When you return to a beloved classic and discover how awkward and painfully frustrating it truly was, it's difficult to accept the truth. Multiple stages of grief follow, though many of us never escape the "denial" phase, declaring undying love while sobbing our way through clunky gameplay that has no hope of living up to our childhood remembrances.
Thankfully, Fable Anniversary has no desire to ruin your decade-old memories. The original Fable holds up rather well, and this remastered, visually buffed version of it retains the proper charm and rollicking spirit that made the game so delightful. Fable projects a certain effervescence, which you hear in its soundtrack's tinkling bell tones and see in the squat, goblinesque hobbes that shriek and yammer as you fight them. Villagers speak to you in thick Cockney accents, inviting you to drown in pleasures of the flesh, or drearily enthusing about their favorite hallucinogenic mushrooms. (You'll go find them another, won't you?) Fable is the Hugh Grant of video games: cheery, affable, and periodically inelegant.
As a remaster, Fable Anniversary is one of the better ones. Should you compare the original and the new release side by side, you immediately see the differences. Low-polygon character models and flap-jaw facial animations have been replaced by smoothly drawn villagers and reasonably expressive lip synching. This isn't a case of the resolution being cranked up, but entire assets being re-created, including architecture and foliage. The lighting, too, has been adjusted to reflect real-time sun rays and other more natural elements, though this change comes at the cost of ambience. The original Fable burst with bright light and color, though not always in the most natural ways, while the new lighting gives the game a more organic look, but at the cost of the shimmering glow that made Albion so warm and inviting in the original Fable and its sequel. Certain areas are too dim to make exploring them fun.
Allow me to step back a moment, however. If you never played the original, you'll be less concerned with Fable Anniversary's improvements, and more concerned with its own unique merits. And there are many. As the unnamed hero of Albion, you gallivant about its charming towns and meadows in third-person perspective, performing quests that have you protecting citizens from bandits, infiltrating prisons, and solving a ghostly spirit's riddles. But childhood precedes heroism, and the first hour or so of the game chronicles the terrible events that scarred you in your youth while simultaneously serving as an extended tutorial.
Fable Anniversary sings a fine rendition of the original's victories. Your interactions with the populace aren't limited to the kind involving a bow or a sword. You express your innermost self not with what you say (as you might in many a modern role-playing game, like Mass Effect) but with what you do. You can disgust your admirers by farting in their faces, or impress potential love interests by offering them gemstones, or boxes of chocolates. Prove your strength by flexing your muscles; prove your cruelty by murdering an old friend in front of hundreds of onlookers.
How you act is reflected in how others perceive you, and in how you look. I admit that I find little amusement in attacking random villagers, and so my list of moral successes grew longer and longer until a halo appeared above my head and onlookers clapped enthusiastically as I passed. Devil's horns and crimson eyes are your rewards for dirty deeds, though your status as a "hero" remains perpetually intact. Fable II greatly expanded on this system, but even so, Fable Anniversary still seems authentically alive, whereas other games often feel as though they are merely responding to on/off switches when alluding to your past actions. It's Fable's focus on action over words that makes the difference. A passerby mentioning that he heard you killed a werewolf is clearly contrived; applause and cries of admiration as you enter a tavern, on the other hand, feel more organic, because the game doesn't assume everyone in town has heard of the specific actions you performed just moments before.
Other actions are also reflected in your physical form; eating too much food to regain health, for instance, makes you fat. It's a shame the world design doesn't reflect the openness of Fable Anniversary's social possibilities. Even in 2004, Fable's segmented kingdom was confining; now, it is absurdly so. Smallish regions are separated by loading screens, and even those areas limit you to specific paths. Albion is a series of connected nodes that relies on its gently bawdy atmosphere to convey its history rather than on scale and environmental detail.
When you aren't busy voguing in front of impressed onlookers, you're traveling down Albion's narrow pathways, beating up on balverines (that is, werewolves) and trolls using a combination of melee weapons, bows, and magic spells. The magical possibilities are the most intriguing, given how they allow you to summon a ring of flames from the heavens above, or to call forth a trio of sentient swords to get up close and personal with your enemies while you shower arrows on them. There's no reason to stick with any particular technique, though, and cultivating a diverse combat style is more gratifying than choosing one over another. Depending on the circumstance, ranged attacks might be more effective than hammer swings, and you earn enough experience orbs when completing quests and offing bandits that there's no reason not to spread the wealth among the three core disciplines.
Prove your strength by flexing your muscles; prove your cruelty by murdering an old friend in front of hundreds of onlookers.
Putting those disciplines into practice can be frustrating, however. The original's targeting system wasn't great, and while Fable Anniversary represents some improvement, it's not much of one. You have to be relatively close to your target for the targeting to even work, so pulling the trigger to lock onto an attacking hobbe may instead reposition the camera, or worse yet, lock onto a nearby comrade, causing you to accidentally launch an arrow into a merchant's skull when you had a zombie in your sights. You can even lock onto your summoned helpers that way; I can't count the number of times I wanted to focus on a nymph and the camera centered on a summoned sword. The game's thoughtless manner of how it chooses targets is puzzling. Even more puzzling is how your arrows may go off in some random direction even when you've homed in on a target.
Melee combat, too, has its problems, most of which stem from Fable Anniversary's animation-first design philosophy, in which most attacks knock you back or down in some manner, wrenching control away from you in the heat of combat. This is typically only a minor nuisance, though some combat encounters seem designed to cause maximum frustration. You can find yourself in irritating loops of interrupting attacks in which you don't have the time to stand before you're summarily knocked on your derriere again. The combat arena--an inescapable gaming cliche in Fable--is the most embarrassing example of this flawed approach. Dealing with several trolls tossing boulders at you with no regard for timing is the most tiresome sequence in the game.
The saving grace that makes these foibles more irritating than rage inducing is Fable Anniversary's low level of difficulty. You usually have more than enough potions and resurrection vials on you to avoid game-ending death, and in fact, I only once saw a game-over screen in Fable Anniversary, when I had failed to finish a quest during its time limit. This is a game about atmosphere and attitude, not about overcoming grueling obstacles by mastering your tactics. It's also a game about discovery, more so than you might imagine for a game that confines you to such constricted passages. Inspecting various nooks reveals treasure chests, and if you don't mind the morbid business of digging up graves, you might find buried valuables. Talking demon doors scattered about the land have secrets locked behind them, but they require you to pay strict cover fees if you want to join their clubs. One forces you to raise your combat multiplier before it opens; another asks for a fancy gift. My favorite one encourages you to get fat. "Get some meat on you," it says. "I want beefy! Blubbery! Plump! Porcine! Stop being a slave to public perception, and treat yourself."
How could I refuse such an invitation? I gorged on delicious red meat until my hero was as Rubenesque as my own frame, and the door opened after it laid eyes on my jolly ol' self. These are the kinds of moments that make Fable Anniversary delightful. Its combat and world design have undoubtedly aged, but the game is so ripe with charisma, so upbeat that even its most somber moments don't suppress your soaring spirits for long. Fable isn't quite timeless, but its genial mood is infectious, and I'm happy that Fable Anniversary kept my fond memories intact.