The world of Albion is brimming with a vibrant personality that few imaginary worlds are able to match. While strolling down cheery forest lanes with a soothing melody permeating the air, it's easy to lose yourself in the fantastical atmosphere that encompasses this adventure. The quirky citizens you meet along the way are all too willing to make jokes at their own expense or send you on a ridiculous side quest that will leave you laughing at your given duties while admiring the stunning sights along the way. And it is these elements that make Fable III such an enjoyable adventure, even though the other aspects of your journey are not nearly as interesting. Subtle changes have further simplified the already uncomplicated gameplay mechanics of Fable II leaving an adventure that hardly requires any thought to complete. Streamlined combat and limited morality options make the life of an adventurer somewhat predictable, and a lack of emotional connection to any of the characters--including your dog--makes your entire journey feel slight. But even with some stumbles along this golden road, Fable III's enticing aesthetics make it a pleasure to traipse through this fairy tale land.
Whether you were a noble dignitary or colossal jerk in Fable II doesn't matter one bit in this sequel. The hero who saved Albion in the last adventure went on to become a beloved monarch, siring two children who would eventually look over the kingdom when their time came. Not all members of royalty can be blessed with a strong vision of how to lead their people into peace and prosperity, though. The oldest son of the former ruler has a case of the evils, and he is using his power as the new king to oppress the poor peasants who fall under his rule. As the younger sibling (you can choose to be a prince or princess), you flee from the castle under off-putting circumstances and must build up your own army to overthrow your power-hungry brother. There's a stronger emphasis on the story in Fable III than in previous games in the series, and there is a certain charm in meeting the various leaders throughout the city to gain allies. But the quests are structured more for a good hero than one with evil leanings; you are forced to do all sorts of nice things during your rise to power, which limits your chances to be an uncaring meanie.
The lack of choice in how the main quest plays out is disappointing, although it's possible to excuse this story conceit when you consider how it matches reality. To gain power, you must make concessions and convince people you're truly on their side; it's only after you take the throne for yourself that you can turn your back on the nice folks who supported you. That may make sense, but the lack of consequences for the vast majority of your actions makes it difficult to become invested in your choices. For instance, you can slay an entire town, murdering every adult you can find if you feel a bit bloodthirsty. But mere moments after committing such an atrocity, you can continue on with the main quests where people trust you and consider you a good person. It doesn't make any sense. Even choosing the bad option in side quests has few repercussions. In one early mission, you can choose to either kill a brood of chickens or let them live. If you spare their lives, you can bet on chicken races later. But even if you kill them all, the races are still available. The game goes so far out of its way to make sure you don't paint yourself into a corner that you rarely suffer any setback for your choices.
This lack of emotional connection seeps throughout the rest of the story. Character interaction has actually been dumbed down even from the fart-or-dance options that defined Fable II. As in the previous game, you have the choice to perform a nice or nasty greeting to any character you meet. If you're courteous, you can befriend and eventually marry that character. If you're obnoxious, though, you create many enemies. But when conversations with your date just have you whistling a song or playing patty-cake until she gives you a gift, it's hard to care one iota when she accidentally gets torn to shreds by a pack of balverines. Expressing your emotions is one of many places in which simplified mechanics have removed some of the fun from Fable II. Previously, you could perform any learned gesture at any time. Now? You're limited to a couple options, and you have to wait for the choices to cycle through after every move. This aspect of the game has the same emotional impact as what you would find in Fable II (read: none), but it's hard to even care about your dog this time around. There is never a bonding moment and you can't even heal him after battle (he never gets hurt), so he's more of a furry metal detector than a lovable friend.
