Fable: The Journey is another chance for Microsoft to prove Kinect’s worth to the hardcore. VG247′s Dave Cook plays the first three hours and explains why swapping morality for motion isn’t all that bad.
The Fable series is founded on the ideals of morality and freedom. It’s a neat hook that has posed some interesting possibilities over the years, but it never seemed to meet the lofty ambitions of one Peter Molyneux.
With Molyneux now out of the frame, developer Lionhead Studios has opted to step away from those ideals, and has distilled the adventure formula down to its essence. Where consequence and freedom were once Fable’s hook, characters and plot-driven linearity now take centre stage.
It was a smart move, because Fable: The Journey absolutely nails its narrative square on the head. This is all thanks to a fleshed out cast and a plot that flirts between danger, sadness and comedy, as well as the weight of responsibility thrust upon the shoulders of its unlikely hero.
Enter Gabriel, a young traveller who has one eye constantly fixated on adventure when he really should be watching the road. While riding to Bowerstone with his family, a mysterious storm separates Gabriel from the group, forcing him to take the long way through Albion’s darkest regions instead.
Gabriel and his trusty steed Seren then set off through the woods and it’s here that Kinect’s travelling controls are handed over to you in full. Navigation is all on rails, but the road constantly throws hazards at you that can be steered around by extending either arm.
You can also accelerate Seren between a slow walk, trot, or full-on gallop by making a reign-cracking motion with your hands, while pulling both hands into your chest makes Seren slow down a notch.
It works well almost all of the time, but there are moments where automatic steering kicks in and breaks your sense of control, or where steering simply fails to register. It can make grabbing experience pickups on the road irritating, especially when you miss some because you couldn’t turn Seren the right way fast enough.
This is the Destroyer. He’s not friendly.
It’s not long until Gabriel and Seren encounter Fable’s resident soothsayer Theresa. She’s being hunted by a dark entity called the Destroyer that fans of the third game will probably remember, and in the chase that follows, Seren is fatally wounded. With his horse’s life fading fast Theresa presents Gabriel with a tough tough decision.
He can either let his best friend and only mode of transport die, or he can save Seren’s life by putting on a pair magic gauntlets. The catch is that the gauntlets can’t be taken off, and charge the wearer with becoming a hero, destined to protect Albion with their life.
It’s here that Fable: The Journey’s combat tutorial begins, and it’s actually a really smart system once you get to grips with it. Your right arm casts Shock – a spell that deals projectile damage to enemies – and your left arm casts Push – a force spell that can be used to toss objects around the environment, hurl attackers and more.
You can cast either spell by pulling your hand back to your shoulder and then pushing it forward – similar to how you would throw darts at a dartboard. You can also counter attacks whenever the screen flashes red, simply by placing your left arm horizontally across your chest.
Combat plays out like an on-rails shooter, complete with exploding barrels that can be used to clear areas quickly, and the ability to physically lean left or right to strafe. Strafing works exceptionally well, although spells sometimes fail to hit their intended target, leading to further irritation.
Like horse riding before it, Kinect ‘s combat mechanics also stumble at points, but this half of the overall package definitely feels like the most accomplished. Before long you will be using Push to strip armoured enemies of their shields then following up with Shock blasts and counter blows. It’s fun to say the least.
But what really drives the experience on is the emphasis on plot and character development. For the first time you’re seeing Albion through the eyes of someone with a deep pastn and actual characteristics, rather than the blank avatars of old.
Plus the locales are charming as hell, kudos to the art team for sure.
Gabriel swears his life to Seren and is fixated on rejoining his family, while Theresa tries to convince him that the world is bigger than a pack of travellers and an equine companion. He’s the hero this dark and twisted rendition of Albion sorely needs, but he’s unwilling to step up to his responsibility.
These conflicting points of view make for interesting conversations while commanding Seren on the road, and they give rise to moments of frustration and confusion in Gabriel. It also helps that the dialogue is acted out superbly by the all-British cast.
One particular stand-out scene sees Gabriel and a farmer named Fergus defending a croft from Balverines. The action is thick and fast, while Fergus relays the story of how the creatures abducted and killed off his family and friends one by one, until only he and his wife remained. We won’t spoil what happened to his wife, but it’s a sad tale.
Even in the first three hours we played, there is evidence of a a frequently touching story that lifts back the lid on some of Fable’s greatest mysteries – none moreso than Theresa’s immortality and gift of foresight.
You can’t help but think that this narrative depth wouldn’t have been achieved to the same extent had you been playing a standard Fable game, littered with moral distractions and a shallow lead character.
But we’re aware that story alone doesn’t make for a solid gaming experience, so it will be interesting to see how the rest of the game’s plot, gameplay features and locales make up for Kinect’s command issues and frequent stubbornness.
We’ll find out the answers to those questiona and more when Fable: The Journey reaches the review phase. But for now, the game’s opening hours already had us wanting to know more about the plot, and to see where Gabriel’s journey will eventually lead him.