Review: Fable III (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Fable III
Genre: Action RPG
Developer: Lionhead Studios
Publisher: Microsoft
Release Date: 10/26/10

Peter Molyneux is a creative dude, of that there is no question. The man has a concept resume of awesome games, between Populous, Magic Carpet, Dungeon Keeper, Theme Park, Black and White, and of course, Fable, and whether or not you like the man, you have to admit he’s got some imagination to him. While his earlier works were often praised for their innovation and creativity, however, his more recent works are the ones that have attracted the most attention, with the Fable franchise taking the majority of that. Fable tends to be a love it or hate it series for most people; you either like the presentation, gameplay mechanics and ambition of the series or you hate the simplistic gameplay and “moral” choices that comes down to “be a dick” or “don’t be a dick”. Personally, I’ve been a fan since the very first game, partially because the games are fun, partially because the games are good at inspiring the appropriate emotions with their plots, and partially because being such a badass that everyone everywhere professes their love for you is fun. That said, I’m not so much a fan that I can’t concede that the games have been full of untapped potential since the beginning, and that while there have been big developments in the series that have showed that the games may get to where they’re trying to go someday, they’re not there yet. Fable III looked like another promising advancement down that path, between the hyped up emphasis on morality and the idea of the game taking place during an industrial revolution time period and focusing on a literal revolution against the corrupt monarch ruling the land. Unfortunately, the game fails on so many fundamental levels that an already divisive series will find itself leaving its own fans divided on whether or not the game is worthwhile.

As with the previous games, you take on the role of a nameless hero, though this time your hero has moved up in the world, as he or she begins as the prince or princess of Albion. It’s implied that your parent, the previous king or queen, was the hero from Fable II, and as such, you’ll be following in their footsteps. As the game begins, your brother, Logan, is the king of Albion, and as king’s go, he’s a pretty crappy one. The people hate him, the country suffers under his rule… he’s generally just very, very bad at his job. After your character is forced into a horrid situation by said brother where you’re forced to choose between the lives of various townspeople or your childhood friend/romantic interest, your mentor Walter and butler Jasper escape with you from the castle with the intention of starting a revolution and taking the crown from Logan by force, since he won’t listen to reason. In an interesting twist, however, about the first two thirds of the game deal with the plot of inciting revolution and taking over as king, while the final third instead addresses what you do as king, for there are far greater issues at hand than who gets to be the rightful ruler of Albion. As with most of the other Fable plotlines, this one is generally well written in many respects, and the storyline attempts to address some interesting concepts beyond the simple “hero out for revenge wants to take down the most evil person in the land by any means necessary” gimmick of the previous games. The random dialogue that pops up is often full of the humor players have come to expect from the series, and the sequence in the desert of Aurora is absolutely fantastic in writing and execution, showing exactly what the writers are capable of when they have their thinking caps on.

Which, unfortunately, is not often. The game is exceptionally windy with its dialogue, and this will become immediately apparent the moment your main character speaks. Fable has featured more or less heroic mutes until this point, and while some people find this to be a relic of days past, the fact is that once your main character starts talking, that means the dialogue sequences become longer. This becomes a problem in Fable III, as the first several hours of the game feel like they go on forever because NO ONE WILL SHUT UP. It’s some of the most tedious storytelling I’ve ever seen and it just goes on and ON AND ON until you want to throw something, and the fact that the end of the game is bookended with such a thing just makes the whole experience feel like you’re playing Metal Gear Solid, which is an unwelcome addition to the series. The game also does a bunch of things with the plot that are, frankly, annoying. In the beginning of the game your brother forces you to either condemn your boy/girlfriend or a bunch of peasants to death. This is fine if the end result is a tale of revenge against the bastard, but not only isn’t that the ultimate point of the story, the game does nothing with this event beyond when it actually happens. Your character doesn’t address the murder of his presumed childhood friend and significant other and neither does anyone else, and SPOILER ALERT, your brother isn’t even the real big bad here anyway. The game goes out of its way to showcase what a douchebag your brother is and does nothing with it once you’re actually the one in charge. Worse, your brother handwaves it all away, saying that he needed to do it because of what’s to come and he needed to make money. This is fine, but the treasury is pitifully empty when you finally get around to it, leaving you to do in a year what he couldn’t do in four, so the game essentially says, without words, that not only was your brother needlessly a colossal dick, he was a dick for no reason. It’s just amazing the lengths the game goes to in the service of making your brother look like the worst person ever when you can’t even gain any sort of measurable revenge against him. Add to this internally inconsistent bits like how you gain the service of your brother’s guards after making a choice, only to be told later that you DO NOT have their service for unexplained reasons, among other things, and the writing in Fable III feels incredibly sloppy on top of being needlessly wordy, which is never a good combination.

