Fable 3 Review

By Adam Sessler - Posted Oct 25, 2010

Fable III is an enormously rich experience in which no moment is lacking; however, the collective experience, how it connects to the narrative spine, is less than the sum of its parts.

The Pros
  • Incredibly articulated world
  • Expanded story
  • Effective combat system redesign
  • Working Co-Op mode
The Cons
  • Game makes improvements, but didn't capitalize on them
  • NPC interaction has been limited
  • Occasional technical issues

Fable III Review:

What sets the Fable series apart from not only other action RPG’s, but all other games, is the setting of Albion. The world acts as a character in and of itself: a dark, British fairytale setting that is suffused with a sense of wonder that invites exploration and holds out the promise of some remarkable discovery of some new element of the developer Lionhead’s remarkable imagination. 

From the outset, Fable III surpasses their presentation of the world of Albion from previous efforts and with it the introduction of Bowerstone Industrial, the strange amalgamation of Dickensian smokestacks, creature-filled sewers and destitute peasantry, one of the most memorable moments in gaming this year.



Brothers at War

Fable is easily the most ambitious entry in the series and -- for the most part -- those ambitions are a double-edged sword.  The story, which never became fully fleshed out in the second game, is far more robust thanks to the decision to use non-interactive cutscenes and a broader scope in storytelling to help the narrative along. 

You play the youngest son (or daughter) of the hero from Fable II and have been ensconced in a life of idle luxury living in the castle with your dog, your loyal servant Jasper (voiced exquisitely by John Cleese) and your brother, the king.  As the game begins you quickly learn that your dear sibling is not well-liked by the populace and his tyrannical behavior has caused enough unrest to drag you into the simmering uprising and position you as the only hope for Albion to unseat the king and restore decency to the kingdom.  This sets the player on a quest to rally the disparate elements of Albion to stand with him to overthrow the King.

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Follow the Leader

This story and game structure starts out promisingly enough in the snow-capped mountains of Albion where you must assist a people called the “Dwellers” to win over the support of their leader, Sabine (voiced by an unrecognizable Ben Kingsley).  This involves dealing with aggressive mercenaries, finding the music box from Fable II in the hollow-men infested university catacombs, and convincing the residents of a nearby town to donate food and supplies. 

At this point, the game sets forth the promise of getting deeper into the mythology of Albion, fleshing out its various peoples and locales, giving richer character to what has always been such a curious world.  Instead, the narrative breadth narrows considerably. You start picking up followers for the revolution in a far more streamlined manner as you traverse Albion, arrive in Bowerstone Industrial, travel to the mysterious continent of Aurora and then take the throne.  What is so curious is that while the narrative and the world are bigger and better, these improvements set the stage for something grander that is not realized and left me wanting, despite around thirty hours of play.

This is most evident after taking the throne when you are in the position to fulfill promises you made to your followers and having to face the significant costs incurred in doing so. The conceit is ingenious; however, the execution is not as satisfactory. This is due in large part to the preceding narrative that moves so swiftly it prevents the necessary emotional grounding needed to give true weight to the decisions and there are only modest attempts to then see the impact of these decisions on the residents of Albion. 

Despite a major plot point that impacts this decision making process, the main impetus is the player’s desire to have their king play as good or evil.  As with the narrative itself the major ambitions with the game are nothing short of admirable in their attempt and are nothing short of enjoyable when playing in the moment, but, in falling short of their promise, make for a dissatisfaction that a game more limited in scope, like Fable II, does not engender.



The Spoils of War

In spite of my dissatisfaction with the game’s end, I need to be emphatic that Fable III is a great game. Sidequests abound and are written with the unparalleled humor of Lionhead studios and the world is a rich, living space that only improves with diligent investigation, as there are multitudinous surprises to be discovered although they can be very hidden. In fact, I would recommend using a strategy guide to get the most out of the experience. 

As with Fable II, the star attraction is Albion, the most wonderfully articulated gamespace out there.  The art direction has grown by leaps and bounds and the inclusion of industrial and imperial elements makes for a stunning mélange of archetypes that should not work in concert with one another but do, and do so in exhilarating fashion: a creaky Hobbes-filled cavern has a steampunk monorail system, Hollow-men wear decaying military outfits, idiotic nobles live in idyllic splendor yet Balverenes wander freely only meters away.  

