Fable: The Journey review: On the road again

If you're a fan of the long-running Fable series, you're probably wondering how designer Peter Molyneux's swan song for the franchise turned out. The good news is that Fable: The Journey finally fulfills some of Molyneux's infamous promises. The bad news is that few of them are the promises he made for Fable: The Journey.

The Journey puts the player in the fur-lined boots of Gabriel, a young and adventurous Dweller, Albion's version of a gypsy traveler, who sits behind the reins of his beloved and loyal horse, Seren. Gabriel is anxious for a life of more than driving a cart through a caravan, hoping to find a life of adventure and heroism, presumably the same way the player is supposed to feel. Using the Kinect, players control Gabriel as he drives Seren on the roads of Albion. Before long, Gabriel is separated from his clan and comes across Theresa, the blind seer who has been a Fable mainstay since the beginning. Theresa tells Gabriel of his destiny and the magic he will wield.%Gallery-167908%

Somewhat surprisingly, both guiding Seren and casting spells are enjoyable. Flinging fireballs and magic bolts at enemies, the core of the gameplay, is surprisingly accurate and intuitive. After unlocking a few spells, I started to perform the motions to cast them without even thinking, and became so comfortable doing so that I knew precisely when to activate each spell without the need for on-screen hints. Unfortunately, as entertaining as casting spells may be, blasting away at enemies rarely provided much of a thrill, and after a good ten hours or so of gameplay it became more of a chore than a challenge.

Driving the horse and carriage was a uniquely enjoyable experience. Making the motion of cracking the reins and steering with them via the Kinect was so accurate and simple that it felt like second nature almost immediately after I started. You might have some difficulty navigating tight turns or weaving between obstacles, but those occasions are rare and the resulting punishment is so small as to hardly matter.

Like every Fable game, many of the best parts are the setting and atmosphere. On a technical level, the graphics are surprisingly powerful and used to great effect thanks to fantastic art direction. Characters are designed in a style reminiscent of old woodcut puppets, similar to the aesthetic of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, while landscapes look like the paintings in a children's storybook come to life. On numerous occasions I would intentionally die and reload a checkpoint, just so I could take a minute and enjoy the impressive views.

On a more human level, this entry of the series is as charming and heartfelt as the others. You'll come across few characters in the course of your adventure, but the ones you do meet are endearing and charming – and backed by some fantastic voice acting and direction. My favorite was Fergus, the kindhearted and jolly woodsman who privately seeks redemption. Fable's characteristic humor and charm return as well, this time mercifully free of the grating fart jokes. One particularly good bit included two spirits who eternally guard a temple and bicker like an old married couple. The Journey's story, while not particularly world-changing or groundbreaking, provides a compelling enough reason to move forward, and also provides some interesting revelations about Theresa and her motivations and actions in Fable 2.

Where The Journey really excels is in fulfilling the promises Peter Molyneux is famous for making, only they happen to be the promises he made for the first three games of the series. Remember the dog from Fable 2, the lovable companion that would be the culmination of emotion in video games? Well, for me at least, that didn't really pan out. I didn't find the dog to be anything more than a neat way to find treasure. Gabriel's horse, Seren, on the other hand, comes much closer to realizing the goal of emotional connection.

That is due in no small part to some creative uses of Kinect, a feature that seems like what the "Touch" system in Fable 3 was really supposed to be. At rest stops you can use the motion sensor to brush the mud off Seren, pluck an apple from a tree and feed her, or fill a trough with water for her to drink. My favorite activity, though, was holding up my hands to speak soothing words and calm Seren when she was frightened. It sounds silly, but truly goes a long way in connecting you to The Journey and its world.

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I should note, however, that aside from deciding whether to go left or right, chase some experience orbs, or stopping for an optional battle, there are none of the trademark choices that are so closely associated with the Fable series. There's no chance to make Gabriel good or bad, no decision to turn in a quest to the evil or righteous character – you just follow the path the game gives you. The combat has a similarly linear bent. Previous Fable games allowed you to customize your character's combat style, whether you focused on archery and daggers, greatswords and hammers, or powerful magic. There's none of that in The Journey, just a few upgrade options that won't make your play style noticeably different from anyone else's. With only five spells, it's easy for the combat to become dull and repetitive.

Though it struggles with this repetitiveness at times, The Journey's wonderful vistas, heartwarming character and inventive use of the Kinect offer an experience that is blissfully pleasant, even soothing. Aside from the inclusion of Theresa, the familiar enemies, and the humor, however, there's not a whole lot of Fable in this Fable game. If you're a fan of the series for the customization and choices, The Journey is likely to disappoint. Then again, Fable's been around now for almost ten years, so it's possible some of the players who fell in love with little Sparrow might have a few little sparrows of their own now, and The Journey provides an opportunity to introduce family members to the series in a nice, peaceful way. For everyone else, The Journey offers a tantalizing glimpse into what Fable 3 might have been, and what the series might look like in the future.

This review is based on a retail copy of version of Fable: The Journey, provided by Microsoft.

Ryan Franklin is a writer in Central New York, who has also written for Sidequesting and the OCC Overview. Ryan maintains an impressive action figure collection, and loves video games almost as much as he loves his mom. Follow him on Twitter @TheDarkWayne

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