The Fable series is now one of the longer-standing modern action-RPG franchises, with the first in 2004 beginning life at Lionhead as Project Ego, a game which, at least in theory, was supposed to provide a world and population which reacted to the player’s every behaviour and action. Like Lionhead’s prior title Black & White, Fable ended up being a title, and later a franchise, full of half-fulfilled promises; while they are competent games with an undeniable and rather unique charm, the hyperbole associated with their pre-release hype has quickly become well-known in the gaming community. With Fable III now available both on Xbox 360 and PC, I’d like to take the time both to examine how Fable III manages as a game in its own right, if it lives up to the standards of its predecessors, and how well it has fared in its transition to the PC platform.
Like the previous games in the series, Fable III is an action-adventure title with role-playing elements integrated fairly loosely into the experience, and as a result, has good mix of exploration and combat. You won’t find any skill checks or extra non-combat abilities in Fable III, so the vast majority of character building goes towards improving fighting skill. Battle is simply unavoidable in Fable III, so don’t expect to be able to get through the game without dealing a significant amount of death, but it also isn't the focus of the game either. Exploration makes up much of the game, and is fairly rewarding, with lots of extra loot and collectables to find, some of it placed right on the beaten path, and other bits well-hidden, but often revealing new quests, secret areas, and so forth. Meanwhile, being Fable, there is an additional social simulation aspect to the game, which revolves around forming relationships with characters in the game world, and represents the biggest opportunity for freeform play in the game, and the "softer" side of role-playing. The balance between all of these is handled pretty well, and no one aspect of the game comes to the forefront as dominating all others – you’ll split your time pretty evenly between these facets of gameplay, and will rarely be bored as a result.
Game features and mechanics
Combat is of the hack-and-slash variety, with the player able to specialize in either Strength (melee), Skill (firearms) or Will (magic), which do exactly what they say on the tin. Leveling up is handled both by the acquisition of Guild Seals – effectively experience points – and through simply fighting enemies. Guild Seals are spent to upgrade the base abilities of the player, such as melee damage, but also allow for the purchase of extra abilities, like higher-level mini-games (used to make money), and additional magic spells; meanwhile, these abilities and even individual weapons can be leveled up and improved through repeated use, though this effect is a bit more subtle, and mainly serves as an additional reward for the player sticking with predominantly one type of approach to combat. Even though by the end of the game I was able to unlock all the abilities and max out my combat levels, I still found that my predisposition towards magic and guns resulted in melee combat being quite difficult for me, and I couldn’t enter the fray for more than a few seconds without being nearly knocked out. Stick to your strength, though, and few players will find themselves ever dying (or knocked out, as there is no death in Fable III) as long as they have a healing potion on-hand.
The major problem with combat in Fable III is that it’s significantly lacking in variety. There are only a handful of enemy types, and the ones that there are tend to fall into distinct categories: there’s the weak trash mobs, the stronger melee soldiers, the distant ranged support, and the magic user that exists to summon in reinforcements and generally make your life annoying. There is little to no difference when fighting different types of enemies beyond these “classes”, and whether it’s Shadows (ghosts/wraiths), bandits, Hobbes (goblins) or Hollow Men (zombies), you won’t have to change your tactics much, if at all. The only enemies who require something a little different are Balverines, fast-moving werewolves, and even these can be defeated relatively easily through dodging. Worse yet, many of the more distinctive enemies seen in the first Fable, like golems, are simply no more, meaning that not only does combat grow a bit tiresome by the end of the game, but it’s significantly behind the combat in previous Fable games to boot. The additions of Spell Weaving (combining two magic types together to form new spells) and a huge selection of Legendary weapons initially come across as promising, but can do little to make up for the sheer monotony brought on by fighting the same enemies over and over again, especially as one realises quickly the differences between them are rarely worth getting excited about - I used the same fireball + shock spell combo throughout the whole game and was never put in a situation that demanded I change it. Combine that with liberal regenerating health, and even on the PC-exclusive "challenging" mode I rarely felt my life was in danger. Combat in Fable III has the basics down, but the ease and repetition mean that it quickly becomes routine rather than thrilling, and the potential for a complexity is wasted.
The exploration side of the game fares far, far better than combat, at least. Although not quite a sandbox game, the environments available to explore are typically quite large and open-ended, and progression through the game is not entirely fixed – there are several optional areas and many, many side-quests which help to flesh out what is otherwise a relatively straightforward storyline. These quests can be found both by simply exploring the world and talking to characters, or by opening the map screen and choosing them from a list. Although this can feel like it cheapens the exploration side of the game a little bit, the extremely large number of chests, hidden digging spots (highlighted by your faithful dog companion), and other miscellaneous collectables, like Silver and Gold Keys, used to unlock special chests and doors, help to mitigate that feeling. There is a lot to do and see in Fable III, and while some is handed on a silver platter, much of it requires extensive exploring to find, and any fans of 90s-era platformers like Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie will feel right at home in finding every last treasure. Fortunately, much of this content is optional and unnecessary to enjoying the game, so you can freely skip by all those things if you wish.