These elements make getting lost inside the game a pleasure, especially in the Industrial sector of Bowerstone, which feels like John Webster retooled Oliver Twist and Joseph Conrad.  The game gives ample reason to explore with keys, malevolent garden gnomes, ancient tomes and demon doors tucked away in the corners.



Catch an STD and Make Friends

There are other changes to the base gameplay of Fable and combat has received a truly effective redesign.  While still retaining the single button commands for the three types of weaponry (melee, guns and magic) and the amount of time depressing the button to determine the strength of the attack, the experience feels significantly more dynamic.  Judging enemies and their attacks is essential and determining whether to block or dodge can make all the difference. 

The enemies themselves are far more numerous and much tougher, especially high-level enemies that show up mid-way through the game and require patience and attention.  Best of all, are the flourishes that can be triggered when the player holds down a button long enough, these animations truly feel heroic, are remarkably varied, and bring a strong sense of satisfaction to the action.

The weapons themselves have taken a redesign as well.  You begin with “Hero” weapons, a sword, a hammer, a pistol and a rifle.  These weapons both improve with use and morph to reflect the player’s behavior throughout the game.  Catching an STD, killing a lot of civilians and making many friends alters the nature and appearance of these weapons and is a clever way to get the player to invest in his character growth.  In addition, there are “Legendary” weapons that can be bought in stores, found in the world or picked up through DLC.  These weapons come with upgrades by performing simple grind quests: kill 300 hollow men, befriend 30 civilians and so forth. 

The improvements to the weapons vary from increasing experience gained, altering how attractive people find you and, most importantly, how much damage they deal.  This last aspect is a sticking point as you can only earn these damage improvements by killing enemies with that specific weapon.  This typically will result in one or two weapons becoming significantly more powerful than the rest in your arsenal and with the enemies increasing in difficulty, the less powerful weapons get shoved to the side.

The weapons are kept in an innovative space called “The Sanctuary,” which is an interactive 3D inventory that is much easier to navigate than a typical stat screen, tended to by your butler Jasper. This greatly facilitates the experimentation which is a core element to the franchise.  Mixing and matching outfits to look ridiculous, checking my progress towards achievements and perusing my weapons became far more pleasurable, strengthened the necessary bond with the game.



Use Your Words

One of the most classic elements of the franchise, which also builds that sense of connection to the gameworld, is the interaction with NPC’s, which has undergone a dramatic redesign and not necessarily for the better.  Whereas in previous Fable games you selected your interaction from a wheel and could perform for an individual or a group, here you choose a single NPC and then select a good, silly, or mean expression (assuming you have earned them) except the specific expression that is displayed, after you pick a category, is chosen by the game.  Once the expression is completed, the game allows you to perform another in one of the three categories.

These far more limited interaction options do result in fabulous animations, but after a short time, the fun departs and the outcomes and results of your character’s behavior loses the toybox fun of Fable II.  The interactions are of more value to the player as they liberate experience and minor fetch quests, but it is at the cost of the organic quality of the previous games and the silly joy that came with them.

The game does have bugs and while the typical clipping and AI errors are to be expected in a game of this size. I did lose out on a quest that was never activated and lost audio throughout another one.  They didn’t grind the game to a halt, but given that the game overwrites saves and many players will want to take a completist run, there are concerns.



Let's Get Together

Co-op, not a successful foray in Fable II, has returned…and it works.  This is all due to the technically impressive feat of allowing both players to have independent cameras, which means someone can join your game and feely roam within the specific region or the world.  Once again, player orbs float in the gameworld and the player can decide if they only want to interact with fiends or, the truly daring option of having your world open to anyone and the potential havoc they can wreak. 

More importantly elements of the game are designed for co-op, events in single player becomes small contests in co-op, upgrading certain weapons requires gift-giving to friends and certain weapons in your game are not present in others so shopping is a huge advantage.  I have a hard time foreseeing playing through the entire game with another person, but the casual, and easy drop-in/drop-out format should lead to interesting and satisfying fun.



All Good Things Come To An End

Fable III
is an enormously rich experience in which no moment is lacking; however, the collective experience, how it connects to the narrative spine, is less than the sum of its parts. 

For a game based on the trick of making promises and then making good on them, it falls into the very conundrum it seeks for the player to experience.  Fable III is an amazing game that I intend to play through again and perhaps, this time, it will be better to know that the getting to the throne is a messier affair than I originally thought.