There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious, but for Lionhead Studios and its figurehead, Peter Molyneux, over ambition has lead to a fair few disappointments, with promises failing to become reality and concepts not quite achieving their full potential. Take for example the pre-release hype for the first Fable, in which Molyneux stated that in the game it would be possible to plant an acorn and watch it grow into a tree. This never came to fruition and the statement in turn became a point of considerable derision. Six years later, however, it appears that the infamous acorn-claim might not have been as far off the mark as the naysayers would have you believe, as from the seeds planted with Fable an impressive family-tree has grown. Fable III is the latest sapling with dreams of becoming a mighty oak and while it is a little bit gnarled around the edges, there’s no denying that it gets extremely close to realising that dream.
Fable III sees us return to the fictional country of Albion 50 years after the last instalment, with a tale centred on the offspring of the Hero from Fable II, one of whom rules as King. This is a clever move by Lionhead as it makes the game accessible to newcomers while also giving them an incentive to go back and play Fable II. Series veterans are catered for, as the set up offers a natural progression from the last game, with Fable II save files impacting on the details of this adventure. The fifty year gap also heightens the epic sense of scale and history that has been something of a hallmark for the series.
Despite being as beautiful as ever to behold, all is not well in Albion; the populace are suffering under the malevolent rule of King Logan and the oppressive grip of an industrial revolution has seen agricultural idyll being eaten away by satanic mills and belching smoke stacks. From out of this bleak world a hero rises, and it is here that you step in to assume the role of the King’s sibling (a Prince or Princess). It’s not long before you find yourself outcast, hunted and facing the difficult task of leading an uprising against the tyrannical ruler.
In many respects Fable III differs little from its predecessor, carrying over well established gameplay mechanics and the usual blend of adventuring, human interaction, mini-games and combat. Because of this, those that were left unconvinced by the two previous instalments are unlikely to be swayed this time around, and the ideas that are presented are also as fascinating and, sadly, as flawed as ever.
Take, for example, the game’s focus on moral choices; it’s still difficult to shake the feeling that the choices presented would benefit from being broader and more subtly implemented. In fact, many of the dilemmas that you face in the game’s opening few hours are more exercises in frustration than opportunities to explore your own moral compass, with the selection of possibilities available feeling pretty meagre. The game also forces many decisions upon you so, whether you like it or not, you find yourself being dragged through multiple exercises in degradation, including being made to wear a chicken suit and hunt chickens, cross-dress and having to choose between either a) tickling or b) declaring your love for a fat Elton John look-alike…we found neither option very tempting to be honest. Though such events are in keeping with a vein of humour that has been present throughout the series, in this setting they can do much to undermine your character’s Royal status, as well as your own sense of being in direct control of your destiny. Fans will probably lap it up, but there’s no denying that the game frequently treads a very fine line between being humorous and just plain silly.
Combat has also remained the same bar a few small tweaks, and is either extremely elegant or overly simplistic, depending on taste. Constructed around the combination of single button commands and analogue stick movements, we still found the combat to be accessible, fluid and surprisingly deep. Mixing melee, magic and ranged attacks on the fly is effortless, and although we’d have liked to see the pace of combat increased slightly, it works well. Lionhead have also expanded the possibilities with the introduction of the ability to wear dual magic gauntlets; this allows you to blend spells (combine a fireball with a vortex, for example, and you can unleash a flaming tornado). The system works well, though the spells themselves stick to fairly tried and tested areas (flame, ice, electricity etc) and we would have liked to have seen a few more outlandish ideas thrown into the mix.
There are a couple of smaller additions to the series, namely weapons that change appearance depending on your actions, and the ability to hold hands with any character in the game. Though both these have garnered a fair degree of publicity, in practice neither really has that much impact on the gameplay. It is quite cool seeing your weapon of choice morphing into a new form, but aside from some stat boosts, for the most part these changes are purely aesthetic. Though also a very interesting idea, the hand-holding just feels a little bit flaky, with the physical connection between characters being flimsy at best. We’re certainly interested to see how both these concepts evolve in future releases, but for now they remain curious garnishes.
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