It's a shame that Fable III can't conjure any deep feelings for its funny-though-forgettable characters, but that's not to say you won't be emotionally invested at all. This is a gorgeous game. The exaggerated, almost eye-popping visuals of Fable II have been subdued somewhat in the latest adventure, and it's a change for the better. Every place you travel to has its own unique look and feel, and it's an undeniable joy to scour the lands for no other reason than to take in the beautiful sights. It is the breathtaking vistas and enchanting forests that pull you in; the smog-filled sky in Bowerstone or the sandy dunes of Aurora keep you engaged. Though your heart may not twinge for the characters you meet, the stirring score does an great job of making it flutter in your chest. Fable III is happy or somber, scary or uplifting, and it pulls off these emotional changes through careful artistic design and empowering music. Walking through Albion is to walk through the pages of a fairy tale. This meticulously constructed world is so enticing to look at and so pleasing to the ear that it makes up for the lack of depth in the other areas.
Unfortunately, the technical aspects are not nearly as refined as the artistic side of things. The most glaring problem is the pathfinding. Your dog, helpful treasure hunter that he is, is awful at pointing you in the right direction. He gets stuck on rocks and trees, or he sometimes just stands near you barking instead of running off to show you where to dig. This pathfinding stretches to humans as well. When you hold a companion's hand, you would expect him to dutifully walk alongside you. But your companions also get stuck on any obstacle in their path, and these quirks can quickly pull you out of the experience. The technical issues go further than characters not being able to find their way. Textures pop in, lessening the impact of the pristine view, and slowdown crops up at inopportune times. The worst instance of frame rate drop occurs during the banal minigames. Lute Hero, pie making, and blacksmithing give you a chance to make a quick buck by tapping buttons in sequence, but it's hard to hit that blue button at the perfect moment when the game is inexplicably chugging. Characters get stuck in the ground, you get caught on ledges, and everything just feels rough around the edges. This is a beautiful game that is continually let down by the uneven framework under the hood.
The combat system is just as fraught with troubles. As in Fable II, your three core offensive abilities are mapped to three different buttons. Melee, magic, and ranged attacks require you to tap or hold the appropriate button and watch enemies die before you. Previously, you would gain separate experience orbs depending on which moves you used, but that upgrade system has been removed. This means that you have free choice in your actions--you no longer have to use ranged attacks just to build up that specific skill. However, without an incentive to use all of your powers, it's easy to ignore one or two almost entirely. And this change is compounded by a couple of issues. First of all, your magic attacks are severely overpowered. Enemies usually come at you in groups of a half-dozen or more, and the quickest way to dispose of them is to conjure an area-of-effect spell. Simple, effective, and oh so boring. Second, there's a delay when you switch between attacks that leaves you open for a retaliatory blow. There's little reason to fumble with a hammer midbattle when it's safer and more effective to quickly roll away from danger and just cast more magic.
Because you don't upgrade your character directly in battle anymore, a new system is in place. You gain guild points by completing quests, killing enemies, and so forth, and you spend these on new powers. This is how you upgrade your various attacks (up to level five), unlock new gestures, and purchase new types of magic, among other things. There are also aesthetic and practical changes made to your weapons as you play through your adventure. Your hero's starting weapons (an axe, sword, pistol, and rifle) change shape depending on your actions. If you earn lots of gold, your sword may grow a gilded handle; or, if you like magic, glowing runes may be imposed on the side of your pistol. It's a neat feature that doesn't have much impact in combat, but it's a cool visual trick. More important are the attribute upgrades you can unlock for purchased weapons. If you slay 300 human enemies, then you may be able to gain money with each hit, for instance, and because these goals are clearly spelled out, it gives you something to strive for during the normally tedious combat. There is one other change to the melee that may not make it more fun to play, but it's certainly more fun to watch. Your hero randomly performs killer takedowns, and it's enjoyable to snap the necks of your enemies with your knees or pierce their hearts with your sword in a burst of brutality.
