Some heroes are made when they rise to the occasion. Others build their reputations over time. This latter case is the subject of Fable, a game in which you get to vicariously experience the life of an archetypal fantasy hero, and, in some respects, decide what eventually becomes of him. Fable is one of the most highly anticipated games since the Xbox's debut, and the latest title overseen by visionary game designer Peter Molyneux since he worked on 2001's innovative Black & White. Like that game, Fable invites you to solve problems either by being good or by being evil, and to watch as the effects of your decisions gradually take a noticeable toll on your persona. Fable also features a number of novel elements, such as how your hero's appearance gradually changes with age, and how villagers will respond differently to him depending on his reputation, looks, and other factors. These elements serve to significantly differentiate a game that's actually pretty straightforward in terms of how it plays. Beneath the surface, Fable is a well-put-together but standard action adventure, primarily consisting of lots of basic combat and running from point to point. Mind you, this is a decidedly great game, all in all. Its most interesting, riskiest features may lie at the fringes rather than at the core--but they're there.
You begin Fable as a young child, and it's here that you're introduced to the game's moral alignment system, its sense of humor, and its dark edge--as well as its basic controls, which will be mostly intuitive if you've played other third-person-perspective games recently. Your first order of business is to earn a few gold pieces with which to purchase a birthday gift for your sister. Whether you make the money by being helpful or by making lots of trouble is up to you. This initial choose-your-own-adventure-style sequence is quite impressive in the amount of freedom and variety it affords you, and it suggests that Fable will constantly challenge you to make moral decisions like the ones presented early on. For example, will you help a little kid fend off a bully, or will you join in on the bullying (or beat them both up)? These decisions are so ethically basic that they're not at all difficult to make, but it's still interesting to see how the game plays out depending on what you do. You'll discover, though, that Fable's introduction is not reflective of most of the game's quests, which don't give you many choices. At any rate, soon after you complete your first main task, something sinister happens. Fortunately for your young character, he is saved by an enigmatic man who transports him to the Heroes' Guild, where he is to be trained to become an adventurer.
Cut to your hero's teenage years. At the Heroes' Guild, you're instructed on how to fight with melee weapons, a bow and arrow, and using the powers of will--otherwise known as magic. All three of these fighting styles are relatively simple to use, but they work well. It's possible to lock onto nearby targets by pressing and holding the left shoulder button, and you can switch between ranged and melee weapons easily by using the white and black buttons. Melee combos are unleashed just by pressing the X button repeatedly. Some foes will block your attacks, but you can penetrate their defenses either by maneuvering behind them or by using a slower, stronger unblockable strike that becomes available after every few normal strikes. Archery works similarly but is more methodical--the longer you press and hold X, the more fiercely you'll draw your bow, resulting in significant damage per hit. The controller rumbles as your shot powers up, effectively giving you a tactile sense of when you're about to deliver a very powerful shot. It's possible to manually aim your arrows from a first-person perspective, but since you'll automatically lock onto targets using the shoulder button, this ability has no real value. Actually, archery may not seem altogether practical in Fable. It can be plenty effective, but since you'll be fighting most foes single-handedly, and most of them will quickly close the distance between you, toe-to-toe combat proficiency will seem like the obvious first choice. A few flying enemies will require you to put your unlimited arrows to good use, though.
Magic is unquestionably valuable in Fable. You'll start off with a simple lightning attack, but you'll be able to spend experience points on more than a dozen other different spells (and upgrades to those spells). There are spells that do such things as temporarily boost your strength and speed or temporarily cause time to slow down all around you, allowing you to easily outmaneuver foes. (Descriptions of these spells make them sound very useful, and, in fact, they are.) Magic is a little awkward to use at first, since you need to hold down the right shoulder button to access your spells, and then you have to press another button to cycle through your available spells if you have more than three. But this is easy enough to get used to, and worth getting used to sooner rather than later since magic helps make Fable's frequent battles pretty easy, for better or worse.
You'll face a fairly diverse variety of foes during the course of the game, some of which will seem reasonably smart. Bands of bandits will fire on you with crossbows, switch to swords as you approach, and attempt to flank you. Undead will spring right out of the ground underneath your feet. Creatures resembling werewolves will lunge at you from all directions. Yet all these foes can be defeated handily in groups using the same types of tactics. Fable's combat has a pretty good, solid feel to it as you wallop your foes with swords, axes, maces, crossbows, and more. The combat isn't really a challenge once you inevitably figure out a few key tricks. Items that quickly or instantly restore your health will be available in copious supply, letting you recover your energies in a pinch, even in the midst of battle. You'll also probably end up hoarding numerous "resurrection phials," which automatically restore all your health should you be struck down. Once you learn Fable's controls and figure out its fairly complex leveling-up system, you'll have overcome its greatest challenges.
