Friday, November 05, 2010

Review: Fable III

I feel like every time I’ve talked to someone about my experience playing Fable III, the net result is the receiver of my discussion being turned off Fable III. This might be because it’s hard to translate “Stephen Fry is hilarious in his vocal performance as a crooked industrialist” to someone who doesn’t know who Stephen Fry is, or how to spell industrialist. It could also be because, well, explaining how the pause system works is an instant turn-off for anyone that can comprehend how to use the Start menu in Windows XP.

You see, pressing Start doesn’t result in a menu screen that lets you access your inventory, map or even save the game. Pressing Start transplants your character inside a small room. Your character has to physically walk to different rooms and approach mannequins displaying the new weapon, clothing item or tattoo in order to equip/wear/ink up. To use the map of the world, you must saunter up to a map of the world in this aforementioned sanctuary. Meanwhile, a butler in this room periodically spouting suggestions and compliments. This whole attempt to visualize the pause screen doesn’t take any of the complexity out of menus but rather removes the immediacy of accessing these things. I would like to have instant access to a map to know where in the universe my character is at any given moment (although the Fable III map isn’t so hot at that…more in a jiffy.) And the lack of a pause menu is a bit unsettling. When a game is paused, you KNOW the game world is frozen, and nobody around you will question that this game is in session while you take a prolonged washroom break. Even though the actual action of my quest is halted, there is still an active visual on the screen, complete with a butler that doesn’t shut up while I’m in the lavatory. So somebody walks by and notices this unpaused game is going to be very confused.

So when you come home from work or school or what have you, walk up to your booted-up game console, pause whatever game is inside and give the menu screen a big hug.

Truth be told, the menu screen fiasco is a very insubstantial issue, it’s just such a bizarre one. I should mention that Fable III is a fantasy-oriented action/RPG. You are the son or daughter of the character you theoretically played as in Fable II. Your brother is an atypical corrupt king and you are charged with travelling the land to gain allies for your rebellion. I feel like I’ve heard this story in a fantasy-RPG before…

Though also to be fair, Dragon Age didn’t have Fable II’s high quantity of Britishness. Like previous Fables, this is a game that soaks itself in juices of smart-assed humour. During your travels, you may run into a posse of table-top RPG cultists, an undead pub party and some very bitter talking gnomes. I mentioned a great evil industrialist earlier; I was so used to Stephen Fry as the voice of encouragement and wonder in LittleBigPlanet that it was a genuine shock to see him turn around as the pro-child-labour, pro-logging, pro-all-things-evil businessman Reaver. And Fable III even nails the simpler joys of life. The animation for farting in someone’s face is just something special that every current or former frat boy should witness.

But like a lingering fart, Fable III kind of stinks up the room for a bit. I felt like everything surrounding the belches and taunting of civilians wasn’t so amusing. Actually, forget that; the belching and taunting of civilians isn’t fun either. Because now you can only use expressions to impress/harass one person at a time, and each expression takes several seconds of button holds. And now, to make someone really like you, you have to do some kind of random digging fetch quest thingy. I kind of miss the absurdity of Fable III’s ability to let you marry and procreate with a stranger you had just been dancing with for a minute.

And the whole questing bit isn’t quite as interesting as it used to be. There are no puzzles, and item collecting feels needless since your first set of weapons upgrade as you level up. just you walking a straight path and outmashing the local monsters. Though the “path” part can be a bit difficult since the golden trail that is supposed to lead to your next objective tends to periodically flake out of existence. And the fast travel option on the Map sometimes will not take you anywhere near your targeted area. There were side-quests that I gave up on solely because I couldn’t find out where I should be going. And I knew that following said side-quest would only result in more of the same walking, fighting and dig-spot-digging pattern damn near all of the game’s quests follow.

Mind you, the actual combat isn’t terrible. You have a button for melee swipes, your gun shots, and your magic spells. Holding the button down yields stronger attacks. It’s a very basic combat system that, if anything, is more unique than the three-hit-basic-combo styles of most action games. In fact, there are some pretty damned humourous finisher animations that spice up the fun of killing knee-high-tall trolls. But combat is about the only video game-like aspect to this video game. And since the punishment for death is minor (lose your progress towards your next single experience point, but otherwise get right back and continue fighting), you need not worry about strategizing your equipment or stocking on potions. What we have here is another case of a game where finishing it is an inevitability rather than a test of wits. Not that every game need be Super Meat Boy-like difficult, mind you. My real issue with Fable III is yet to come.

I don’t think it becomes much of a spoiler to reveal this aspect of the plot. At some point, you are going to overthrow your brother and become the King or Queen of Albion. The plot then takes a strange turn and forces you to make a series of moral choices. It’s hard for me to reveal much about this section of the game without ruining an otherwise solid plot (And the many degrees of brilliance Stephen Fry brings to this section of the game.) But I will say that the moral choices here suck the righteousness out of being good, and the sadistic fun out of being evil that Fable II brought to the table.

If not made apparent earlier, I am trying hard to dance around the issue of how this end-game unfurls. But the breaking point involved me making a long-term plan that involved buying properties and collecting rent. A bizarre-stable of Fable II, after all, was making a ton of cash as a land owner. But with no warning or provocation, the game took me across a point of no return, and straight to the ending. I could have revisited the game and made a grasp at the various side quests, but what the endgame does to Albion left me in a rather bitter mood about all things Molyneux.

I’ve considered past games like Comic Jumper and No More Heroes to be so damned funny that they are more than worth overcoming their flaws. But Fable III is pushing the limit of my need for quirky humour. It’s got oodles of cheeky blokishness and memorable characters, but it’s also not particularly enjoyable on numerous fronts. Playing Fable III did give me the strong urge to play Fable II, which is readily available for cheap prices, so maybe you should just revisit that instead.