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Deja Review: Fable Anniversary

This is a Deja Review: A quick, unscored look at the new features and relative agelessness of a remade, revived or re-released game.

Ten years after hitting the original Xbox, Fable proves that, contrary to popular belief, Peter Molyneux is a man of his word. The eccentric former chief of Lionhead, prone to exclamations about the insane emotional experiences hiding in the games he makes, actually never delivered on dreams of simulating a hero's life in exhaustive detail. No acorns are planted at the beginning, and no mammoth trees sprout in their wake by the time its shaggy dog revenge story comes to a close.

All the basics Molyneux promised, however, made it in. In interview after interview during the development of Project Ego – Fable's early code name – he passionately described a role-playing game that would change depending on how it was played, a deeply personal reflection of your choices. Use a sword more than the bow, and your hero will gain better opportunities to build up strength and stamina. Cast lightning on the regular, your hero's flowing locks will turn shock white and arcane sigils will coat his body. Play the bandit, people will fear you; escort the weak through dangerous lands, citizens will cheer when you walk through town.

Fable Anniversary, Lionhead's admirably spit-shined remaster, has a surprise for those looking back at Project Ego. It's Albion, not the hero fated to save it from certain doom, that makes Fable worth playing today. How you play about its countryside, not how you build your character's stats, is what reflects and rewards the player.

Gallery: Fable Anniversary | 4 Photos

What's new this time around?
For Fable Anniversary, Lionhead took Fable: The Lost Chapters, the expanded 2005 version of the game, and remade its assets rather than just prettying up the original. Fable Anniversary looks lovely. Its elder version of Albion – now rendered by Unreal Engine 3 – is as beautiful as Fable 3, and it suffers only a few of that game's technical shortcomings. (This is still Fable, meaning nothing's perfect. Townspeople get stuck on objects permanently, scenes will fail to load. Think of them more as preserved authentic blemishes rather than glitches. Regardless, they don't ruin Fable's chief pleasures.) A redesigned interface brings updated menus and maps welcome in their fluid usability. The map in particular receives a dramatic facelift in conjunction with SmartGlass, which offers a far more detailed look than the on-screen mini-map. Topping off the trio of changes is a modified control scheme letting those familiar with Fable 2 and Fable 3 feel more at home.

Of the three, only the new control scheme is a dud, since the latter games' simplified controls can't accommodate Fable's more expansive magic selection. An array of three spells can be equipped at any time, with each one mapped to a face button under the original scheme. Under the new scheme, one button is used for magic use and another for cycling through the three spells, making quick use of two different spells back to back almost impossible in heated combat. That said, Lionhead wisely elected to include the original Fable control scheme as well, so it's there if you want it.

How does it hold up?
Everything else, thankfully, is just as it was. When the game begins, you meet your hero, a nameless boy who never quite grows into his vacant gawp of a face no matter how many tattoos and mustaches you throw on later. Fable remains instantly charming as it introduces you to the boy's small town life in a corner of Albion, a beautiful autumnal country full of hilarious eccentrics. The tutorial sequence teaches Albion's rigid morality – infidelity wrong/tattling okay, bullying bad/violence against bullies peachy keen – and sets up the hero's tragic past. This section drags thanks to antiquated pacing, but smartly establishes the rules. Here's how a hero of the Albion Heroes' Guild works. Here's how he interacts with people, goes on quests, improves his skills, and here's how the people will react and go about their business. Soon enough, you're kicking the crap out of stubby goblins outside a farm, seeking revenge for your family's murder, and learning about your true destiny as savior of the land.

As an epic quest, Fable still feels less than, and anyone reared on Skyrim will balk when picking up a controller. Lionhead puts an exhaustive number of options at your disposal, but they're meaningless in the hero's pursuit of Jack of Blades, a villainous, medieval cross between Darth Vader and the mascot of a Mardi Gras-themed restaurant. Going on quests, even just core story outings chosen at the big world map at the Guild, will net you a glut of experience points for the magic, agility, and strength categories – so many experience points that you'll never need to worry about tailoring your character toward a specific kind of combat. You will earn so much money that the rare equipment dotting the land will just clutter up inventory. And who cares that you can fart, flex, and preen through a million social expressions when fame comes so easily that all of Albion is ready to hop in the sack at the slightest invitation? By the time you actually fight Jack, it feels like swatting a fly. The material rewards of role-playing – escalating challenge, better loot, a sense of victory, etc. – are absent in the campaign.

Which is fine! The Joseph Campbellian hero's journey is far less interesting than just living in Albion. Just living, rather than adventuring, is where those myriad options for how to play really come into focus. In that way, Fable Anniversary is far more like Animal Crossing than it is Skyrim. Who needs a better sword or a bigger boss fight? Deciding to walk through snowy Hook Coast, clucking like a chicken at every person you meet while wearing nothing but the Union Jack on your nethers, is its own reward.

There are far more options for odd fun than there seem to be on the surface. Buying up property in each town, renting it out, and playing friendly landlord is an option. Getting married, settling down, then bringing your new bride to the local pub to heckle a bard is another. Get into bare knuckle boxing, become the mayor of Albion's capital; it's up to you. These are the sorts of activities and options Fable 2 and 3 expanded on – no having kids in Fable Anniversary – but the original did the best job of letting you discover these quirks on your own. No matter what drama, romance, or absurdity you create, though, Albion will keep being Albion, offering new opportunities to play with it even if the storyline doesn't change as a result of your actions. Doing, not winning or concluding the tale, is Fable's reward.

It even seems as though Lionhead knew all along that just being in Albion was more fun and interesting than trying to keep a madman from taking over the world. The Demon Doors are certainly a strong argument that's the case. Giant, talking faces of stone that only open under certain conditions, Demon Doors never contain anything as pleasurable as the act of opening them. Sure, some open if you improve your bow skills, but others give you vague requests that prompt eminently silly behavior. One particularly dastardly door demands to see something super evil before it will open. One solution: Buy twenty baby chicks and eat them all in front of him. The hammer you get as a reward is just an afterthought, since it's no better or worse than the weapons hocked by a passing trader. The real treat was figuring out how to open the door at all.

Unless charming, antiquated polygonal graphics are a must, Fable Anniversary is the best way to explore Molyneux's vision of role-playing. There are plenty of other, arguably superior options for those seeking a grand adventure. For those seeking a singular playground, a world that lets you do all manner of odd things, it remains a delight.
This review is based on a retail copy of Fable Anniversary, provided by Microsoft.

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