The first thing you should know about Fable is that it’s an RPG which was originally released for the Xbox. If you already knew that, and odds are you did, then you’ll also know it’s a Lionhead/Peter Molyneux game. So, this review can pretty much end here. Obviously, it’s great. Or it isn’t. Which might seem to verge on stating the obvious.
Now we haven’t gone stark staring mad here; well okay, actually we have, but that happened years ago and is nothing to do with Fable (it was the glowing pixies that did it, them and their blasted confusion dust).
The point we’re blundering around hoping to make, and hopefully we’ll blunder into it any word now, is that a Molyneux offering is always great in theory, but underneath the shiny concept coat, the actual gaming experience doesn’t always bear that out fully. That is to say, he often has such lofty and disparate aims with his work that Molyneux will hack off more pixel flesh than he can possibly process, and end up creating a merely good game rather than a fantastic one.
Fortunately, Fable doesn’t try to do too much. It’s tight rather than over-reaching in design philosophy, yet there’s still a fist-full of detail touches and nuances as you’d expect from the “Molymeister”. The basic premise is that the player lives through the life of a single hero, from childhood wooden swords and marbles through to grizzled plate-wearing veteran. Add a slaughtered family and quest for vengeance for good measure, naturally.
The world is alive and sort of open-ended; we’ll come back to the latter point in a moment. By alive, we mean the shops shut when night falls, villagers actually go to bed, when the weapon-smith wakes in the morning he goes about the business of laying his swords out on display stands and so on. He might even nip off for a pint at the local tavern at lunchtime. Village people (no, not the band) react to your presence with various comments, depending on whether you’re a good or evil sort and how renowned you are.
Your reputation is boosted by successfully completing quests and you’re free to roam the world attempting these and getting stuck into all sorts of other stuff. There are mini-games to play, including cards, coin golf and chicken kicking (complaints to the Royal Society for the Protection of Poultry, please).
There are hidden keys and chests to find, there’s fishing to be done, treasure to be dug for, maidens to flirt with and eventually marry, houses you can buy and furnish ornately if you have the money. You can choose to be an evil git of a thief who breaks into people’s houses and wipes his bottom on their tablecloth, or a heroic fighter who donates all his money to the church and spends three hours gazing at himself in the mirror every morning.
While that’s all very free ranging (especially the chickens bit), Fable is only ‘sort of’ open-ended because the quests you can take at any given time are limited and you are channelled down certain routes to an extent. You’re told when you need to return to the guild to pick up a new quest, for example, and the level design feels somewhat straight-jacketed, with marked paths to take and areas you can see but can’t reach due to mysterious invisible barriers.
And this linearity carries through into the quest tasks themselves on occasion. For example, in one you have to infiltrate a bandit camp by finding five pieces of bandit armour to use as a disguise. How does this play out? You reach a small group of bandits, beat them up, there’s a chest, open it, one piece of armour. Trot down the road a bit, there’s another small group of bandits, take them apart, guess what? There’s a chest, open it, another piece of armour. Repeat a further three times. Why not make one of the chests an exercise in stealth, another a puzzle mini-game, and so on? Fable is overly simplistic at times.
However, in the end this RPG won us over simply because it’s damned good fun to play. That’s the bottom line: it has the Molyneux magic running through it. And compared to the Xbox version, the PC incarnation has large chunks of extra content bolted on, so there’s considerably more to do and see.