Moving on, Fable III once again creates a fantastic looking fantasy world, full of vibrant colors and plenty of life. The visuals are generally fantastic, from the well animated character models to the bright and lively environments to the brilliant special effects when casting spells and such. The game environments are expansive and pleasing to the eyes, and the environments make great use of color, whether they’re beautiful fields or dank dungeons. There are some clipping issues here and there, mind you, and the game isn’t a significant visual upgrade from Fable II, but what’s here is pleasant and works nicely. The music is once again a lively fantasy-themed mix of bright and dark tunes, depending on the moment, that set the tone for the experience nicely. The voice acting in the game is once again, as is the norm, very convincing and well done, and while I’m not entirely convinced of the value of paying John Cleese to inform me that there’s new DLC available, he does it in a very entertaining fashion, at least. The sound effects are your typical steel-on-steel and magic-on-person sort of fare that sound very nice in action and add nicely to the experience all around.

If you’ve never played the two previous Fable games before for one reason or another, you take control of a nameless hero who you see from a third person perspective as you maneuver them around the countryside. The left stick moves around while the right stick turns the camera, and the A button dodges, runs and interacts with objects, depending on whether you’re in battle or not. The other three face buttons correspond to the three attack types you have available, with X performing melee attacks, Y performing ranged attacks, and B performing magical strikes. Each can be held down while pressing in a direction to perform a flourish, or a more powerful targeted attack essentially, while holding the button on its own produces a different effect depending on the button. Ranged attacks see no real change, but holding X by itself allows you to block incoming attacks from enemies, while B by itself produces area of effect magical attacks instead of directed attacks, which trades off damage for the ability to hit multiple enemies at once. The left trigger allows you to aim at enemies and targets, as well as hold hands with NPC’s outside of combat. The left bumper can reset the camera behind you or allow you to go into first person view, and the right trigger allows you to look at scenes of importance when a prompt pops up to do so. You can use whatever items and potions you have on hand with the D-pad by pressing in the direction of the item you want to use when applicable as well. None of this should be too new for fans of the series, but it’s all fairly easy to pick up and the game gives you a lengthy tutorial to get it all down without much trouble, so learning the ropes shouldn’t be too hard.

On a base level, Fable III retains a lot of the same basic elements of its predecessors. You are a hero, the last one in this case, who will ultimately have a great role to play in deciding the fate of Albion, whether in a positive or negative fashion, much as you did in the prior installments. Most of the game will be spent going from place to place, taking on quests given to you by various NPC’s, either of the story-driving type or the self-contained type, where the former moves the plot along and the latter wraps itself up neatly by the end. You’ll also spend a good amount of time fighting mercenaries and monsters of various shapes and sizes as a part of these quests, as well as solving various puzzles that pop up. You can choose the gender of your hero as you see fit and customize their looks with various articles of clothing, hair, tattoo and makeup styles that you find around the kingdom to best suit your personal style, so you can customize your hero as you see fit, for the most part, though their facial design will consistently remain the same. Once again you’ll be accompanied by your loyal canine companion, who will attack downed enemies and lead you to treasures and such, and once again you’ll be able to wander the countryside pretty much doing whatever you want, within reason, so fans will find the game to be very much familiar in those respects, and newcomers will have a lot to play around with in the first few hours before they really buckle down and get to work.