One of the strangest tweaks to the standard formula has to do with the removal of the traditional pause menu, but it's also one of the few positive changes in Fable III. Instead of being taken to a boring menu when you stop the action, you're whisked away to your sanctuary. This is a safe house that hides a few separate rooms in which you can take care of your royal duties. Duck into your wardrobe to don a chicken suit or maybe go around in just your underwear; change your weapons in your armory; go into a treasure vault that gives you a chance to ogle your wealth and marvel at your trophies; or visit a fancy co-op room that lets you check your stats and join another player's game. And in the center of these rooms is a map that lets you look down at the whole kingdom or fast travel anywhere in a snap. Because it only takes a second to warp to the sanctuary at any time (even midbattle), load times aren't a problem, and there is an undeniable pleasure in grabbing a rifle off the wall or seeing your clothes on a mannequin before you get dressed. The sanctuary is a quiet place to take a breather and a novel way to deal with item management.
It's easy to be overwhelmed by the minutia that makes up Fable III and assume that dull combat or morally limited choices bog down the entire adventure. But though they certainly make your carefree swashbuckling less exciting than it could have been, they don't derail all the fun. The sights and sounds are certainly the most obvious draw in Fable III, but this is also a consistently funny and often hilarious game. The sheer wealth of punch line victims is awesome. Once again, chickens are thrust to the forefront, but theories involving evil poultry are just the beginning of the ridiculous instances. There's one mercenary's reaction to being farted on (an unhealthy amount of puking), a clever wink at the anticlimatic final boss in Fable II, and even a jab at the expense of child labor. Few topics are off limits, but all the humor is good natured, ensuring that it delights rather than offends. And though the taunting gargoyles from Fable II have been removed, there are now 50 gnomes dotting the land. There's nothing quite like searching for a lost child and then hearing insults raining down from above until you finally find the foul-mouthed gnome and shoot him with your trusty gun. Fable III keeps up its funny facade the whole way through, and it's a huge part of why it remains so entertaining despite its problems.
Unfortunately, the bulk of the game comprises small issues. The finance system has been tweaked, which means it's more difficult to exploit, but it's not a perfect solution. You can purchase businesses and properties in Fable III, and you receive a stipend every five minutes. In the previous game, you earned money even when the game was turned off, which was a cheap way to build a fortune. Now, you have to actually be playing, so your bank grows more slowly, and you have to maintain your properties. It may not sound like much, but when you own dozens of houses, it can be a huge pain to go to each one and repair it so you can continue to reap your financial benefits. Thankfully, you can handle all of your property management using the map in your sanctuary, which means you can buy that pub you've been eyeing in the middle of battle or even evict some peasants because you feel like being a jerk. If you had the option to just "repair all," it would have made things less tedious, but at least you can't abuse the system as in the last game.
With all the side quests in Fable III, it can take more than 20 hours to reach the end. This is a marked improvement over the last game, giving you a reason to stay in this enchanting world a lot longer. And you can even play a proper cooperative game if you're pining for some companionship. You can take your hero into another player's world or, if you're the trusting type, invite another player to play in yours. The core gameplay is unchanged so don't expect any cool additions just because you have a friend in tow, but it can still be a lot of fun. Combining forces lets you dispose of those pesky enemies even quicker, giving you a chance to focus on the good elements while brushing the weaker aspects to the curb. If you're really committed, you can start a family (and even have a baby!) or enter into a property contract and share your collective wealth. If you team up with the wrong person, though, you could be bankrupt in a hurry or be stuck with a hungry brood while your friend is off adventuring, but it's all in good fun. This is a game about choices after all, so just make sure you don't unwittingly team up with someone on the evil side of the morality fence.
Fable III has issues--tedious combat, emotionally distant characters, and weak moral choices among them--but its biggest problem is Fable II. The latest adventure in Albion plays so similar to its predecessor that it struggles to establish an identity of its own. The small tweaks don't dig very deeply and the cosmetic changes are welcome but insubstantial. So, this is ultimately a really enjoyable game that will deliver a serious case of deja vu for anyone who spent time playing the last game. That's not a deal breaker, but it makes the good elements less exciting and the bad elements more noticeable. The outstanding artistic design and great sense of humor make it worth playing, but the other aspects have been streamlined to such a high degree that their simple pleasures have been lessened. While you shouldn't expect everything to run smoothly, it's a joy to be whisked away to Fable III's magical world.