Of course, you won't be fighting hordes of foes while you're still training at the Heroes' Guild. After the training is complete, you're invited (rather awkwardly, via an onscreen prompt) to continue onto your hero's adulthood, the time during which the vast majority of Fable takes place. You can get through the younger years in about an hour, and the rest of the story is fairly brief and will take you 10 hours or less--that's if you ignore a few available side quests, though these don't pad the game's length too much further. Fortunately, Fable's world is sprinkled with little hidden secrets--collectible special keys, talking demon doors challenging you to open them up in some obscure fashion, concealed treasure chests, and so forth--and these give the game some additional lasting value. Ironically, though, there isn't necessarily a clear incentive to play through the entire game over from scratch once you've finished it the first time. Yet, however you choose to spend your time with the game, you should be able to squeeze a good 20 to 30 hours out of it when all is said and done.
Fable's storyline, which is punctuated by an elegant sequence of paintings showing your hero's latest exploits, is mostly linear and starts slowly once you get past the childhood prologue. Past the halfway point, it actually becomes fairly involving, since its few key characters become relatively fleshed out. However, the hero himself remains silent during all the proceedings, and all the moral decisions you've made have little effect on what happens or how it happens. The game does have multiple endings depending on your morality and ultimate decisions you make, but each version of the epilogue is very brief, and it's fairly easy to see the numerous different alternatives without having to play through the game from the beginning. This is partly because your character's morality can be reversed just by visiting one of two different locations in the game, respectively devoted to a good and an evil god.
All you need do is pay a hefty donation and your evil or good deeds will be negated--and, toward the end of the game, you should have plenty of money to spend. The inclusion of these temples seems somehow unfortunate, as they can undermine the deliberate process by means of which your character's nature normally emerges. Furthermore, the fact that you may continue exploring the game's world of Albion even after you've finished the storyline means that you'll be able to see most of what Fable has to offer without having to restart. Part of the appeal of role-playing games that purport to let you live by the consequences of your actions is that they offer significant replay value. However, that's not necessarily true of Fable, though the game does have lots of interesting peripheral content to explore on your first go-round. The thing is, you might just miss it if you simply follow Fable's main quest, finish it, and reckon you're done. If that happens, you'll have experienced a quality action adventure game, but you will have missed out on most of what makes Fable special.
It's fun to see your character develop as you play. You can use the right stick to get a nice close-up look at the hero at any time, and you'll see him visibly age and transform in other ways during his adulthood. It's possible to adorn your hero with different hairstyles and tattoos--which don't have much impact on gameplay (as you'd probably expect), but may nonetheless cause certain villagers to respond to you differently. Your clothing or armor can have a similar effect, but the most interesting visual changes to the hero occur as a result of your moral choices. Act evilly, and soon enough you'll sprout horns, walk with a hunch, and gain bloodred eyes; act like an angel and you'll gradually gain a divine aura around you. There's a dramatic range of appearances possible for your main character, and even though the variations are mostly cosmetic, it's still very impressive.
There are other aspects to Fable's personalization system worth noting. Your alignment will gradually give you access to various social gestures--a nasty insult if you're evil, or an apology if you're good, for instance. Using these in civilized settings yields results that are, at least, frequently funny. Ultimately, there really isn't much to character interaction in Fable. However, gesticulating in various ways and watching as villagers react differently to you based on your attire and reputation can be entertaining for a while. So can a few different tavern games available at the drinking establishments in Fable's handful of villages. The extracurricular activities don't stop there: You may also get married (and divorced), which is another fairly basic process that leads to some amusing results; expect your spouse to have some choice words for whenever you change your appearance. You may purposely or inadvertently commit all kinds of different crimes while in town, from brandishing a weapon to breaking windows to shoplifting, and the guards will come looking for you if you do--you can pay a fine, flee, or try to fight them. There are other nice little details here and there. As day turns to night, villagers will light street lamps and shutter their doors. Taverns are always bustling with customers. The way the game's non-player characters act and respond to you eventually becomes pretty transparent, but messing around with them as though this were a virtual ant farm can be rewarding.
The intriguing yet sometimes simplistic design of Fable manifests itself in other ways. Your character can earn a title, such as "assassin," "ranger," "chicken chaser," "paladin," or many others, and you'll hear villagers sometimes use one of these titles to refer to you. Sometimes you'll inadvertently earn a title through your actions, and when you hear characters suddenly start calling you by your nickname, you'll be genuinely impressed--your reputation will have preceded you. Fable's attempts to make you feel like you truly are the hero of a classical fantasy story are most successful during these rather scarce but poignant instances. Sadly, titles can simply be purchased--so, like the temple donations, this weakens the impact of what might have been a more subtle and interesting way for the game to give feedback to the player.
For most of the structured gameplay, you'll be undertaking quests that are the stuff of standard-issue fantasy. Rescue missions, dungeon crawls, showdowns against powerful foes, and all the other clichés make their appearances in Fable. None of the quests take very long to accomplish, thanks partly to your hero's convenient ability to teleport around the world, as well as to the onscreen minimap that always points you in the right direction. Fable's quests offer a bit of varied challenge in how they allow you to "boast" for additional rewards by agreeing to take on bigger risks. Basically, you're able to take dares on certain quests, such as by vowing to go through a mission "naked" (just in your Union Jack-emblazoned underpants, that is), or to slay every foe from the mission's beginning to end, or to complete your objectives in a certain period of time. These boasts can add an extra bit of challenge and variety, but they aren't really necessary. The penalty for a failed boast isn't severe, but if you fail the quest altogether...you have no choice but to restart that quest and keep trying until you succeed. It's strangely disorienting to be required to restart a simple side quest from the beginning when Fable is presumably a game about living with the consequences of your actions. Again, though, the game isn't hard, so the threat of having to replay quests doesn't turn out to be much of a problem.
