go one way or the other. You could be a tyrannical god one second
and a benevolent one the next. While such dramatic mood swings might
inspire schizophrenia among your followers, they basically just
had to deal with it; you were God, after all. What were they going
to do to you?
In this latest game (fittingly known initially known as Project
Ego) this concept was to be taken to the next level: The original
idea was to create the ultimate fantasy sandbox where the player
could create a genuine character that would truly live in this world.
They had to eat and sleep, would get stronger if they exercised
and smarter if they studied, could marry and have children, and
would eventually grow old and die. More importantly, they could
live their lives however they liked. They could become a brutal,
mass-murdering psychopath or a divine savior of the people. Or,
as in my case, both! The trick here was that there would be very
real consequences to each choice as the player was no longer some
invulnerable deity. Play the part of a villain and the world would
react accordingly, and vice-versa. It might be fun to walk into
a town with a big axe and just start swinging, but be prepared to
live with the fact that people were going to remember it down the
For the most part, the game manages to deliver on this premise,
though things have been rather dramatically toned down from the
grandiose claims that were made earlier in development. In a way,
Fable is probably the most compelling failure of a game ever
made, because even though it's so obviously (and at times depressingly)
incomplete, it's still a lot of fun to play.
Right from the get-go, it's clear that Molyneux and company bit
off more than they could chew initially with this project. For a
game that claims to be all about freedom, you're still limited to
playing a white male, you'll always have the same childhood, and
the plot never changes from game to game -- that idyllic childhood
village is getting burned down no matter what you do. More critically,
you're also limited in what you can choose not to do: trying to
specialize in bow use only, for example, makes the game completely
impossible. You can specialize mostly in bow use, but in order to
keep the game from climbing into ridiculous levels of difficulty
you'll still have to throw a good-sized chunk of experience into
the other disciplines. Same rule applies regardless of the area
you want to specialize in: You can't just do one thing and ignore
the rest of the options or you'll run into a wall eventually and
in most cases be stuck there. This is all due to technical limitations
and/or time constraints in development, of course, and had nothing
to do with the intent or drive of the developers who quite obviously
wanted to cram in more than they were able to. Because of this,
the end result is quite a bit more restrictive than it leads you
to believe at first.
What we're left with in Fable as it is now is a brief, slightly
imbalanced, aesthetically pleasing action adventure-RPG that comes
standard with impressive coping mechanism to deal with player actions
-- and that's all. If you're fine with that, chances are you'll
enjoy this game much more than those who were expecting the second
coming of Morrowind. Let's be clear: Fable isn't even
remotely as large or complicated as Morrowind, and while
the two games were often compared to each other before Fable
was actually released, in reality they're completely different experiences.
Fable has much more in common with the original Legend
of Zelda than it does with Morrowind; it's more action
than RPG, and the emphasis is on the combat rather than the intricate
plot and expansive game world.
In fact, the world in which Fable takes place isn't even
particularly large, and outside of the game's five towns, there's
relatively little wandering to be done. Again, much like Zelda,
the wilderness areas are there for the player to fight through,
with the occasional secret tucked away waiting to be discovered.
There's none of the expansive, go-anywhere feel of the Elder
Scrolls games, and you're generally just going from point A
to point B to advance the plot. Raw physical exploration is not
the game's strong point.
The primary emphasis is, surprisingly, on the combat. This is a
significant deviation from what a lot of people were expecting,
and I expect it has a lot to do with the fact that there were several
elements of the game left incomplete. Originally, the idea was that
the hero would evolve dependent on how the player used him. Spend
most of your time running around outside swinging a gigantic sword
all over the place, and your character would develop huge muscles
and a nice tan. Become a sneaky, nocturnal thief and he'd start
to look like a pale, wiry Euro-ninja. Use lots of magic and you'd
start to sport glowing tattoos and hair loss.
Technically, this did make it into the game, but in an oddly cobbled-together
fashion. Your hero doesn't grow organically, but instead spends
experience orbs dropped by enemies on new abilities (think Onimusha
or Ninja Gaiden) in order to "age" and thereby gain advanced
stats in whichever category the points were applied to. Experience
is divided up into four types: Ranged, melee, magic, and general.
Using a particular type of attack yields more of its relevant experience
type, but the effect is fairly minor and in order to make it through
the game you'll need to spend experience in all three fields. While
the game technically lets you fight however you like, there are
very obviously certain situations where you're "supposed" to use
your bow, or "supposed" to use magic, meaning that anyone who didn't
put at least a few token points into those fields winds up getting
trapped later in the game.
This is first be brought to bear during the escort missions early
on, where it's made brutally clear that you're going to need at
least some basic magic skills, or you're screwed. The default Heal
spell cures both the hero and anyone nearby. With this spell, the
escort missions are actually pretty easy and manage to be fun since
you can clear up minor bruises on your companions with the press
of a button before they start to accumulate and become more serious.
