A Look Back at Fable

FableLostChapters.jpg With Fable II making its long-awaited debut on Xbox 360 next week, I decided to dust off my copy of Fable: The Lost Chapters over the weekend and look back at how the game has aged before seeing how it evolves (and hopefully improves) with the sequel. Years removed from all the hype, I must say that Fable really is a fantastic RPG. I enjoyed it back when it came out despite its unfulfilled promises, but now a few hours in on my return visit I’m appreciating it even more. There are still certain things I don’t like — mainly the lacking story and generally awkward mouse and keyboard controls — but the game has aged remarkably well in terms of audiovisual presentation, and the combat, despite a so-so targeting system, is fast, fluid and really just a lot of fun. Going back to the original has certainly made me even more excited to pick up Fable II, so if you have an old copy of the first game I’d recommend making a quick return visit yourself.

Over the weekend I also managed to dig up an old review I wrote for Fable: The Lost Chapters back at BonusStage. My views on the game really haven’t changed (can’t remember the score I gave it exactly, but I believe it was somewhere around an 8.5), so I’ve posted that in full on the jump if you’d like to give it a read.

Fable: The Lost Chapters Review:

Fable, 2004’s Xbox RPG hit from Lionhead Studios and developer mastermind Peter Molyneux, was a fantastic game that finally brought an epic RPG experience to Microsoft’s console. Like many of Molyneux’s games, however, the finished product, as impressive as it was, didn’t quite live up to the substantial hype the game had garnered throughout its development cycle, and many of the touted groundbreaking features that were promised to make Fable the best RPG ever weren’t exactly realized to their fullest. Beyond that, heavy criticism also befell Fable in regards to its disappointingly brisk length. To combat some of these negatives points, Lionhead went back to work on a pseudo-expansion pack, entitled Fable: The Lost Chapters, that would not only be released on the Xbox (as a Platinum Hits title no less) but on the PC platform as well to give a broader audience the chance to explore the breathtaking fantasy world of Albion. Introducing an expanded storyline and new quests, regions, side missions, monsters, spells, weapons, armor and expressions on top of the Xbox game’s original content, The Lost Chapters delivers a longer, more robust game while leaving the core gameplay intact.

In principle, The Lost Chapters is very much identical to the Xbox original. The original plot is all here, only with additional story material that leads to the discovery of new characters and the new Northern Wastes region. Like before, you play as a young, speechless boy whose home village of Oakvale is suddenly ransacked and burned by bandits one fateful day, and in the process his family is killed. Left all alone, the boy is met be a mysterious man named Maze who sees great potential in him, and thusly Maze takes the boy to the Guild of Heroes for training. Though there is somewhat of plot going on here, Fable forgoes focusing on an epic storyline and instead enlists you to take the young boy from his childhood days of scrounging around for money to buy his sister a birthday gift through his teenage years of apprentice training at the Guild of Heroes until he has passed the final test and graduated to a full-fledged hero.

After advancing to hero status, the once young and innocent boy is launched into adulthood where he is capable of undertaking difficult quests citizens in seek of aid from all across Albion have posted at the guild. As Molyneux has become known for doing in many of his games (the Black & White series most of all), Fable provides you with the option to play however you want to play. As a hero, the Guild has no care about the path you take upon graduating, which means you have complete reign to do as you please. If you want to become a noble champion questing in favor of the innocent citizens of Albion, you most certainly can. On the other hand, if you want to lurk in the shadows of evil vandalizing towns, stealing from homes, killing anyone who crosses your path or engaging in a host of other dastardly deeds, you can do so to your heart’s content. Heck, if you are torn about which way to go you can just as easily find a happy medium in between the two. The choice is all yours.

With every action you take, your hero’s alignment shifts down the corresponding path and earns renown among Albion’s people. Depending on how you play, word of your fulfilled deeds spreads and passersby perceive and react to you accordingly, whether they respect your accomplishments, gather and applaud your righteous ways, fear the path you have taken or loathe your very sight. And you can play these elements up by boasting your talents in front of crowds by saying you’ll complete a certain quest with only your fists or without any clothing or armor, or once a quest is completed you can flaunt your victories by showing off quest trophies, say the decapitated head of a powerful villain for example.

