Review: Fable: The Journey

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For all its spells, swordplay and shifting shades of moral consequence, the lasting legacy of Lionhead’s Fable 2 is that it made you care deeply about a virtual dog. So it’s somehow fitting that the crowning achievement of Fable: The Journey, the first franchise entry to implement Kinect controls, is to make you care deeply about an aging and faithful horse.

You’ll lovingly brush that horse—her name is Seren, by the way, and she’s been with you since childhood—with your hands. You’ll gingerly remove a poison arrow from her flank. You’ll freak on several occasions when her life seems in imminent peril, and you’ll do whatever it takes to save her.

Fable: The Journey scores its very own Kinect achievement for being the first game to force you to motion-control while sitting down instead of standing. Comfort factor aside, it tends to work a lot better if you’re doing this on a couch or ottoman rather than a chair with oversized armrests, but wherever you‘re flapping your arms, playing while seated certainly reduces the “remember to take a break” factor significantly.

Having experienced Albion’s history in any of the previous Fable games isn’t a prerequisite here, but it will give you some additional insight to the tales and legends you’ve heard before. Gabriel, our distracted and dreadlocked protagonist, is just the latest to be tabbed as this world’s savior. A dreamer who’d rather hang with his horse than become a warrior like his big brother, Gabriel finds adventure when he gets separated from his tribe and ends up rescuing the blind seer Theresa from an attack by The Corruption, the dark force that’s threatening to turn the countryside into a big, scorched soufflé and ruin everything The Enlightened created and hold dear.

Story and characterization are what drives this journey, not magic and motion control. Characters like Theresa, Fergus the woodsman and yes, Seren are drawn with depth and emotion, spinning their stories out slowly, drawing you closer to them with every conversation and reveal. Lionhead has used about every trick in its book of game-design spells to disguise the fact that this is really an on-rails adventure, and it’s to their credit that for most of the experience, it doesn’t feel that way.
The problem is the same one that seems to plague every single game on Microsoft’s motion-control platform, to the point where I’m tempted to begin nearly every Kinect-related review with the phrase, “The controls are inconsistent and wonky.”

In the early going, you’re fooled into believing it’s somehow going to be different this time. The game’s first hour finds you spending virtually all of your time clutching Seren’s reins, flicking your hands to spur a gallop or pulling one of your hands back, podracing-in-Kinect-Star-Wars-style, to execute a left or right turn. It all works beautifully, and really gets you into the vibe of the world, and of caring for/guiding your equine companion.

Then you reach the time-to-get-your magical-powers point, and sure enough, the moment that pair of magical gauntlets fuses to your hands, everything begins to sail straight into the ditch. Eventually, you’ll end up with five spells you can shoot out of those wonder gloves, and a couple of them function about as well as trying to mow your lawn with an electric chainsaw.

Of particular forehead-slapping frustration is the push spell, activated by raising and pushing out with your left hand. It works great for flicking enemies off ledges but horribly when it comes to locking onto and moving objects in the environment. Given that a fair chunk of the game’s puzzles require you to do just that, you can see how this can become a major problem. The game’s tougher enemies require you to orchestrate a combination of at least two of the five spells, often multiplying the chaos. Luckily, the lone exception to the “why isn’t this working?” vibe seems to be the counter spell, which triggers when you move your left arm across your body, rebounding projectiles and generally shielding you from harm. It’s almost as if the designers put it in there as a fail-safe, knowing that players would struggle mightily to wield and aim the push spell.

With any other game, this would be the point at which the “eject” button would be the next thing to get pushed, and the disc consigned to the fiery circle of Never to be Played Again. But here’s the thing: Fable: the Journey isn’t just an involving game, it’s a beautiful game. Like painting come to life beautiful. Those who cringed at the notion of spending more than five minutes guiding a horse-drawn wagon along a mountain path haven’t seen the vistas, forests and wildlife that accompany the activity. If battling the inconsistent controls raises your blood pressure, taking in the Albion countryside lowers it again. Even the monsters are picturesque—just don’t spend too long staring at them.

Ultimately, you’re faced with the decision of whether to endure frustrating controls for the benefit of enjoying a beautiful, well-told story packed with memorable characters. Here’s suggesting you suck it up and solider through.

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Pros:
+ Amazingly beautiful game environments
+ Deep characters—including your horse—with which to Kinect, er connect
+ Sitting while Kinecting? Genius!
+ When the spell system works, there’s a strong rush of accomplishment

Cons:
- Object-targeting is a mess
- The action’s almost entirely on rails

Game Info:
Platform: Xbox 360 Kinect
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Lionhead Studios
Release Date: 10/9/2012
Genre: Fantasy Action
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.