Despite the rather carefree nature of the game, a few quests in Fable, in which you have to escort characters through dangerous territory, can actually be a little frustrating. These types of missions aren't too frequent, and your companions capably follow behind you and try to stay out of the way when you're fighting. But it's not difficult to accidentally target your allies in the midst of a skirmish and nail them with a few powerful hits. Normally it's OK to wantonly kill innocents in Fable, if that's how you want to play. But it's not OK if you're protecting a VIP during a quest. Most other quests, even combat-intensive ones, can be solved on the first attempt.
As you complete your missions and slay opponents, you'll gain experience points, which you can spend to customize your character and how he actually plays. This leveling-up system is quite good, and unlike some of Fable's novelty elements, it actually adds depth to the gameplay. Basically, you'll get to improve your character's various abilities within three different pools: strength, skill, and will. Strength abilities influence your melee power, toughness, and maximum health. Skill abilities affect your speed, archery, the prices you get from merchants, and your ability to sneak. Will abilities govern your maximum magic power and available spells. Interestingly, you gain experience points in each of these three categories separately as you fight using melee, archery, and magic, respectively. You also earn a fourth, general type of experience on top of that, which can be spent on any of the three ability sets. All abilities within each of the three pools are available right from the get-go, and it's a lot to take in. Fortunately, some helpful text and voice-over clearly explains how each option may be useful to you.
Though this system works very well, it discourages pure specialization. You might start out hoping to become the best possible fighter or magic user...but eventually, you'll find yourself having to spend exponentially more experience for limited gains in your chosen field, versus spending relatively small quantities of experience points to gain proficiency in new skills. So, you're almost certainly going to wind up with some sort of hybrid fighter/archer/wizard, though you'll still probably lean toward specific sets of skills, of which there are numerous viable combinations.
The sum total of Fable's elements is a decidedly interesting mix that invites, and fairly often rewards, exploration and experimentation. That's great, but for what it's worth, the game doesn't entirely succeed at making you feel like you are the hero. The epic premise doesn't quite translate into an epic experience. This is mostly because the form and structure of the gameworld feel contrived. Fable consists of a sequence of relatively small, winding, interconnected maps, separated by noticeably lengthy loading times. The hero himself has no personality (and never speaks, except for a few short, gruff phrases when you make him emote), and the game's cookie-cutter non-player characters, while often amusing, don't come across as lifelike. Fable's juxtaposition of cheeky humor and surprisingly serious story themes also seems odd, as the humor tends to overshadow aspects of the story that otherwise could have seemed much more dramatic had the game maintained a more even tone. All of this makes the world of Fable seem very much like a sandbox (in which your imagination will be the key to your enjoyment) rather than like a fully realized and cohesive fantasy setting--the kind that really draws you in and makes you feel like a part of it. In Fable, you'll often feel more like the director than like the star of the show.
Frequent loading times aside, Fable is excellent from a technical standpoint, featuring highly detailed visuals brought to life by soft, colorful ambient lighting, which gives the entire game an appropriately dreamlike, wispy look. Little details are everywhere, and character animations are nicely exaggerated, making the inhabitants of Fable appear larger than life. The game's various environments, which include your standard fantasy trappings like forests, swamps, caverns, and graveyards, are dense with color and little atmospheric touches. Weather effects look very real, and other effects for spells and such are also great. But the best-looking aspect of the game is certainly the hero himself and his gradual metamorphosis into whatever you're trying to turn him into. Watching your hero take shape over time is a one-of-a-kind experience that, in and of itself, encourages spending lots of time playing Fable. Despite all of the visual detail, the game usually maintains a respectably smooth frame rate, though it noticeably hitches up on occasion. You'll also note that some of the game's characters are uncharacteristically ugly and look somewhat out of place. Yet the overall level of artistry in Fable's graphics ultimately makes this game look superb. This level of graphical quality certainly enriches the overall experience.
The same is absolutely true of the audio, which is quite possibly the best part of the game. A beautiful classical-style orchestral score plays pleasantly throughout the game, changing its tone and mood effortlessly to fit each different type of setting and situation. Ambient sound effects match or even surpass the richness of the graphics. The game's voice acting (all of it is British) is of very high quality overall, and there's a ton of spoken dialogue to be heard. You'll occasionally hear some repeated lines as you wander through towns, and this is really the only strike against a game whose sound is amazingly well-done.
Fable is an imaginative game that's got enough remarkable, unique moments in it to make it shine. That many of these moments happen to be good for a laugh is all the better. It's true that the game's high points are not always frequent--its ambitions are evident but not always fulfilled, and the pervasively playful spirit of the game sometimes is mired by convention. These trespasses are more than excusable, though. Regardless of how much time you ultimately spend playing Fable, you're not likely to forget the experience for a long while.