While all of this good and evil morality stuff sounds wonderful on paper, like the original game The Lost Chapters doesn’t fully deliver on the full potential of the system (and what Molyneux hyped during the game’s development). Sure, it’s great to be able to explore the world at your leisure and behave any way you wish, but other than having an effect on the way Albion’s population reacts to your character, none of your choices really alter the way the game unfolds to any great extent, and that’s disappointing. Honestly, the morality system only seems to have been put in place for purposes of shallow hilarity and overall meaningless fun, which takes away a bit from the overall epic experience the developers were shooting for. As you advance in the game you earn various character expressions to enact on NPCs that fall in line with how they view your hero. These expressions range from heroic poses all the way to farting, burping and wacky dances. Eventually you can even flirt it up with the ladies (or gents if you’d like, Fable doesn’t discriminate) and end up getting married, then get a divorce if so desired. Actions like these are interesting additions that often end in plenty of hearty chuckles, however since they don’t have any significant long-term effect on progressing through the game the revolutionary impact Fable could’ve provided just never comes to fruition.

One area where moral choices and gameplay actions do have an impressive effect is in the way your hero visually evolves as he ages in real time depending on the way you play the game, and appearance too affects how NPCs view your character. Evil heroes grow unattractive in appearance, potentially sprouting horns on their heads or garnering a nasty stench hovering over their bodies, while heroes on the path of light seem to amass an angelic glow about them. Additionally, heroes experienced in combat grow battle scars over time, and based on how you advance their skill traits their physical appearance will change accordingly. Optional physical customization is also available via various haircuts, beards and tattoos, and now with the game on the PC you can even customize your own tattoos and import them into the game. Wardrobe is key to a hero’s attractiveness as well, and in Fable there are tons and tons of weapons, items and armor pieces to deck out your champion, with each piece visually reflecting on the character model. Building a hero and watching him gradually evolve based on in-game actions is definitely satisfying and is easily one of the game’s main drawing forces.

Generally speaking, once past the morality factors the core of Fable: The Lost Chapters plays like any standard action-RPG. Starting at the Guild of Heroes, citizens post Quest Cards to choose from in the Map Room, with cards marked in gold relating to main story quests, silver for optional side quests and bronze for special quests taking place at key moments. After choosing a quest the time comes to track down the target destination and explore the vast world of Albion, which is incredibly easy thanks to a great map and travel system that makes getting around as painless as can be. Quests the game throws at you come in the usual assortment of rescue, escort, stealth and fetch-type missions, along with plenty of straightforward dungeon crawls and standard hunt-and-kill quests. Of course you can always ditch working on quests and simply venture around the environments and hunt down various critters and creatures for the heck of it.

Combat in Fable: The Lost Chapters is, again, typical action-RPG fodder with all of the rapid mouse clicking one can ask for. Attack types come in melee, range and magical spells, all of which are balanced enough to keep each useful throughout, and with a combat multiplier that builds up as damage is dealt, unblockable flourish attacks and other special attack maneuvers, Fable delivers a fluid combat system that is exceptionally satisfying. In taking the game from console to PC, Lionhead has done a decent job translating the control layout, however I could definitely tell that they had a tough time getting the controller-based handles mapped to the new keyboard and mouse setup. Overall the game’s style matches perfectly with the PC platform, but the provided control schematics aren’t as precise as I would’ve liked. Both WASD and Arrow control layouts are available, however the Arrow controls are a bit wacky for my preferences so I’d suggest sticking to the usual WASD format.

With that in mind, some of the game mechanics just don’t work as well as they should. For starters, the lock-on system (spacebar/Num 0) still needed some extra fine-tuning, as in crowded situations it constantly selects incorrect targets from the one you actually want. This becomes a significant problem when fighting alongside allies or near innocent civilians as mistakenly targeting and attacking them becomes commonplace. Casting spells causes the most discomfort though. To cast a spell you must first hold down Shift or Ctrl (depending on the chosen keyboard layout) then click on the left or right mouse buttons to cast the two currently mapped spells. This is pretty easy, however when you need to cycle through spells you must perform the above button presses while scrolling the mouse wheel. Having to do all that in the thick of a heated battle can be a bit much, and because of it I found myself not using magic all that much. A helpful selection of context-sensitive icons and hotbar menus do make things much easier, but overall there’s a formidable learning curve involved here if you’re used to playing more on the consoles.