The big thing about Fable III is that a lot of the mechanics of the game have been changed or simplified outside of the base gameplay, making the experience feel a good bit different whether you’re a newcomer or an old fan. The biggest change is that evolving your character is no longer as complex as it once was. Before, leveling characters involved spending experience from either the Strength, Skill or Will categories in combination with General experience toward the abilities you wanted to unlock. Now, no matter what you do, you earn Guild Seals, which act as a sort of general purpose experience that can be used to acquire whatever you wish. You do your buying along the Road to Rule, which is a series of gates that unlock as you progress the storyline and offer you various chests that improve your combat skills, add spells to your repertoire, and unlock other beneficial things, such as dye kits, expressions, and higher level money-making side jobs, among other things. You’re also not restricted on your options for teleportation this time around either, as pressing Start takes you straight to the Sanctuary, which acts as the menu did in prior games and more. From the Sanctuary, you can equip new gear, look over trophies and achievements, review the gold you’ve earned and your expenses, and jump into online play, all with little to no noticeable loading. You can also review the world map and teleport from place to place as needed, meaning that you can fast travel at any time to any place you wish, which cuts down on walking significantly. The game also removes the measuring of time elements from Fable II, so you no longer have to be cognizant of the time you have to perform various tasks and such, as most everything is available whenever you want or need it.

You’ll spend a decent amount of time fighting off enemies and playing around in your Sanctuary, but a good portion of every Fable game will be spent goofing off and doing other things, and this one is no different. You’ll be able to goof around in the various towns you find throughout the game, whether it be by chatting up the locals, buying property, purchasing gear and consumables for your character, or hunting for secret keys and Demon Doors that contain awesome treasures that can only be attained by appeasing the doors themselves. Property ownership is a viable way to earn cash in the game outside of slaying things and performing tasks, as owning shops and renting out houses provides a good amount of cash every few minutes or so, allowing you to make a good profit from doing essentially nothing, with the exception of repairing your houses when needed. You can also flirt with the populace and take on a husband or wife if the mood strikes you, and you can even bear a child if you wish, and while there’s little need to do so outside of fulfilling a quest or two and earning some achievements, it’s nice that the option is there if nothing else. You interact with the townspeople by using your expressions on them, and the game will pop up a choice of a good one and an evil one, generally, with each either improving or reducing the person’s opinion of you. A good portion of the game comes down to morality based choices, as you might expect, and the game judges you as “good” or “evil” based on whether or not you do things the proper or improper way. The morality system is still pretty much black and white, with everything either being saintly or reprehensible, but it’s still fun to fool around with all the same.

The weapon options have changed a bit this time around as well. In prior games there were all sorts of basic weapons your character could acquire as well as some Legendary weapons of awesome capability, but Fable III changes that by making EVERY weapon you acquire a Legendary weapon. Each weapon is named and has its own base stats, as well as various ways that it can be improved to deal more damage or add other base stats to it. You won’t be able to find every Legendary weapon in one playthrough on your own, of course, so the game encourages you to play in other people’s games to collect them all, as each weapon has its own bonuses and reasons to be used. Speaking of which, the multiplayer component has also been fleshed out significantly, mostly because you can now play as your own character instead of some flunky of the person hosting the game. Players can now own property together and get married to one another for giggles, and some elements of the game encourage you to play online with people, making the concept more interesting and desirable and less tacked on than it was in the prior game. In an interesting twist, once you tie up the plot thread of beating the big bad guy that the game spends its time building up (your brother in this case), the plot keeps on going, as you’ll have to take over as the king and make a lot of decisions that determine whether or not you were really the right choice to lead Albion after all, in the most final way possible.

You can pretty much clear out the core campaign in about fifteen to twenty hours, more or less, but you could easily double that time spent with the game if you opt to clear out all of the optional content available to you. You can also spend a good amount of time playing the game with friends, both on and offline, and you can take on the storyline missions and sidequests with a friend by your side, which is pretty great all around, since some elements require this and it’s always nice to have options. The game already has a decent amount of DLC available as of this point, and considering how well Fable II was supported in this regard, it’s likely that Fable III will see a good amount of content added to it as time goes on. There’s also the option to play through the game a second time to complete the game as the opposite morality, for those who want to see and do it all, as well as plenty of achievements to unlock for those who want to up their gamer score to the max. Most people will simply find that there’s plenty of reason to come back to the game, however, due to the fact that the game offers a lot of small bits of content, like marrying and having kids or playing as a male or female character and such, that make the experience interesting enough to go through a second or third time without too much difficulty.

