Developed by Lionhead Studios, Fable is the brainchild of company founder Peter Molyneaux. This action RPG features exciting combat and a colorful world but suffers from a failure to commit to its own premise. Far from perfect, Fable nonetheless succeeds despite its numerous flaws.
Fable takes place in the land of Albion, a chaotic realm where vast swaths of unclaimed wilderness divide small pockets of civilization. After bandits destroy the player character’s hometown, you are recruited to the Guild of Heroes and set out on a quest for vengeance. Along the way you perform numerous quests on the Guild’s behalf, many of which have the potential to lead you down the path of either darkness or light.
While side questing isn’t exactly a new concept, the player’s ability to choose between good and evil is. In theory, it is a significant aspect of the game. In practice, however, your Hero’s moral alignment is only as big a deal as you make it. Sure, good and evil characters will look different as part of a mechanic I will get into later. But otherwise, the story and gameplay effects are very minimal.
This brings us to my main gripe with an otherwise extraordinary game: the story. Fable’s writing isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. There are bit characters with more personality than the main cast of some games. The dialogue and flavor text is all very clever, and Fable’s sense of humor sets it apart from many fantasy RPGs.
But, the problem arises from how Fable addresses the moral choices peppered throughout the game. Despite being told our choices matter, the story progresses the same regardless of the decisions you make. Killing or sparing an important NPC seems like a big deal in the moment, but will never brought up again after the fact.
Every moral decision is like this. Fable repeatedly stresses that the player’s choices have consequences, but fails to follow through in a meaningful way. The fact that it also approaches morality with all the nuance of a Saturday morning cartoon doesn’t exactly help.
Speaking of moral choice, this is an excellent time to bring up one of Fable’s more unusual mechanics. The idea behind Fable is that you are playing through your Hero’s life story. As such, they will go through physical changes as you progress through the game.
This includes both aging as well as changes in body type. Investing experience points into strength will make your Hero more muscular, while overeating will cause him to put on weight. Spending XP on speed and archery somehow makes him taller. Injuries lead to scars.
Apart from that, the other main factor in appearance is the Hero’s moral alignment. A 100% good Hero will have a halo and be followed around by a cloud of butterflies. A 100% evil character will sprout horns and start attracting wasps.
Heroes that are not so committed to one path or the other display less extreme physical changes. I genuinely think this is cool and wish more games had a similar feature. That said, it doesn’t excuse the lack of other meaningful consequences for the player’s actions.
The one exception is the way Fable models aging. While the journey from child to young adult is determined by plot advancement, the rest is based on leveling.
Every time you level up an ability, the Hero ages by a little less than a year. What bugs me is that only the Hero is affected: his older sister remains a young woman as he weathers into an old man. This doesn’t ruin the game, but might take people out of the experience.
Considering its age, Fable still looks pretty good. While some of the visual effects look a bit dated, the slightly cartoony aesthetic has aged remarkably well. Where Fable shows its age is in the animations, but the effects aren’t too noticeable unless you’re looking for it.
One thing Lionhead Studios absolutely did not scrimp on is the music. Russell Shaw and Danny Elfman composed a beautiful orchestral soundtrack that is an absolute joy to hear. The opening theme really gets you in the mood for an epic fantasy adventure, and the rest of the score never fails to create the right atmosphere for every scene.
I would never recommend playing a game just for the soundtrack, but Fable certainly comes close.
Fable divides combat into three distinct disciplines referred to in-game as strength, skill, and will. These translate to melee combat, stealth/archery, and magic respectively, although there is a bit of overlap between the first two categories. In theory, all three are equally important to the many Heroes inhabiting Fable’s world, but that isn’t true in practice.
Melee combat is extremely gratifying, with a decent amount of weapon variety and upgrades. It manages to walk the line of being simple enough for new players to grasp, but with enough nuance and complexity for advanced players to take advantage of.
I found some minor balance issues, none of them meaningfully detracted from my enjoyment. Overall, it’s a fun and engaging experience that frequently kept me on the edge of my seat.
The same is not true for archery and stealth, the “Skill” category on the leveling screen. Both are awkward to use, and neither feels worth the effort. Enemies aren’t visible until you get relatively close, which makes sniping difficult. Bows are useful for picking off lone enemies before real combat starts, but not much else. It’s hard to get more than two or three shots off before your target is in melee range, anyway.
I suspect Fable only included stealth for the sake of completeness. It’s slow, awkward, and most of the time, just impractical. Most areas consist of one or two open arenas with narrow corridors branching off from them. So, actually hiding is almost impossible about 80 percent of the time.
Even when you can hide, all you’re doing is delaying combat by another 30 seconds or so. I used stealth a handful of times the entire game and never felt like it was worth the time.
Magic, by contrast, is clearly what a lot of the work went into. While there are only about 11 spells, each of them feels wholly unique and fit organically into combat. Whether you intend to specialize in magic or use it to enhance your mundane abilities, Fable has the spells for you.
But, Magic in Fable is almost too powerful. Here’s a pro tip: get the spell called Enflame and level it up two or three times. Congratulations, you’ve won the game!
Enflame deals significant damage in a circle around the player, knocking enemies to the ground. And — you are immune to all attacks while casting. This is an extreme example, but any spell with a stun or knockdown effect will render most enemies totally helpless. This makes the second half of the game a lot easier than I think it was intended to be.
Combat remains fun through the game, but the tension peaks about halfway through and never really gets back to that point. The closest it gets is the final boss fight, which plays out somewhat differently from most of the combat encounters up to that point.
Fable is a fascinating game with some genuinely unique design choices. Not all of them work, however, and there are legitimate problems with gameplay balance.
But, the world of Fable has no shortage of personality. While the game is far from flawless, it is a truly enjoyable action RPG and absolutely worth the 20 or 30 hours it takes to beat.