When Lionhead unveiled their final installment of Fable, or at least the last to have Peter Molyneux on board, hearts fell at the realization that it would be a Kinect game. Yet, after working through the game’s entirety, that’s undeniably not the issue with the final product. Fable: The Journey is a fantastic addition to the Kinect library and a good bit of fun that utilizes the Kinect’s motion-tracking extremely well. Detailed environments with that signature Fable stylization, a good sound track, and carefully conceived controls transform it into a great on-rails shooter. Yet, as a possible end to a franchise of RPGs, it falls short when standing beside its predecessors. A storyline that tried to accomplish too much in too little time, in a game that is little more than a group of prescripted battle sequences, proved to be the deadweight that sunk the game. This is not the climactic close to a franchise that prided itself on choices and scope and pushing limits.
A quick spoiler-less synopsis is in order. The game opens with your character, Gabriel, traveling Gypsy boy who dreams of heroes, getting separated from his convoy and needing to travel a dangerous route in order to catch up. He quickly stumbles across Theresa, the mysterious seer who has served important roles in earlier Fable games, and a pair of magical, irremovable gauntlets imbued with the power of the previous heroes of Albion that allow him to cast spells. Yet, he just wants to go home. The game is spent with Theresa trying to get him to step up to the plate and become the next great hero in order to save the land from the ultimate baddy who is on the cusp of victory.
One thing needs to be established. This is a well crafted game for what it is: a short, an on-rails game. The key to an on-rails game is an amazingly detailed and immersive rail to make up for the lack of scope, and Lionhead creates just this. A good portion of the game is spent driving a Gypsy cart through the countryside, and these environments are both gorgeous and highly detailed and change frequently enough to keep things fresh. The sound, both tracks and effects, offer nothing to complain about. The technical and art teams did fantastic work, without a doubt.
But when you begin to pick apart game-play, things begin to lose their luster. Lionhead initially promised modes and mini-games, such as one that would involve drawing objects the player needed to complete tasks, such as fishing poles for fishing. While drawing objects doesn’t sound all that amazing, that there would be options to do things like go fishing made the game seem to contain RPG elements. But, with there being absolutely none of these mini-games present in The Journey, things for the player to do in-game are few and highly restricted. Really, it is entirely too lacking in regards to variety, as there are only four sorts of actions one can partake in: driving, puzzles, chores at rest-stops, and battle.
The driving aspect is rather enjoyable, thanks to the environment and the fact that leveling up is based on steering through obstacles to collect gems. Furthermore, a conversation is almost always going on as you guide your horse along. In both attending to the reins and listening to your companions, it’s difficult to get overly bored.
Puzzles, however, quickly become repetitive and overly easy. Most fall into the categories of “cast spell at overly-obvious object” or “cast spell to move objects into their overly-obvious places.” Either way, things are obviously overly-obvious and offer little to no challenge to anyone with the sage wisdom of the average ten-year-old.
Battle is quite similar until the last third or quarter of the game. You simply are not given enough powers or interesting enemies to make the art of war overly fun. Far too much of the game is spent with only two spells: force, for moving objects, and bolt, which is the equivalent of shooting a ball of lightning. After a fight or two, the player begins to revile battle because it’s nothing more than throwing your hands at the screen in the save manner over, and over, and over again in order to defeat whichever one of the few enemy types you stumble upon. It isn’t until that last bit, when you’ve obtained several new spells and enemies that require more-complex strategies, that things get enjoyable. However, this fun stage doesn’t last nearly long enough as the game draws to a close soon thereafter. The arcade mode permits you to select these chapters and replay them, but there simply aren’t enough of these levels or clever battle mechanics to keep one interested for more than a handful of replays.
