When you first start playing Fable III, you’ll be forgiven for suspecting that Peter Molyneux has finally gone mad. Throughout Lionhead's action RPG sequel, you’ll be bombarded with design decisions which seem to have been made just for the sake of changing something, or even worse, simply for the sake of being quirky. It will all feel very odd. But give it time. Stop thinking about why things are the way they are. Accept them and just get on with it.
Within a few hours you’ll find that Molyneux’s marvellous lunacy is all with definite purpose. The realisation will creep up on you slowly, but when it takes hold you’ll discover that Fable III is a subtly clever beast indeed, and one of the most infectious and affecting RPG experiences of recent years. Though certainly not a niggle-free one.
Scale it back a bit
Following Fable II’s epic broad strokes, part three is a very much more streamlined, focused take on the franchise formula. In both central story and core gameplay mechanics, this is a no-nonsense, to-the-point Fable which nevertheless manages to plug into your intellectual and emotional faculties in an arguably more pervasive sense than its predecessor.
You’re dropped straight in at the deep end from the moment the fantastic opening cut-scene ends. You’re a fully-formed adult royal this time, the son or daughter of Fable II’s now-deceased hero. No childhood preamble this time around. No emotive back-story context. After Fable II’s drawn out introduction, it feels a little alienating, but the speed with which you’re pulled through the story’s opening exposition doesn’t give you time to stop and think about this for too long. Your older brother is the king of Albion, and the king is a bastard. The people are oppressed. The children are under-educated and over-worked. Industry and cold steel rule over hope and freedom. Overall, Albion has turned into a right old grim place to live.
Forcing you to make a swiftly-imparted, emotionally tormenting decision in its opening hour, Fable III immediately makes its MO known, and drops your first hint at how the changes it has made are to make this new, more economical iteration such a powerful experience. And in traditional Lionhead style, it all comes down to the way you interact with its world.
Your opening decision – a judgement over the fates of recently-introduced characters – shouldn’t really bother you. You’ve only just met these people, and they shouldn’t mean crap to you. But you’ll really, really care. Because one of them has just been introduced alongside Fable III’s much-vaunted touch mechanic. A quick stab of the left trigger and you’ll hold an NPC’s hand. This allows you to lead them –or drag, depending on context - around the world with you.
It sounds like a simple gimmick, but ye gods, you’ll be shocked by how powerful a bond you gain with a character once you have physical command over their actions. There’s a sense of responsibility for, and closeness to them that you just won’t find with any kind of automated NPC interaction system.
So regardless of the brevity of your relationship, the decision you’re forced to make comes as an almighty kick in the stones. And following it, you’re almost immediately out in the big wide world. Your brother has taken things too far, a rebellion is needed, and it’s up to you – along with your trusted butler Jasper and your childhood mentor Sir Walter – to travel Albion drumming up an insurgent force.
In a bare-bones appraisal, this works no differently to the traditional action RPG model (meet characters, find out what they want, achieve it via a combat-driven dungeon-crawl, get them on side), but thanks to Fable III’s idiosyncratic new interface and the story’s darker, harder edge, it all means so much more.
Those idiosyncrasies all stem from a philosophy of hands-on interaction with everything. There are no menu shortcuts here, outside of a pull-down quest list allowing quick-travel to regions and side-missions. Want to change outfits? Walk up to a costume on a mannequin and choose the items you want. Want to change weapons? Walk into your armoury and browse the racks for the gun and blade of your choice. Even magic is now powered by wearable gauntlets rather than Fable II’s character-inherent Will ability, meaning that everything you do and every change you make to your character is by way of physical interaction with an in-game item or environment.
Above: A quick tour of The Sanctuary's simple but powerful mix-and-match outfit customisation. Spot anyone you recognise?
