Lionhead Studios is notorious for unfulfilled promises. Going as far back as their PC hit Black & White, Lionhead has become famous for dishing out the most tremendous hyperbole with regard to the quality of their next impending title. The Fable series is no exception, and as the third iteration of the beloved action RPG hits the shelves it becomes apparent that somebody, somewhere at Lionhead has stopped caring. With a fabulous story and top-shelf voice acting all in place, Fable III seemed poised to deliver all the Albion goodness fans were expecting.
So what went wrong?
After spending two to three hours with Fable III, one begins to realize that Lionhead seems to have forgotten that they were making an actual game. All of the aspects that can be considered gameplay or in-game mechanics are either overly simplified and repetitive or completely non-existent and replaced with some sort of grandiose attempt at root game redesign. For example, Fable III has no on-screen menus or equipment screens. Pressing the start button whisks the player away into an ethereal room, where your loyal butler awaits to help you choose weapons, clothing, game options or world map locations. At first this is excessively confusing and later it becomes just downright tedious. Having to walk into a specific room and engage in banter with an npc (voiced by John Cleese, so at least it's exceptional banter) to do something as mundane as change your melee weapon or check the progress of your current quest seems like changing gaming conventions for the sake of it, and not for the better. Every skill acquired, weapon earned or promise made is graphically represented somewhere in this room, and finding what you’re looking for often seems like a mini quest in and of itself. Even finding the damned options menu to save and exit took a while, and when one finally realizes that it’s in the form of a statue or relief built into a wall crevice within this room, feelings of contempt begin to build.
There are no on-screen indicators to speak of, no health bars or health potion stock indicators. The health to death indication is done Gears of War style, with the screen growing red at the corners when injured. There is also a random verbal warning that you are sustaining injuries. Certain items are available via the d-pad, but that functionality seems to come and go by some sort of internal game logic that decides when and where this menu will be useful to you. Let it not be said that streamlining and improving the way things are done in games is unwelcome, but when you replace time-tested conventions with confusion and frustration you may want to re-think the approach. The game still manages to maintain its pedigree of leaving decisions to the player in terms of character development and progression, but it largely ignores the fact that actions have consequences. Players can choose to follow a good or evil path, but the risk/reward/consequence aspect is almost non-existent. You can still obtain most of what you desire whether you decide to earn it, steal it, or kill its current owner... without worrying about the future ramifications.
Gamers are a resilient lot. Most issues can be overlooked if the gaming experience as a whole is enjoyable and fun. Fable III is neither. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of emotional connection to any of the characters, despite the fact you can sleep with and marry several of them. The player’s character has his trusty pooch next to him for the entire adventure, but there doesn’t seem to be any real interaction with the animal either. He barks and points you toward buried treasure now and again, when he isn’t busy getting stuck between some rocks or behind a fence. The over-simplified gameplay (hit, hit harder, dodge) is the stuff of an XBLA game, not of a full retail RPG title by an A-list developer. The repetitive sword swinging and button mashing just isn’t satisfying enough to make one want to devote any kind of time to the game, especially when there is a lot more to choose from out there.
So what went right?
Just like the previous titles, Albion is a lush, beautiful world full of sights to behold and adventures to be had. While it seems that this time around the developers have toned down the “deformed extremities” look the previous titles had, everything here still looks very “Fable” and very beautiful. The unique, Mad Magazine/Monty Python style humor the Fable series is known for is here in spades, and the character actors are top shelf all the way. The music is awe-inspiring, moody and the kind of quality to which awards are given. If this were an animated program for adults there would be no issues at all.
All of these aspects considered, Fable III is simply more of Fable II with dubious “improvements.” The gameplay throughout has taken a back seat to the titles aspirations, and since a good deal of those aspirations do not quite pan out an outright purchase cannot be recommended. Fans of the previous titles will want to give it a Saturday’s rental, however, if for no other reason than try to bed-down a peasant girl and possibly contract something nasty (no joke).