Without this spell, these missions become incredibly tedious (and
in some cases near-impossible) as you have to be super careful about
having your charges follow you into danger. If one of them gets
seriously hurt, you wind up having to redouble your efforts since
a single hit or two could force you to have to do the thing all
over again, usually right before you reach the end of the mission.
"Frustrating" doesn't even begin to describe it.
The unfortunate thing is that all this could have been fixed quite
easily by simply advising the player about it. Just a little text
box or quick message from the guild master saying "you may want
to bring healing magic with you -- those traders can be quite fragile"
would have saved countless headaches for anyone who didn't want
to go the magic user route initially. Once you figure out that it's
best to throw a good chunk of points into everything to hedge your
bets, these snafus clear themselves up, but it's intensely frustrating
at first. This is far more critical earlier in the game when your
character is comparatively weak, and in the four times I've gone
through Fable I've had by far the most fun when I knocked a good
chunk of the main plot out of the way before bothering to tackle
any of the side quests -- that way my hero was much more versatile
and less likely to get stuck trying to do something I hadn't properly
prepared him for.
The game itself unfolds in two separate ways. Primarily, there are
plot-specific missions that can be accepted at the Hero's Guild
(a Home Base of sorts) that advance the story and will occasionally
open up new areas, along with other optional quests that are done
to earn experience, renown, and gold. These are all generally pretty
straightforward, though nicely varied. You've got the prerequisite
fetch-quests that everyone seems to hate, but they're mercifully
brief here. There are also a few short, misguided attempts at stealth
missions, but these are always smaller parts of other, lager missions,
so it's not nearly as much of a problem as it could have been. A
majority of the time the Hero's Guild quests are of the "go there,
kill that" variety, and that suits the game (and, I'd imagine, most
gamers) just fine.
You're free to advance the plot more or less at will, and speed-minded
players can easily blaze through the entire main quest in a single
marathon session. Played like this, Fable is quite brief
for an RPG at around eight hours. The main story quests are also
the game's best moments, particularly the breathtaking finale, so
it may not be a bad idea to have your first playthrough be a straightforward
run of the story without any of the trimmings on the side. This
is a game you're definitely going to want to play twice at least,
and it's beneficial to get the plot under your belt first before
you tackle some of the game's grayer areas.
The second way the game presents itself is in all the things that
can be done in the interim between the main plot events, and though
it seems contrary to what you might think, this is where the game
will loose a lot of people.
Fable offers a wide array of stuff to do between main plot
missions, from trading to fishing to owning/renting out property
to getting married. While there's a ton of stuff to do, it's also
very, very easy to get completely sidetracked trying to work out
how to do something only to realize that a) the thing you've been
trying to do was never actually finished by the game developers
in the first place, so you can't ever complete it, and b) you've
just wasted five hours of your life trying. Needless to say, this
can be a momentum-killer.
This stems from an interesting (and in retrospect wise) decision
on the part of Big Blue Box to simply leave in the half-finished
optional quests in the final game and tie off the loose ends as
much as possible. So, while the main plot is at least coherent (however
brief), the side quests are loaded with unfinished stories and potential
pitfalls that can seriously bog the game down until you learn how
to navigate them properly. It's important to note that, after a
while, these side missions become some of the most intriguing parts
of the game (things like literally owning an entire town), but anyone
who tries to immediately wander off the beaten path to pull some
of this stuff off will probably find themselves hopelessly lost,
and that can be really frustrating.
Here's an example: Early on, the player is introduced to the ridiculously
large-breasted mayor, known as Lady Grey, who runs the largest town
in the game. Later, an optional quest opens up to court her for
marriage, during which it's made clear that she's quite evil at
heart. There's an extended sequence where you visit her old, now-haunted
childhood home far off in the countryside and learn about her dark
past regarding her murdered sister, a story many of the townspeople
will corroborate in hushed tones. Eventually, the game offers you
a choice: You can marry the mayor despite your knowledge of her
dark history in order to gain the wealth and fame that comes with
the title of First Husband, or you can marry the poor servant girl
who works for the mayor and forgo the material reward for the knowledge
that you're marrying someone who isn't a cold-hearted murderer.
Seems pretty cut and dry, right?
Problem is, there is no benefit whatsoever to marrying the poor
girl. In fact, it's very detrimental to do so, even for a "good"
character! You get no positive karma bonus for your selfless act,
no money, no reputation increase, and even get permanently locked
out of obtaining two of the game's secret weapons. Meanwhile, nobody
around town seems to give a damn about your altruistic choice of
a spouse and the game simply proceeds like nothing ever happened.