It feels unnecessary and unwieldy for a while, especially when you have to browse shop items by walking up to and inspecting each one individually on a plinth. Though the lesser emphasis on buying new equipment this time around helps, weapons now gaining buffs via Achievement-style challenges, and with some perseverance, the logic behind it all starts to shine through. By physically interacting with objects, equipment and characters on a one-to-one level, your attachment to Fable III’s world becomes powerfully tangible. And so the Fable franchise’s central conceit of accountable moral decisions really starts to fly like never before.
But the irony at the centre of Fable III is that while on the one hand it strives to make things more real, some of the methods it uses also add an extra degree of gamey artificiality. With customisation menus stripped out in favour of the walk-in wardrobe approach, Fable III provides you with The Sanctuary, a central control room manned by the John Cleese-voiced Jasper, which houses all your gear as well as a quick-travel map. The need to make it constantly accessible requires a suspension of belief as you jab the Start button to warp immediately to and from its safe confines (even in the midst of battle). But just imagine it as a Monty Python-run Star Trek transporter room/loot pile and you’ll be fine.
Similarly, while levelling up still happens, it’s now represented by a physical environment, the metaphorical Road to Rule. Everything you do, from combat, to character interactions, to quest completion earns you Guild Seals, Fable III’s reskinned XP equivalent. After major story missions you’ll be warped to the ethereal road and presented with treasure chests which need to be unlocked with your seals. The chests contain the various combat buffs and character abilities that standard levelling up would generally provide automatically. Again, it at first feels like an overly elaborate reworking of a perfectly good system, but the sense of tangibility it adds to the levelling process, and thus your attachment to your character, justifies its seemingly contrived nature.
Perhaps the most surprising change though, is a simple one. Fable II’s gestural interaction system, which allowed you to shape your relationships with NPCs by way of a selection wheel of multiple social actions, has been vastly scaled back. You can now only interact with one character at a time while locked into an invisible box with them, and your gesture options are limited to a handful of pre-designated, button-mapped options (though your options are expandable via the Road to Rule). Far from the dumbed down remix it seems though, this again succeeds in making all of your actions far more meaningful. Working to make a single person more affectionate, or even loving, if you're in a family-starting mood, feels in practice far more significant than having an entire town of fans mindlessly following you in blind appreciation, Fable II-style.
This strive to emotionally engage isn’t just a means to its own end. It has a very specific purpose. And that purpose is to ensure that you go through an absolute moral meat-grinder upon your elevation to ruler of Albion. With the rebel-rousing quests complete, you’ll take over the throne around three-quarters of the way through the main story. From this point on, you’ll have an in-game year with which to sort out Albion’s socio-political woes. Each main story mission begins with a couple of throne-room-based hearings, during which you’re presented with a decision to make about the country’s future. And while the series has always delighted in tough moral conundrums, at this point Fable III will start absolutely kicking the crap out of you.
Damned if you do, damned if you don't
These particular tough moral conundrums usually go something like this:
There’s a major plot development around this point which I won’t spoil, as it’s an absolute humdinger, but it ensures that your rule of Albion has to have a very tight, very frugal philosophy. Without giving too much away, the country’s economy is beyond important, but rarely ever will you be able to preserve it without turning into exactly the sort of person your mum would be disappointed to have brought up.
An innocent Albioner will make the case for the morally wholesome approach, while the financially healthy option is always sold with deliciously vile relish by actor, writer, comedian and all-round British national treasure Stephen Fry as the descendant of Fable II’s Reaver. It’s a testament to the quality of Lionhead’s writing and emotional engagement tactics, as well as Fry’s seductively foul delivery, that these decisions are so soul-twistingly hard to make. Rest assured, you may only be listening to a couple of speeches and pressing a button to pass judgement, but these moments are amongst the most stimulating and painfully engaging I’ve enjoyed in games in years.
It sounds like Molyneux hyperbole, but for perhaps the first time in Fable’s history, the debates and rationalisation you put yourself through really will tell you a lot about who you are and where your moral lines are. And you’ll never be entirely comfortable with any decision you make, particularly given that every ruling has a very real, very tangible, and very permanent effect on the kingdom and its people.
