Developer: Lionhead Studios
Genre: Action RPG
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PC
ESRB Rating: M – Mature
One of the great things about video games is that, unlike in some other media (particularly movies), sequels are quite likely to be definitive improvements over their predecessors; developers learn from previous games what mechanics work and what need to be revised or polished, and the new game is better for it. There are exceptions, though, and unfortunately Fable III is just that. Many great things about Fable I and II have carried over to this game, but Lionhead tries to fix things that aren’t broken, and as a result the game feels like an unnecessary step back in the series.
In Fable III you play as the “Hero”, who is the son or daughter of the player character from Fable II. Your brother, Logan, is the new king, and has turned into a tyrant who bleeds the people of resources and violently puts down any resistance. Your mentor, Walter, leads you out of the castle grounds to your Father’s tomb. Upon acquiring your Father’s old Guild Seal, the blind seer Theresa (a recurring character in the series) who teleports you to the Road to Rule, a mystical, gated path that represents your quest to take the crown from your brother. Theresa then unlocks the heroic powers within you that have been passed down in your family for generations, and with your newfound abilities, you are ready to roam the land of Albion, winning over citizens and sparking a revolution. But supplanting Logan is only the first part of the story; once you take control as the new king or queen, you are tasked with ruling over Albion and preparing them to face an even greater evil that threatens the kingdom.
While the plot and characters here are probably the least memorable in the Fable franchise, they still serve well enough as a reason to explore the world and plow through the main missions. The story never takes itself too seriously, which is a good thing; Fable is known for its lighthearted tone and silly sense of humor, and this game is just as funny as its predecessors. Where Fable III’s humor really shines is in its plentiful side quests. The quirky villagers you encounter spout some very cleverly written dialogue, and the tasks you perform for them are often quite ridiculous (such as putting on costumes and performing a play for an audience of ghosts). Finding and completing these side quests kept me interested in the game when the main story wasn’t compelling.
Travel and exploration in Fable III work the same way as in Fable II: the Hero wanders on foot between towns, regions, and dungeons, and you can fast travel to any area in the game that you have already visited. There are plenty of hidden treasure chests, keys, and secret areas to find in each of these places, and this provides great incentive for you to explore every nook and cranny of the game world. Each town you visit will have various shops, quests, and minigames that bring in money. Most of the homes and shops in the game can be purchased, and you can manage all of your properties from the world map.
One of the signature changes in Fable III is the new pause menu, which actually isn’t a menu at all. Instead, when you hit the Start button your character is teleported to the Sanctuary, a safe haven that houses your armory, wardrobe, finances, trophies, and the world map from which you can fast travel to the places you have explored. Your butler Jasper (voiced by John Cleese) stays here throughout most of the game, and provides you with various tips and witty commentary. This radical change in the menu is certainly an interesting idea, but I don’t think it’s really that much of an improvement over a normal menu. Walking through the various rooms of the Sanctuary is more engaging than sifting through text, but it took a little time to get used to the new system, and hearing Jasper spout the same few lines over and over again throughout the game got annoying.
Character progression has also undergone some changes compared to previous games in the series. All character upgrades are locked in treasure chests on the Road to Rule, and can only be unlocked by spending Guild Seals, which are earned through killing enemies, completing quests, and interacting with villagers. This would not be a problem, except that in order to open all the chests you are going to have to interact with dozens, if not hundreds, of NPCs throughout the game, which quickly becomes a tedious chore. Even worse, the Expressions system that you use in these situations has been altered in Fable III, and not in a good way. Only a few expression prompts appear on the screen at a time, and some expressions are overwritten as you unlock new ones later in the game. This is a huge step back from previous Fables, in which all expressions you had unlocked were available at any time.
Combat in Fable III takes a few steps forward, and a few steps back, from previous Fable games. Melee attacks and gunplay are more fluid and satisfying than any other game in the series, and each weapon has unique upgrades that can be unlocked, many of which require you to play the game in different ways. There are plenty of weapons to purchase or find in the game, so you are bound to find several that fit your playstyle.
Magic attacks, on the other hand, have undergone a substantial overhaul, and the result is disappointing. Each spell is assigned to a gauntlet that the player must equip, but there are only six different gauntlets to choose from, and only two can be used at a time (though they can be switched out at any time in the Sanctuary). Some of the more interesting spells from previous games are either missing entirely from the game or have been turned into potions. Compared to previous Fable games in which spells were more numerous and could be accessed more quickly, Fable III’s magic system feels very limiting.
While the gameplay is a mixed bag, the artwork and the soundtrack are fantastic. The world of Albion is as colorful and vibrant as ever, from cobblestone-paved Bowerstone, to the snowy cliffs of Mistpeak, to the untamed swamps of Mourningwood, and beyond. These beautiful and varied landscapes are a delight to explore and remind me of why I fell in love with the Fable series in the first place. Villagers are dressed in all manner of silly looking garb to complement their quirky, silly mannerisms. Meanwhile, the playful orchestral score evokes a sense of wonder and curiosity as you wander through Albion’s many regions, contributing to the lighthearted tone of the game. The overall atmosphere produced by the visuals and the music is one of Fable III’s highlights, and helps paper over some of the flaws found elsewhere in the game.
At the end of the day, Fable III is a good game: its great humor, gorgeous landscapes, and solid melee combat have been enough to keep me coming back to the game over the years for multiple playthroughs. But attempts to streamline some of the game’s other mechanics takes away too much freedom from the player, and creates frustrating chores that mar the overall experience. What stings the most, though, is that previous Fable games didn’t make these mistakes. There was no need to re-invent the wheel; if Lionhead had kept what had worked in the past, this good game could have been a great one.