Fable II: The Storification
Clearly, Fable II has to tell a story. Unfortunately, the designers are so intent on telling this story that everything else becomes secondary.
Fable II is the first game I finished after my vow to actually finish games I started playing. I thought it would be a good idea to write reviews of those games as well, as a way to analyse its strengths and weaknesses, as well as strengthening my own analytical eye.
Fable II is one of the games my brother left me when he gave me his Xbox 360. Since most games by Peter Molyneux are highly praised, I decided to give it a go. And indeed, the first impressions are marvellous. The world is lush and richly coloured. The game features a day-and-night cycle, resulting in breathtaking sunsets and sunrises. You clearly get the impression of a world of wonders, made for you to explore. This first impression is not entirely wrong; in fact, it is wise to keep remembering that later on.
The second thing you notice is the fact that Fable II is not just another adventure. Peter Molyneux' heritage shines through: it is also a simulation. A simulation of many things: of reputation and fame, of love and hate, of personal health. Whatever you do in public, with other characters watching, has consequences on your reputation. You can make other characters fall in love with you. This, too, is something to explore – after all, the actual mechanics are never revealed. You get some sparse feedback that something is happening – but not necessarily what consequences it has.1
Sold as an Action RPG, one might wonder where the RPG elements come in. As a matter of fact, this is exactly where the problems start. You might be able to create your own hero. But in the end, Lionhead Studios wants to tell you the story they created for you – no matter what kind of game you want to play. The main quest line leaves little wiggle room, so little, in fact, that it sometimes feels more like a film that occasionally needs some nudging on to continue. Not exactly a rewarding experience, especially if you are used to RPGs like Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights or World of Warcraft. The side quests (of which, thankfully, there are a lot) are clearly more interesting, even though some of them keep on being repetitive after a short time (you can go free slaves at least a dozen of times, and there is no variation in the plot, nothing that would break the repetition).
The importance of the main plot has also consequences on the rest of the game, especially the core RPG mechanics. In order to make the game accessible (a.k.a. letting everyone enjoy the glorious main plot (which, frankly, follows the exactly same pattern of Big Evil Thing kills John or Jane Doe's family, making them overcome themselves and in the end taking revenge on Big Evil Thing, something we have seen in countless iterations before)), the game is dumbed down considerably in certain parts, in sharp contrast to the aforementioned complex systems that drive other parts of the game. Instead of going with ramification, Fable II suffers from storification: the story gets into the way of the game.
There is no class to choose from, instead you are able to choose from melee, magic as well as abilities for ranged weapons. Just like in Dungeon Siege, whatever you use most, you get the most experience points for, enabling you to get even better in that skill. This works fine, as long as you don't want to use ranged weapons, which are unfortunately completely useless. Either you are in some dungeon, where visibility is limited, or you get into one of (many, many) chance encounters in the game where the enemies are right on top of you all of a sudden. Either way, you are better off with magic or melee weapons.
Consumables are implemented in a half-assed way as well. Basically, there are only two different types of consumables: Ones that return hitpoints and others that get you experience points. Buffs? Forget it. You are not able to get buffed in Fable II, all the tactical preparing that is a large part of the RPG experience in WoW, Neverwinter Nights or any other RPG has been stripped away. The potions that seem to suggest that they are buffs (i.e. "Hobbe Strength Potion") are in fact just a way to exchange money for experience points.
Even dying is of surprisingly little consequence. You fall to the floor, and some seconds later, you get up again, with full health, ready to fight again. The only penalty are (somewhat) permanent scars – which are forgettable as long as you are playing on a non-HD TV set. Obviously, this led me to play without any potions on me for some time – after all, I would get a free HP refill whenever I failed.
So, given the fact that Fable II is not that great in the RPG department, how does it fare when it comes to the much hyped moral system? Well, the system might be in place, but how many players actually choose to go the evil route? Not many, I am quite convinced, and it is not because gamers are notorious do-gooders. The game actually punishes you whenever you want to be evil. You get less bonuses, less rebates when you are evil. You are depicted as being ugly. The game intends to give you a choice between good and evil – but clearly steers you to the good side by design. The moral judgement the game passes on the player is clear. It is not unlikely that this is also caused by the games fixation on the main plot. After all, the hero has to be good in order to be a contrast to the Big Evil Thing, right?
I am not convinced. I would have preferred a more grown-up scenario, more shades of grey. As it stands, I do not hate the game. I does have great world (that, unfortunately, gets bogged down with long loading times between each area – so, yes, I have been spoiled by World of Warcraft) that can be explored. This is beautiful, so much that even after finishing the main quest line, you can return and keep playing. This is where Fable II shines: in the details, the little stuff crammed in along the sidelines. It has the heart in the right place, it seems – but sometimes, this is just not enough. I would love to see these details in the main quest as well.
As a game designer myself I am perfectly aware of the problems here. There is always a fine line between hiding the inner workings of your system from the player, making them explore it (but likely not fully grasping it) and giving complete feedback, which easily leads to gaming the system. Also, personal preferences might play a part here as well: some might want to keep the magic alive, other players play a game on the level of its mechanics. ↩