The arrow is buried deep in the horse's side. You wave your arms while uttering soothing words, trying to calm the frightened animal. Once the horse is docile, you approach your four-legged friend slowly, careful not to upset her, and then rest your hand gingerly on the protruding arrow. With the utmost care, you pull the projectile from her body, steadying your hand so as not to cause even more pain to the distressed creature. It's a simple act that takes no more than a minute to perform, but it has a powerful effect on your state of mind. Fable: The Journey establishes strong emotional weight through smartly crafted scenes enhanced by the Kinect's motion-sensing capabilities, creating a rewarding and exciting adventure.
Albion is once again in need of a hero. As Theresa flees from an unseen monster, Gabriel is kind enough to help her onto his carriage and away from harm. The relationship between the 300-year-old seer and the green boy who dreams of long gone fables is slow to develop. The characters chat while sitting around a fire or while riding through the striking locales, and there's a clear hesitancy in forming a deeper connection. Theresa has seen countless friends die during her centuries of life and thinks of Gabriel as little more than a tool she can use to save the world. And Gabriel would rather curl up in a soft bed, with his loyal horse Seren nearby, than go on a dangerous adventure.
But through painstaking trials and debilitating ordeals, the two characters grow closer. Fable: The Journey makes great use of the few characters who make an appearance in this story. Although the basic save-the-world plot hits the expected notes without much flourish, it's the people you meet along the way you care about. When Fergus tells the story of his deceased wife, ravaged by balverines years before, you nod because you've heard this tale of woe before. But as you travel the road, Fergus is forced to confront his demons, and you form a deeper, more nuanced understanding of his grief. Fable: The Journey provides occasional moments of levity to keep you smiling, but it strikes a more somber tone than previous games in the franchise. And the heartfelt moments carry serious weight because the game earned your sympathy.
In no place is this more apparent than in Gabriel's relationship with Seren. Throughout the game, he talks about how close they've always been. About how he's been riding on her back since he was a toddler and how he travels everywhere with her. And although that does establish their link, such trivia does little to move you. It's not the telling that makes you care about Seren; it's the actions you perform. Pulling out an arrow is just one of the horse-keeping tasks you do to maintain her health and happiness, and these little activities have a big effect on your feelings toward her. Brushing her coat to scrape off the dirt from the dusty roads or feeding her an apple has little tangible impact on your adventuring, but these quiet interludes draw you closer to her. This is your horse, after all, so you ensure that she's well fed and clean. These bonding moments make up a small portion of the entire journey, but they leave the biggest impact on your experience.
Of course, there's much more to Fable: The Journey than caring for your horse. This is an on-rails adventure in which you continually travel toward the Spire, where your ultimate fate awaits you at the end of your journey. Much of the game involves riding down lonely roads behind your constant companion, Seren. By gripping imaginary reins in both hands, you crack them to speed up your horse, adjust your hands to race through turns, or raise your arms to come to a stop. With experience points to collect and winding curves to navigate, there's little time to rest, but the repetition of steering a horse could become tiring before long. Thankfully, Fable: The Journey spruces up this simple activity. Eye-catching visual design ensures that every craggy mountain pass and splendid waterfall delights your senses, and Theresa's eager storytelling fills you in on the expansive plot.
But you can only ride your horse for so long before you must dismount. Once you're on foot, the adventure is still on-rails, but the action shifts to combat. As the chosen hero, you have gauntlets that let you fire off powerful magical bursts. By waving your dominant hand, you command an electric spell that quickly whittles away the health of every balverine and hollow man you meet. Your off hand produces a push spell. Toss an enemy off a bridge or spin an armored foe around to expose a weak point, or just see how long you can juggle a hobbe before you get tired. Aiming is tricky because spells go in whatever direction you thrust your hand, so it's easy to be way off the mark if you're not careful. But this is not a big problem. Every attack homes in on nearby enemies, so as long as you aim in their vicinity, you're sure to land a hit. And even if you should miss, there's little punishment for failure. Attacks can be blocked by moving your arm in front of your chest, so you won't often die at the hands of a horde of eager enemies.
Combat scenarios become more complex as you get deeper into the adventure. You eventually learn five different spells, and the tougher enemies require you to use a few in tandem to finish them off. You may stun a group of attackers with a push spell while readying a fireball with your other hand, and then set the lot on fire just when they think they're safe. Or you could split your spear in pieces by flicking your hand after you toss it, causing magic shards to rain down death from above. Bosses force you to make use of all your powers at key moments, and though these require you to think fast, they're easy enough that the frustration level is kept low. This is a game that would rather entertain than challenge you, so the enemies push you to take advantage of your many spells without forcing you to move with the speed and precision of a real sorcerer.
Still, there is some frustration with the motion controls. Spells home in on enemies, but not always on pieces of the environment. This becomes a problem when you have to solve puzzles. At certain points, you have to push or zap a background object, and you may fling your hand a half dozen or so times without anything good happening. After a few moments pass, the game highlights exactly what you're supposed to do, and then you need only flick your wrist to complete the task. It's maddening that you often have to wait around for 10 or so seconds to pass an obstacle, especially when the game so helpfully provides a homing ability in other activities. These moments of unresponsiveness shouldn't derail your journey, but they do interrupt the horse-petting, magic-flinging fun.
None of the various actions you perform are particularly thrilling on their own, but Fable: The Journey maintains your attention through smart pacing. Fighting a group of hollow men is hard work, and you're liable to be tired after whipping fireballs for a few minutes. Thankfully, just when you're aching for relief, the game switches to something else. Smoothly drifting between riding, fighting, grooming, puzzle solving, and storytelling tickles different parts of your brain, keeping you focused without any scene overstaying its welcome. Feel free to stretch out lazily during a cutscene and then sit upright when the action resumes, grabbing the imaginary reins once more as you set off on another quest.
Excellent visual design has been one of the defining characteristic of Fable since the franchise began, and that tradition continues in Fable: The Journey. The tightly structured progression allows for more environmental detail than before, and the subtle artistic touches that enliven the variety of places you visit create a mesmerizing atmosphere. Round a corner along a rocky pass and you see a serene waterfall wash away the filth of the rampaging hobbe army that just careened through the area. The visual splendor pulls you into the world of Albion, making it a place you want to inhabit, and the expressive animations make the characters more lively. Seren in particular benefits from these touches as she neighs affectionately and nuzzles your arm. Her devotion fuels your own, enriching your relationship with this adorable companion.
Fable: The Journey makes excellent use of the Kinect. By focusing on just a few different actions that don't require much precision, it keeps you keyed in on your experience rather than fighting with the controls. But that's beside the point; you won't even be thinking about the controls before long. It's the way this game unfolds that's so enthralling. From the strong relationships you build to the dangers you conquer along the way, you're drawn in until this fantastic story is resolved. Fable: The Journey recognizes beauty everywhere. It doesn't matter if you're admiring the grand mountain vistas or having a quiet moment at the camp with Seren, you understand why it's worth fighting for the things you care most about.