That all said, Fable III is easily the weakest game in the series, and the reason for this comes down to the fact that the game massively oversimplified the gameplay to the point that it feels like it’s been dumbed down, not just simplified. Now, way back in January, I made the observation when reviewing Mass Effect 2 that simplification can be a good thing, and I stand by this observation. The difference between that game and this one is that Mass Effect 2 took a system that was cumbersome and often problematic and stripped it away, leaving a system that, while not as complex, was still good in its own right. Fable III, in contrast, took a system that worked fine for two games and stripped it down to a point where it feels meager and dumb in comparison to its predecessors. The experience point system now basically boils down to “here’s some points, buy what you want” instead of encouraging the player to vary their styles to earn the types of experience they wanted for their upgrades. The weaponry system seems like a misguided attempt to make every weapon feel “special” but instead makes every weapon feel pointless, and I honestly acquired exactly two weapons (one of which was through pre-order DLC) that I pretty much used through the whole game without the need to ever bother with anything else. There are a good bit less Demon Doors than in past games and enough of them REQUIRE you to play with another player that someone who doesn’t have that option will be annoyed, and many of them just give you more Guild Seals instead of cool stuff, which ruins the effect somewhat. The game also uses the Halo system of regenerating health, meaning that with few exceptions you may well never need to heal, and to be honest, I only died once in a fight with a Balverine and never healed at all unless, again, I was fighting Balverines. Oh, and death is now little more than a slap on the wrist, as you simply lose your progress toward the next Guild Seal you were working on before getting right back up. There’s a difference between a game being accommodating and a game being too easy, and Fable III is INSANELY easy, to a point where one almost wonders why they’re bothering.

The game also still feels like it’s full of potential that never really gets anywhere, only this becomes MORE apparent because of the aforementioned other flaws. It’s nice that you can get married, but there are exactly two “important” NPC’s that you can marry in the game that I could find, and to marry both of them you have to pick the immoral choices to do this. (Aside: WHAT IS WITH THAT GUYS?!? In Fable marrying Lady Grey meant you had to be kind of a dick, and Fable II did the same thing. Why do we have to be assholes to marry someone who ISN’T using a generic voice actor/actress and has no meaning to the plot? Stop that.) We’re three games in at this point and our husbands and wives still can’t be plot-important characters or contribute anything meaningful to the experience. I don’t get that. I also don’t get the fact that I read somewhere in an interview that Peter Molyneux incorporated the John Cleese-voiced butler Jasper into the Sanctuary to help you by suggesting that you change clothing to help you woo people or whatever, because Peter felt that players never changed clothes. I guess that didn’t work, because I never had any problems wooing anyone no matter what I wore and instead the game just forced me to change costumes like nine times, so, uh, I guess that worked, but again, seems like squandered potential. Perhaps the worst of the lot, however, is the endgame sequence. Basically, the game comes down to this: you need to earn six and a half million dollars in “one year” (IE a handful of event sequences) or an eldritch horror makes your kingdom’s census taking dramatically easier, if you get my drift. The game makes this big to-do about how you’re supposed to either A.) make moral decisions and watch the kingdom die or B.) make immoral choices and help the kingdom live, with the idea being that you’ll make back and forth choices and supplement the needed income with your own cash. Instead, I bought every piece of land in the game and sat my character in a corner for two hours while I did my homework, filled the treasury to capacity, and saved the world, all to earn an ending that I would politely describe as “unsatisfying” and impolitely describe with curse words and comparisons to Twilight.

Yeah.