Marry the mayor, on the other hand, and you get a massive sum of
gold as a dowry, a new palace to run around it, absolutely no karma
penalty, a chance to earn those secret weapons, and the adoration
of everyone in the countryside to boot. Furthermore, once you marry
her, the plot involving the mayor simply ends -- no consequences
of your choice will ever come back to bite you in the ass later
on in the game. The poor servant girl isn't even bitter about it
and simply acts like nothing ever happened.
It's obvious that more was intended to be done with this quest.
In fact, it was most likely supposed to be a part of the main plot
at one point, but the rest of it never made it into the game, and
as a result any lasting effects that were supposed to be brought
to bear at the end of the quest never happen. Imagine the poor first-time
player trying to rack up all the good point he can by marrying the
servant girl, only to realize he just completely got the shaft for
trying to stay in character.
This is why it's so critical to have some kind of foreknowledge
in regards to what you can actually get away with in Fable, and
in reality you can get away with quite a lot. The game really reaches
its peak when you stop fighting with it and just make the decision
to play it normally while occasionally flexing your freedom to add
some color to your character.
Fable's biggest success is that, for all the holes you can
find if you want to, the actual game itself does a phenomenal job
of responding to how the player is playing the game. It won't stand
up to someone intentionally trying to break it, but if you relax
a bit and let things happen "naturally" (i.e. don't try to "play
for score"), the whole game suddenly becomes a lot more enjoyable.
It's almost as if the developers should have included a little note
with the game that said "Look, we weren't quite done with this when
we shipped it, but we did our best so if you cut us some slack here,
we promise the game will be a lot of fun."
It is, once you've gotten over the fact that you're simply not going
to have Morrowind-style freedom to do absolutely anything
you want. Some people will no doubt scoff at this, but it is what
it is, and I can tell you from experience that Fable is a hell of
a lot of fun -- addicting, even -- once you agree to approach it
on its own terms.
Besides Deus Ex and maybe the Fallout series, I've
never seen a game that can cope with the player's choices as well
as Fable can. It's rare that you actually can get drunk and
clobber your wife and the game won't even skip a beat -- you're
simply labeled as a wife-beating bastard and you go from there.
While a fair number of the actual sub-quests weren't quite finished
when the game shipped, the in-game programming to support them is,
and it's a lot of fun to see how the game will cope with whatever
you can think to do. To save some space, let's just take in-game
romance: We know you can take a wife, but what if you want to take
two wives? Check, just don't forget to spend time with both of them
or one will want a divorce -- polygamy is a-ok, but you have to
provide for however many spouses you have. Want your character to
be gay? Check. The game even checks your character's sexuality as
"homosexual" in your stats screen should you decide to shack up
with a guy, just be prepared for some slightly unnerving-sounding
sex scenes if you're a hetero in real life. Now, what if you decide
to switch teams (again) and take a wife? Again, no problem. You're
now bisexual until you loose your spouse(s) of one gender or the
other. The game tracks all of this and lots more, everything from
number of times vomited due to drinking to rent collected on property
leased to other villagers to the furthest distance you've punted
a live chicken (I'm not kidding).
The same level of detail extends well beyond your hero. My super-evil
character was nonetheless a loving husband, a small, seemingly insignificant
detail that the game caught. While I was looked down on or feared
in most towns, in the town my wife lived in, my reputation was notably
better. Guards on the street would remark, "Ah, he's not so bad.
Look how well he takes care of her" as I walked my spouse to the
tavern. If (well, when) we got a divorce, it changed to "I hear
the breakup's not going so well...Shhh! Shh! He'll hear us!" whispered
between two chattering housewives. I even ran into my ex-wife drinking
away her sorrows in the bar a few nights later, and sure enough,
she remembered me all too well when I tried to give her a present:
"Get t'hell away from me ya bastard!! I want nothin' to do with
And bear in mind that while all this is completely peripheral to
the main plot, it not only unobtrusively co-exists with it, but
actually complements it quite well with tons of little details.
It's one thing to go off on a huge quest and come back laden with
riches, it's very much another thing to go off on the same quest,
come back with the same amount of riches, and then kick back in
the tavern, buy everyone a drink and listen to a minstrel sing songs
of your bravery while all the locals pat you on the back and the
women try to flirt with your famous hero self. None of this is scripted,
either; it's simply how the game reacts to what the player does.