Like any RPG, as creatures and enemies are killed experience points are accumulated (in the form of collectible orbs), however in this game the leveling-up system is far deeper than most. In Fable: TLC the hero grows and advances under the Hero Apprenticeship program by which three skill attributes are the focus: Strength, Skill and Will. As enemies are vanquished, experience points are earned towards these categories based on the killing method, along with a main General experience pool that is good for use in any category. Using melee weapons, for example, nets Strength experience while using a bow nets Skill experience and casting spells nets Will experience.

Once enough experience has been gained, you can travel to the Guild and take to the Experience Spending Platform in the main Map Room. On this platform (it’s more of a glowy portal-looking thing actually) you can take gained experience in each of the different skill types and pump it into building your hero as you see fit within certain parameters. Strength experience can be put towards building a hero’s physique, health and toughness to enable the use of heavier weapons, sustain more damage and become a better all-around melee fighter. Conversely, training under the Skill trait line grants better accuracy and precision with ranged weapons, as well as granting greater stealth capabilities, and spending points in the Will category bolsters your magical powers and unlocks new spells and special abilities, of which there are 18 in total (some of which are new to The Lost Chapters) including fireballs, lighting strikes, summon spells, physical shields, force pushes and so on. There’s a ton of depth to building a hero to your vision, and although it is best to balance out by building each attribute type it is never forced upon you. You can even customize weapons using the game’s augmentation system of inserting special jewels in capable weapons to enhance their powers with elemental effects and such. So again, deep character advancement is one of this game’s greatest strengths.

Another one of The Lost Chapters’ greatest strengths is its audio design – man is it unbelievable. Danny Elfman’s score is absolutely phenomenal and the sweeping orchestral soundtrack seamlessly adapts on the fly to the actions taking place, and as you move from environment to environment the theme changes accordingly. Background ambiance is also brilliant with the usual cornucopia of birds chirping, streams babbling peacefully, footsteps and creature crumbles echoing in caves and so on. And the intensity in battle is further heightened with impacting sword clangs, tactile blows and other impressive combat effects. Ambiance is also key in town locations as NPC chatter is constant — villagers always have something to say about your hero as he passes by, be it good or bad. The list of NPC comments runs out pretty early on, but it is still incredible to hear so much dialogue and ambiance going on around you, it brings the world to life. All of these comments, along with the majority of the game’s spoken dialogue, are backed by solid voice acting performances.

With the PC platform allowing for higher resolutions and sharper texture quality, The Lost Chapters looks even better this time around, and the original Xbox version was certainly no slouch. Character models and their facial expressions and animations are incredibly detailed and fluid, and with the evolution system in place, watching your hero grow and change with age and experience is a stunning visual trip. Best of all is the remarkable care and attention to detail that went into bringing the world of Albion to life. From bustling towns to dense and lushly vegetated forests to dank swamps and dark caves, Fable provides a game world that feels like a real place. Simply traveling around the world and taking in its rich detail, beautiful vistas, impressive architecture and spectacular lighting is a breathtaking experience. It comes as a disappointment though that the game world isn’t seamless like similar epic titles such as Morrowind. In Fable, the world of Albion is separated into small individual areas interconnected by brief load times. These loads aren’t but a few seconds, but I can only imagine how additionally engrossing the game would have been with a truly open world.

Other than adding to the game’s storyline and further fortifying its lasting appeal, Fable: The Lost Chapters is pretty much the same game as the original Xbox version, just with more content. New content included, you’re looking at roughly 10 hours and up on the first time through, which is still rather short, however with the many side activities and optional quests to indulge yourself with you can bank on upwards of 30 hours or more of play time. In the end, The Lost Chapters only really fixes what the original release lacked in terms of lasting appeal, but other than that the rest of the game was left untouched and unscathed, which is both good and bad in the long run. Even after a year, though, Fable holds up as a top-tier RPG experience that delivers a solid mix of satisfying combat, in-depth character development, fun (albeit shallow) morality choices, absolutely mind-blowing production values and a massive game world that is simply captivating. If you don’t own an Xbox or never got around to picking the original Fable up, do yourself a favor and go buy Fable: The Lost Chapters.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!