There is a potential design flaw though, and ironically it comes from the success of Lionhead’s emotional engagement. While the chief factor governing Albion’s prosperity will be your royal decision making, it’s also possible to transfer money between the treasury and your own personal stash at will. The idea is that a selfless player will make donations while a selfish one will take, but in practice it doesn’t really work.
You see, if you’re anything like me, you’ll care so much about the good of the kingdom by this point that ripping off its people will be the last thing on your mind, given the inevitable guilt imparted by your rulings. And should you take the time to really build up a monster financial empire by purchasing businesses throughout the country (which isn't actually that hard, though it is highly time-consuming), you could in theory break the system by flooding the economy with your own cash. Though it could also be argued that doing so is just a different way of playing a role in a game heavily focused around character responsibility.
Similarly, certain major treasure-hunting quests in the latter part of the game try to screw with you by giving you the option of keeping the spoils for yourself. I could only be speaking for myself here, but given the state of the story and your investment in Albion’s well-being at this stage, I find it unlikely that these particular moral quandries will bother many. That said, while most people play good by default in games like this, the multitude of options for manipulating Fable III’s end-game, and the multitude of outcomes, both for the eventual state of the country and to the various branching storylines along the way, give it a replay value certainly in excess of Fable II. In fact I can’t wait to get back in and start all over again.
Above: If you don't get this excellent joke about mid-'80s British Saturday morning kids' TV, don't worry. You're most people
Other pros and cons? The quality of Fable’s impeccable writing, both in the main story and the multitude of optional side-quests, is higher than ever before. Albion really is one of the funniest, wittiest, most characterful places in gaming. And at times it can also be one of the most darkly disturbing. The staggering voice cast, taking in luminaries from the likes of Lord of the Rings, Shaun of the Dead, Dog Soldiers, Spaced, and a stack of other great British dramas and comedies genuinely is one of the best in games to date.
Fable III is also arrestingly beautiful, Albion’s vibrant, tumbledown character rendered slightly sharper and cleaner than before, if susceptible to some pop-in, frame-rate shakes, and a strange ghosting effect at times. Nothing that’ll pull you out of the world though.
But on the subject of glitches, very occasionally the golden breadcrumb trail which guides you around quests will lead you the wrong way, or switch off altogether, essentially leaving you stranded until it reactivates. And I had a couple of side-missions completely disappear from the quest list when switching, only to reappear later. Irritiating, but again, nothing that outweighs the many positives. And definitely patchable. So sort it out, Lionhead.
Is it better than...?
Fable II? Yes. The core, combat driven mission model hasn't really changed a huge amount (though fighting is now a little faster and punchier), but by stripping out some of Fable II's sillier charcter interaction excesses and upping the sense of attachment in subtle but clever ways, Fable III is a more satisfying, more grown-up experience. And now you finally get to understand the responsibility that comes with a quest for power.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess? No, but both games offer very different things. Zelda wins in terms of quest variety (its legendary puzzle-dungeons are just more engaging than Fable's hack-and-slash fests), but Fable III absolutely destroys TP in terms of creating a vibrant, living world you can genuinely have a affect on. And as sequels go, it adds more to its formula than Link's Wii outing does.
Fallout: New Vegas? I'm going to go out on a limb and say yes. Both are clever, funny and ambitious open-world RPGs which offer plenty in terms of side-quests and freedom, but Fable III's Albion is just a more beautiful and vibrant place to be. It might not have the scale of NV, but Fable III does add more interesting new twists to its predecessor. And less serious bugs.
Just for you, Metacritic!
Although Fable III's streamlined approach to the traditional Fable concept might feel a little odd to franchise veterans at first, this iteration is every bit as engaging and rewarding as its predecessors. Moreso, in fact, given that Lionhead's subtle but deeply effective changes to character and world interaction add such a tangible sense of attachment. Big, clever and funny, you'll rarely have enjoyed going through such punishing emotional torment.