As you travel towards your final confrontation, you periodically stop to rest for the night and take care of your horse, Seren. These rest-stops offer a number of chores you may or may not perform and end in a cutscene of some relevance to the story’s progression. A large part of the game revolves around this one horse. The protagonist whom you play as loves the animal, and it is clear it is supposed to be something like your dog companion from previous games. While these rests to rubdown and feed her are supposed to serve to strengthen the player’s bond with Seren, the idea fails. Lionhead had talked about how taking care of Seren would unlock more commands and ways to interact, but they seem to have cut any such mechanic in favor of giving you a few measly experience points. And as Seren and Gabriel’s affection for her are immensely important to the storyline, the story itself feels far weaker than it might have been.
And in truth, it is this weak storyline and consequently poor writing that drags the game down.
Previously, the Fable franchise emphasized two things: choice, and epic journeys. But considering that from the very start of this game you’re thrown into the shoes of a named Gypsy boy, it’s clear that Fable: The Journey doesn’t hold with the earlier of the two. I have no issues with sacrificing a small choice like gender or name for the sake of story. However, as the game clings too tightly to its rails, it loses everything that defined a Fable game except for the visual style and quirky humor (though even the humor is far too sparse). The player no longer gets to make moral decisions. He or she has no say in his or her own appearance. It lacks the interaction and wide scope every earlier console Fable game flaunted. And in the end, one feels impossibly distanced from the game even though it uses a first-person perspective. Every moment of brilliant immersion offered by the artistic design is countered by this lack of choice, this lack of interaction, this lack of a large world to become lost in.
The on-rails system is artistically done, but not in a way that gives the player the feeling that they can mark off “complete epic journey” on their to-do list by the time the end is reached. While a number of landscapes are traversed and beautiful paths are walked, the game takes about twelve hours to conquer, give or take. Very little story actually occurs. It includes only six characters, or ten and a handful more if you include disembodied souls, ghosts, and one of the baddies. It’s difficult to find much true scope.
And in an attempt to remedy this and tie up the series, Lionhead threw in a few tales told by Theresa which offer insight into who she is and was, and how she has affected Albion in the past 500 years. It is as if the writers tried to cram a story explaining both this game and the rest of the entire franchise into a few cutscenes in order to wrap up loose ends. This, in the end, proves to be a mistake as it leaves the player unfulfilled. For example, Theresa is arguably one of most intriguing characters of the Fable universe. Making her the player’s traveling companion was a huge opportunity to build upon her complexity as well as show a few of her faces.
Instead, Lionhead dropped the ball and drew back all the curtains in a static manner that made it feel like I was a child being told overly didactic, morally-bound fables by my grandmother. The seer who guided my hero through Fable II was no straight-forward woman, and my hero didn’t visit her for story-time. Yet Fable: The Journey transforms her character into something two-dimensional with less imagination than she ought to have been given, and sadly, no amount of Zoë Wanamaker’s amazing voice talent can fully fix that. They do a good job of closing her story considering what sort and length this game is, but really, this sort resolution shouldn’t have been in this game at all.
In summation, Fable: The Journey is a great game for all ages, but especially the early or pre-teen crowd. It requires very little knowledge of prior Fable games. The artists did great work, and the controls are impressive so long as the player is careful to calibrate the system. Really, unlike most Kinect games, it’s better using Kinect than it would be if one used a controller. Standing alone and separate from other Fable games, and with no expectations, it is a pretty enjoyable experience.
Yet, it weakens the franchise, lacking that strangely dark, serious-yet-amusing weight and depth of its predecessors. It has only a phantom of the personality of those earlier games and contains none of that scope. A twelve-hour, on-rails shooter had no chance of wrapping this franchise up, and that the developers tried to do it anyways led to writing that feels somewhat childish. The player is told the story rather than offered the chance to play through and discover it.
This game should be treated like a title in between the RPGs, something like Fable: Heroes, and when thought of as such, it is certainly a recommendable game. Most of the issues are those only a Fable fanatic would have issue with. This is a solid game, but the room for improvement is so great that at times it is hard for an Albion veteran to remember as much.
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