Fable: The Lost Chapters

3_1There’s something to be said for charm and atmosphere elevating the relatively mediocre to near-greatness. Such is the case of Fable, a rather schizophrenic third-person action/adventure/RPG that mixes simple character role-playing and a terrifically realized world with dull combat and an almost pathological desire to drag you through to the end. In other words, it’s a bright and cheery game with a surprisingly dark story involving a young boy whose family is brutally slaughtered. It’s also a game that lacks any semblance of a challenge. As in, “You’ll never come close to dying, not even once†easy.

Most of the game moves along at a leisurely pace as you prepare yourself for your eventual revenge, but Lionhead can’t resist directing it toward the clichéd “you need to save the world†plot. It has a terrific role-playing system and tons of character development possibilities, but it’s not a great role-playing game by most normal definitions. There’s almost no exploration, the combat is simplistic and too easy, and the loot is limited. It’s also overly restrictive—you walk along (literally) narrow paths as you progress through a linear story, one that is illustrated with some interesting paintings and is extremely well written, with even better voice acting. Fable provides proof that if you want your RPG to sound more portentous, just get British people to read all your crazy overwrought dialogue.

Your character continuously ages throughout the game, altering his appearance (hair grows, scars form), and there are a wealth of ways to develop him. But Fable is oversold as a game of choices. Too few games have any moral choices at all, but the system in Fable is overly simplistic and too easily “gamed.†It’s hard not to wish for more shades of grey, instead of everything being so black and white (no pun intended, considering its developer). The “moral†options are obvious: “Kill the villagers or protect them from attackers.†And you can easily buy “good†or “evil†points by donating to temples, in order to permanently alter your character’s moral compass.

Learning the controls and figuring out the leveling system are the game’s only challenges. Playing purely as a fighter, it’s nearly impossible to die in combat as long as you have a few health potions. It’s button mashing in the extreme, though switching to arrows provides a nice change of pace. (It’s almost a requirement for some creatures.) There aren’t as many weapon choices as there are in most RPGs, but you do get some clever touches, like heavy weapons being useless to a weak character—you literally drag a sword or axe on the ground. If you’re interested, you can check all of the numbers; for the most part, it’s all there on-screen, in front of you.

8_1All these points sound very negative, the hallmarks of a thoroughly mediocre game. But for some reason, they become almost totally irrelevant when under Fable’s enormous charm offensive, which makes it impossible not to fall under its spell. All its little touches elevate it above the standard fantasy pap. For example, there’s something undeniably appealing about running around towns and having people acknowledge, respect, and even be in awe of what you’ve done within the game. You can buy a title, and everyone suddenly starts calling you by it, like “Ohhh, Assassin†or “You’re quite the Arseface.â€

It’s full of cheeky British humor, as people react to your idiocy in very self-deprecating ways. You can hook up with prostitutes and court women, or get married. When the latter happens, your wife sings happy songs while you’re around and says things like, “I can’t believe we’re married†in what is possibly the sappiest—and happiest—voice imaginable. In fact, there’s so much interesting stuff going on around the periphery it makes you wonder if some of that time and energy would have been better spent on making the combat more interesting, or padding out the length with a dozen more quests. Of course the tradeoff is that you might have just ended up with a longer game, not a better one.

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Though the PC version is a straightforward port of what appeared late last year for the Xbox, the improved graphics are a plus (if a bit of a resource hog). However, the “Lost Chapters†are mediocre. They merely add a coda to the original story, with a few extremely obvious “Should I Be Good or Bad?†moments as you try to save the world. Again. The combat is just as easy, and even with another final battle against the ultimate bad guy, it’s harder to die than it is to defeat him.

It’s not hard to pick apart Fable and dwell on its shortcomings, but to do so is to miss the forest for the trees. It’s short but memorable, with so many winning minor touches that help take it to another level. It’s remarkably imaginative, whimsical, and full of life. And sometimes, that’s enough.

System Requirements: Pentium IV 2.5 Ghz, 512 MB RAM, 3 GB HDD, WinXP

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