The whole tavern thing plays out completely differently if you just
got back from shooting random traders in the face with your crossbow
and stealing their money -- less pats on the back, more cowering
in fear the moment you walk in the door, particularly if you're
a Really Famous Bad Guy. Start passing out drinks with that kind
of reputation and people just act confused, much like you probably
do if Darth Vader walked into a bar and bought you a beer like you
guys went to high school together. Given the insane amount of detail
that went into something that could have been extremely basic, it
becomes clear why this game didn't have a prayer of being completed
The real saving grace of Fable, and the sugar coating that
helps you swallow a lot of its inconsistencies, is the unparalleled
aesthetic quality to the game. Set to a rousing score by Danny Elfman,
there is absolutely nothing in the visual and audio department that
isn't top-notch. The catchy, fantasy-movie tunes will stick in your
head for days, so expect to be humming weird things in your sleep.
The graphics are eye-popping, with some of the best looking forests
in the history of videogames and water effects so pretty it hurts.
Weather in the game is done particularly well with almost hypnotic
rain and sunlight effects. Everything in the game sports a diffuse
glow that lends it an ethereal quality not unlike Prince of Persia:
The Sands of Time. When all these effects come together (especially
in the intense finale) it's giddily fun just look at, let alone
play through. Likewise with the enemies, especially the huge, organic
Earth Troll, who will probably inspire a little gasp of glee the
first time you see him. He looks that cool.
Equally amazing are the towns, all of which have a set number of
unique people living in them, each with their own job during the
day and house to live in at night. There is no randomly generated
environment whatsoever in Fable, so even something as simple as
walking down a dirt path in your old hometown shows a meticulous
attention to detail. Every tree, pebble, and mushroom was placed
by a human hand, and it shows.
The same high attention to detail was brought to the hero character.
Every last bit of clothing in the game is represented right down
to the tiniest graphical flourish, from the tiny carvings on plate
armor to the fabric weave on a pair of jeans. Tattoos can be inked
anywhere on your hero for various effects, and taking a critical
hit will leave a permanent scar where it lands, which will fade
over time. Hair can be cut and beards can be grown in a dizzying
number of combinations. In addition, the actual physical shape of
the character is determined by how many points have been spend on
the various skills, so a character with low health will look sickly
and pale, one with high speed will have taunt muscles, a heavy drinker
will have a beer gut, etc. Evil characters tend to loose their hair
and eventually grow horns, while good characters seem to age a bit
quicker, have more wrinkles as time passes, and develop large, soulful
eyes and blonde hair. And all of it looks amazing. Each time I played
through the game, my characters never looked even remotely alike
by the end of the game. Some were skinny, some were ripped, some
were older than others, some had horns, black hair, tons of tattoos,
halos, facial scarring to the point of scaring small children, you
name it, at least one of my guys had it.
Tying it all together is some top-notch British voice acting, the
likes of which anyone who played Black & White will instantly
recognize. Fable's sense of humor (while a bit darker) is essentially
the same, and many of the voices have a similar candor and writing
to B&W. There are loads of little snippets of in-game chatter
between the villagers, bandits, guards, or whoever, and it's almost
always a hoot to listen to. Your main character is generally mute
except for some authoritative commands you can have him give, which
is standard for this sort of game. If you're evil, you even get
the option to have him swear, which is one of the funnier little
moments in the game. Your hero doesn't just mutter under his breath,
either; he'll actually lean forward and belt out a very purposeful,
over-enunciated "SHIT". It made me drop the controller laughing
the first time I heard it.
If there's one snag to the graphical presentation, it's in the dreaded
menus. One of the first things Peter Molyneux owned up to in the
post-release press was that he wasn't happy with the way the menus
were handled in the game. He and his crew are PC developers, and
it's clear once you've navigated a seven-page-deep text window that
nobody on the team had the idea of just firing up Final Fantasy
X to see how you're supposed to handle menus on a console game.
If they had, they would have ripped off its menu system like everyone
else does and that would've been that. Instead, the interface options
are a truly bizarre tangle of menus, submenus, more submenus, and
still more submenus, turning even something as simple as equipping
a sword into an overcomplicated ordeal the first few times you try
to do it. To be fair, it still works, and after a few hours you
get pretty used to them and it's not as much of a problem, but it's
just one final reminder that as intriguing as this game is, it really
could have used another year in the oven to iron all this stuff
Even so, some of these snags are forgivable considering this is
a first-time console effort. If Molyneux and crew learn from their
experiences this time around and get everything lined up properly
for the sequel, you can bet that Fable 2 is going to be truly
amazing. As it is, this one is definitely worth your time, just
be aware of what to expect.
Fable is a notably flawed masterpiece, but it's much too
compelling to ever be written off as a failure. If you're willing
to work around some of the holes, this is one of the most interesting
games you'll ever play, as well as one of the most addicting. Anyone
looking to rip into Fable will be able to do it and there
are going to be some people out there who, whether it's because
of prior expectations or just limited patience, simply won't be
able to get into it. My suggestion, however, is to give it a shot
and give it some time to grow on you. Play it through at least once
and then start a new character; chances are you'll be hopelessly
hooked by that point.