Diminishing returns in Albion
The Fable series is one of the more curious products in modern gaming. Hyped to the nth degree when the first iteration came out, on the old XBox, Fable was, nonetheless, an enjoyable, slightly daft and entertaining RPG. It was irreverent towards genre tropes in such a way that you couldn't help laughing alongside the game's designers and while the mechanics were fairly simple they were still rewarding and kept you playing for many hours at a stretch.
Fable II, on the 360, was a game quite clearly in linear decent from the original, it had its quirky humour and a lot of the same sniping at what the designers saw as the preposterous concepts embedded in the genre. The fresh coat of paint of the new graphics engine was magnificent, it simply looked gorgeous. If you played it as a good guy the game was just lush with wonderful rich colours. If played it as a bad guy the foreboding and grim look of the reds and purples could cause a real shiver. Added to this were a few new features (the bread crumb trail and the dog) which worked superbly and helped give the game an accessibility and charm. However, we also saw several of the principal problems of the series become more than mere annoyances and start to dominate one's experience of the game overall. The first of these is the combat: in Fable II it was too easy, honestly it felt more difficult to lose a fight than to win it. Then there was the interactions with npc; you had a large number of choices with which you could charm, repel, entice, seduce, enrage or bewilder the folk of Albion. It was a clever system and, as with many other rpg mechanics, you started out with a limited number of these and through adventuring and exploring, repetition and experimentation you found that you could unlock many more. The trouble with this was that it never felt that you ever had much of an in game reason to do any this. You were left grinning, laughing, playing music or farting at pixel people simply because you could. It was a rather uncomfortable dynamic. Honestly why should we do any of these things? Yes the game sometimes introduced a quest in which you would need to act in such manners, but, all the same, it felt as if we were being led down the garden path into playing a Sim. The last and most troubling problem was in the story telling. Fable wasn't any great shakes as a story, but at least it was fairly clear and gave the player a good sense of motivation for their actions. In Fable II, for all that Lionhead studios tried to do that again, the pacing and the writing were poor and you often felt that plot points were shoehorned into a scene simply because, 'Now's the time I have to get it in there'. It left us with an unbalanced story which lurched along in an ungainly fashion from set piece to set piece, undermining the drama and in the end Fable II, for all its good work, was less than the sum on its parts.
Which brings us to Fable III. In the third of the series the game-play elements which had been underwhelming in the first and detrimental in the second were now full blown and were to ruin the work. Yes, the graphics were good, very good. Yes, the dog had returned though it felt less like a personality in this game and more a four legged tool. Yes the series irreverence was still here, in fact Fable III snarky, in your face dialogue and the performances from the likes of Stephen Fry et al saved this game from utter ruination. But even they can't entirely lift Fable III from the car wreck of entertainment to which it's designers and writers had consigned it. First off the difficulty level in this game is ludicrous, you can literally win the overwhelming majority of the fights in this game while reading a book, or watching tv. The sense you had in Fable II of playing an RPG/Sims crossover is here brought to such a pitch that RPG elements often feel as if they were being crushed under the weight of the ego scratching busy work with which the title is loaded. Really Lionhead, if you guys want to make a Sim, then fine make a Sim but loading your RPG title with endless life simulation game mechanics was ludicrous. It was never a clever or particularly workable conceit in the first place but by this point it had become virtually unendurable. Every time I used one of the various expressions I felt as if I were pandering to the ego of spoiled and not very bright child.
And then... there was the storytelling. The storytelling in Fable III has to be one of the worst examples of such in any AAA title in recent years. The, in bold letters and underlined, entrance of the protagonists big brother, who metaphorically screams from the roof tops, 'I AM EVIL!!!!' was painful. The puerile moral choices with which you are spoon fed, none of which have you in the slightest doubt as to which path is meant to be good and which evil. (As if there are no shades of grey, or more than one wrong or one right way to go) The cookie cutter characters. They're all awful. However none of this is as wretched as the out of left field plot point which springs up about two thirds of the way into the game and which derails virtually every element of the story which had been built to that point. This isn't just clumsy, or awkward, this is utter garbage and any writing school, novel, or comic-book editor would throw it out and tell the author s/he hasn't got a clue as to what they're doing. It's the sort of the error which would cripple better works than Fable III, but here, in a game which was already on its knees from the weight of its own deficiency, it simply pulls out a pistol and smugly fires a round into the back of its head. Fable III was murdered by its own parents and I can only hope that in the end that this was a mercy killing because this poor, deformed, bastard of a game has cause far too much suffering.