Oh, and let’s not forget the bugs, because I know I sure won’t. This is a game that’s going to need a few patches before it’s really in stable condition because HOO BOY there are issues. Now, my favorite was the one where I fast travelled into a town and found myself falling forever and had to quit to the dashboard to resolve it, by which I mean a box spawned under me so I could fast travel out and thus not lose FIFTEEN HOURS of play time, but it’s not the most common by a long shot. Characters will drop audio for no reason when they’re quite obviously talking at you about God knows what. AI pathfinding is often abysmal, to the point that I owned a house that my wife could never go into, no matter what, when I held her hand. That same wife was located in the same location that houses the big revolution that wraps up the second act, which means her house was blown to smithereens, which was great because when I chose to rebuild that section, I was still paying her an allowance, and the game still said she lived there, but she has ceased to exist and I cannot divorce her to resolve that, meaning that I essentially have a worthless leech living in one random house (isn’t that like all marriages HUR HUR HUR) that I simply cannot resolve. Then there was the sequence where I spent ten minutes leading a blind man around very slowly, only to find that whenever I held hands with someone we were then stuck moving at that slow speed until I rebooted the system. Let’s also not forget sequences where enemies simply… stop attacking for no reason and just stand there until you brain them. Once the game is patched, it’ll most certainly be a good bit more fun, I’m sure, but when I can fill a full paragraph with things that are broken about your game, well, that’s a problem.

The unfortunate bottom line here is that the only people who are going to appreciate what Fable III does in comparison to its predecessors are, sorry, people who are not very good at video games and are inordinately impressed by faux morality choices. I mean, it’s not a bad game so to say, but it feels like the equivalent of dragging your wife out of the house halfway through her evening preparations because you wanted to get to the party on time, so you’re standing there showing her off and she’s got makeup smeared on half her face, a slipper on one foot and only one earring in. You can still see signs that she would have been pretty if she’d finished up; she’s very pretty and sounds very nice, and a lot of the stuff she has to say is very solid, plus she… uh… still plays pretty well oh forget this it wasn’t that good of an analogy anyway. The gameplay is still solid and there’s still a lot to do with the game, and Lionhead HAS added in good elements, like the ability to play online and off with actual characters instead of just henchmen, for instance, that show you where there could have been a great game in here. However, the game is insanely easy to the point of being stupid, between the dumbed down experience system, the “every weapon’s SPECIAL” mentality that makes hunting down special weapons seem pointless, the regenerating health bar and the lack of punishment for death. Further, there’s still a ton of squandered potential, as many mechanics are still as useless as ever and the big ending sequence boils down to standing in the corner for hours earning gold until the problem goes away. The writing is also at its weakest, with plot points being meaningless or disappearing entirely and a plot twist to jump start the third act that feels like a hollow, emotionally crappy cheat to the player and an ending that is unsatisfying all around. Fable III is certainly still playable and it’s still a lot of fun off and on, but it’s not in the same league as its predecessors, and in the end, you’d have been better off being late to the party and letting your wife really stand out instead of having her embarrass you when she stops dead against a box and refuses to do anything until you take her home. Just saying.

The Scores:
Story: MEDIOCRE
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: GOOD
Balance: POOR
Originality: POOR
Addictiveness: MEDIOCRE
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: WORTHLESS

FINAL SCORE: DECENT GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Fable III seems like it was supposed to be yet another epic sequel in the series, but ends up being something of a simplified and unexciting chapter in the series that feels dumbed down and rushed, and while it’s still entertaining, it’s not nearly as much so as its predecessors. There’s still some good writing here and there, the game still looks and sounds great, and it’s still fun enough to play. There’s still a decent amount of content in the game, the multiplayer has been improved, and there’s plenty to the experience if depth is your main concern. But the game has been simplified to a point where the game feels stupid and too easy and there’s still a ton of misspent and unfocused potential that just screams for development that may well never be coming. The big end game sequence can be resolved by standing in the corner for two hours, as well, and the game is buggy to a point that I’m actually embarrassed for everyone involved that the game was released in this condition. Can you still play the game? Sure, and it’s likely that you’ll have some fun with it, as underneath all of the problems, it’s still Fable, and it’s still pretty fun. You’ll just have to have a whole lot of patience to deal with a game that’s buggy and feels underdeveloped and simple from start to finish, and that’s honestly a damn shame.