October 12, 2012
Fable: The Journey represents Lionhead at the very peak its powers. It’s a sumptuously produced game with a wonderful, affecting story bursting with characters you’ll come to love, set across a beautifully realised world. Very few studios are capable of crafting an experience so skillfully.
Yet despite all this, the game itself is really not very good. Let me explain. Fable: The Journey follows Gabriel, a Dweller whose tribe leads a nomadic existence traveling across Albion in horse-led caravans. Set many years after the events of Fable III, heroes and magic have passed into legend and peace reigns.
Gabriel is a dreamer, with fantasies of adventure and heroism. When he is separated from his tribe he embarks on a journey that sees him pairing up with the mysterious seer Theresa and battling against an emerging threat to Albion’s tranquility; a darkness called The Corruption.
To reunite with his tribe Gabriel must help Theresa back to the Tattered Spire to defeat the threat once and for all. It’s a Kinect game, one where your time is split between steering your horse and cart around the varied environment of Albion and chucking magic at the land’s numerous nasties.
And there’s the rub. When it comes to actual gameplay, when it comes to interactivity, Fable: The Journey is poor. Any review of a Kinect game invariably ends up being a review of Kinect. You simply cannot escape the fact that the motion sensing device’s limitations dominate your experience. And while tech improvements have been made and Fable: The Journey represents perhaps its best implementation yet, it remains weak. You can sit down while playing now, that’s a plus point. And although you have to sit very upright, it does spare your legs from extended, achey play sessions.
Yet the responsiveness and accuracy of the actual gameplay is annoyingly fuzzy. It’s not Lionhead’s fault. The studio could only play with the cards it was dealt. Indeed, it’s done a better job than you would expect, building the game around a limited number of interactions and obscuring Kinect’s weaknesses with some convincing smoke and mirrors.
Take the horse and cart sections. Attempt to steer around corners and the odds are you’ll zig-zag around in a desperate attempt to get the damn thing traveling straight. As your adventure progresses it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re learning how to steer more subtly and accurately, but the truth is that the game’s AI lends a helpful, guiding hand.
Magic casting is similarly wooly. In the moments where you're required to cast a single accurate spell, your actions are interpreted for you. All you have to do is push your hand out towards the screen. Meanwhile, when there are several enemies charging at you or hiding behind barrels, getting numerous spells off in the required direction is tricky, to say the least. Yet with just these limited tools Lionhead constantly mixes up the gameplay in subtle ways, meaning that you’re rarely doing anything long enough to get too bored or frustrated. There’s cart sections, various different spells to cast and manipulate, whizzy mine cart rides, boss fights and even some light puzzle solving. It’s brilliantly paced. But Lionhead’s real triumph isn’t in sidestepping and obscuring Kinect’s inadequacies, it’s in delivering a truly great story, with central relationships you’ll truly care about. As a game Fable: The Journey may be lacking, but as an experience it’s utterly beguiling.
It’s all about the characters. Freed from the choice-based nonlinearity of its RPG predecessors, Fable: The Journey is able to deliver a focused, authored storyline with properly defined, likable inhabitants. Undoubtedly pitched at a younger audience, it’s less bawdy and edgy than previous entries, but it remains completely charming. With Gabriel’s gradual acceptance of his role in Albion’s fate and his touchingly filial relationship with both the tribe leader and Theresa, Fable: The Journey draws you into its world. Even the bit-part players are wonderfully drawn. Yet it’s Gabriel’s relationship with his horse Seren that really pulls at your heart strings.
Not since Shadow of the Colossus' Agro has a video game steed won us over quite so completely. Seren may not display a huge amount of personality, but Gabriel’s love for her is clear and massively infectious. You’ll want to look after her and care for her. This depth of feeling gives the game’s occasional stopping points a little more emotional depth. Here you can pull arrows from her flank, heal her wounds and infections, brush her down and feed her. And while in different hands these sections may have been a little too saccharine and pointless, in Fable: The Journey you’ll take pride in getting Seren’s hide glowing in the afternoon sun.
You’ll also gain XP from some of these actions, to add to those you’ve racked up blasting baddies and collecting orbs on the road, but the pared-down RPG skill-tree and leveling system feels tacked on. Instead you’ll look after Seren because you care. It’s in this way that Fable: The Journey entertains, by telling the story of a reluctant hero, his extended family and his best friend, Seren.
You’ll be so engaged that you won’t really be bothered by the wonky, limited gameplay. In Arcade Mode, however, you won’t be able to avoid it. Throwing waves of enemies at you it concentrates purely on mechanics, with none of the warm, engaging narrative to distract you.
It’s really quite poor and unfortunately something you’ll have to endure if you intend to grab all 1000 Gamerscore. A big chunk of the Achievements are dedicated to it. Elsewhere however, it’s clear that the Achievement list has been created with care, providing a series of lovingly referential and entertaining challenges. Considering that the game is effectively on rails, it’s as good as it can be.
And that’s a decent description of Fable: The Journey itself. It’s the best that it can be, far outstripping both pre-release expectations and the limitations of the tech by which it is controlled. From the moment you first see Gabriel and Seren playing in a sun-dappled paddock, to the game’s thundering climax, you’ll be thoroughly entertained by the story and utterly uninspired by the gameplay. Based on this generation of technology, there will never, ever be a better core Kinect game.
A lovely, warm orchestral score riffs on Fable soundtracks of old. Combined with solid voice acting from a talented cast, it’s a real treat.
The distinctive Fable art style has never looked so good, with varied environments and brilliant use of motion-capture for the game’s characters, a first for the series.
It’s a Kinect game and as such is inaccurate and idiosyncratic. Lionhead does a fantastic job of distracting you, but when analysed in the cold light of day - the actual game is severely lacking.
A charming, engaging and touching storyline glosses over the inadequacies of the gameplay to deliver a truly entertaining experience. This is a classy production.
Annoying Arcade Mode achievements aside, this is a fun list littered with pop cultural references and a sense of playfulness. Very few will make you experience the game in different ways, but in a game this linear that’s hardly surprising.
How much you enjoy Fable: The Journey will largely depend on what you want from a game. If you’re after a great, lovingly told story, then you’re in for a treat. If you’re looking for exciting, responsive gameplay, then you may want to look elsewhere.