Some time from now, after Fable 3 has been released, played, praised, and dismissed, Lionhead will probably end up apologizing for its imperfections. Because that’s what happens with Fable games. Despite the franchises’ many strengths – or perhaps because of anticipation those strengths create – its weaknesses seem to amplify in players’ minds, swirling into a maelstrom of disappointment and frustration that the development team itself ends up echoing. All of that is coming, I’m sure, but before it happens, I’d like us all to take a moment and thank Lionhead for getting rid of the damn menus.
Not exactly the first feature you’d normally think of tweaking in a game that has issues with its combat, economics, and morality, granted. But until you sample Fable 3‘s ingenious new interface, you don’t realize how aggravating and ham-fisted the system from the old games was. It suddenly dawns on you that part of your dissatisfaction with the experience stemmed from how the game constantly kept you at arm’s length, actively doing its best to prevent you from feeling any kind of connection to your character, her gear, or the quests she was completing. Because the menus in Fable, be they for checking your quests, dying your hair, or sorting your weapons, weren’t that different from any other RPG you’ve ever played. They weren’t particularly inspiring, but they worked and were navigable and we carried on with the rescuing of Albion, not fully realizing just how shitty they really were. Five minutes after you start playing Fable 3, you’ll wonder how you ever suffered through anything so archaic as a menu-based inventory.
For those who need a brief refresher on the next chapter in the Fable saga, here’s the shorthand: You, as the son or daughter of the hero from the previous Fables, are one of a pair of royal siblings. As the prince or princess, you one day realize that your brother, Logan, is a homicidal tool and the world would be a far better place if his ass wasn’t occupying the throne. The setup for your departure from the castle isn’t exactly subtle – Logan does everything but twirl his moustache to remind you that he is Evil, capital E – but your quest to raise an army to overthrow him is an engaging departure from the lone adventurer formula of the first two Fables. It also provides a handy excuse for all the heroics you’re about to commit – after all, what better way to gain followers than to inspire the populace with acts of selfless bravery?
The gameplay doesn’t veer terribly far from the template laid down by the first two games. Once again, you’ll use magic, melee, and ranged attacks in whatever combination you fancy to complete the many quests you’ll face on the path to your rightful place as ruler. Buy real estate, get married, visit shops, make friends with townsfolk, train your dog – this is well-worn, well-crafted territory for Fable. This time, though, it’s been streamlined and refined to keep you involved in the actual game as much as possible.
It all starts with the Hero’s Sanctuary, a 3D representation of all the information you used to access from the pause menu. The Sanctuary is a suite of rooms, each with a different purpose – head down one hallway to browse through all of the weapons in your armory, or enter another hallway to peruse the trophies you’ve mounted on the walls. This shelf holds the gifts you’ve received from affectionate townsfolk, that room contains the clothes, hairdos, tattoos, and dyes you’ve collected so far. Check one wall for your stats, or another for your achievements. Paging through written descriptions of all your swords is a perfectly adequate way to choose one, but it’s not nearly as intuitive or enjoyable as gazing longingly at the swords themselves.
At the center of the Sancturary lies your map, yet another clever way to communicate dozens of bits of information without forcing you to flip through menus. Looking down on the map, you can see all of the locations you’ve visited, and, more importantly, just by glancing at them you can determine how many quests are left to complete, how many keys you’ve found, if any sales are going on, or where you need to head to continue the story. You can fast travel to any location on your map, select quests, even zoom in and see townspeople walking around, if you’re feeling particularly voyeuristic. It’s nothing you couldn’t do simply by navigating the proper menus in the last game, but because it communicates so much visually, the absorption of information feels effortless and swift.
As ingenious as your Sanctuary is, in true Fable fashion, it has a few quirks that prevent its perfection. When switching costumes, one item of clothing will swap out for one in the same spot, but if the new outfit doesn’t have a replacement, the original piece stays put, forcing you to run from the mannequins with your clothes over to the “undressing” area to take it off. (Unless you really want to wear the head from the chicken costume with your royal gown. It’s certainly a bold look.) It’s a bothersome bump in an otherwise smooth interface, but John Cleese’s Jasper, the omnipresent butler of the Sanctuary, should be able to put a smile back on your face. When you’re done mucking about in the Sanctuary, you can zap right back into the game exactly where you left off.
Shopping gets a similar menu overhaul. When you’re ready to dicker with the merchant at the pawn shop, you simply lay your wares out on the table and move from item to item to consider his offer. Stores in the market use a similar system, displaying their goods prominently and clearly. You don’t have to remember which stall sells the meat, you just have to look for the big shank of mutton. It can feel a bit limiting at first, but it helps maintain the illusion that you really are an adventurer wandering through the town, as opposed to someone on the other side of a controller.
An offshoot of the streamlined menus is Fable 3‘s simplified experience system. In Fable, experience came in several different varieties, based on the three styles of combat, and abilities could only be upgraded with their particular flavor of experience or the less common generic kind. This led to players frequently having abilities they never used or experience they couldn’t spend. Fable 2 attempted to alleviate the problem by allowing players to regain experience points they had spent in exchange for a small penalty, but the end result was the same – character development that was often unsatisfying. Fable 3 gives up on the different kinds of experience completely, dumping everything into a single catch-all of Guild Seals. Everything you do – killing enemies, finishing quests, gaining followers – ramps up your meter and works towards your stockpile of Seals. At a certain point in the game, you’ll be introduced to the Road to Rule – a metaphorical path that symbolizes your journey to take the throne. A series of gates chops the Road into sections, and each section hosts a different selection of chests. Chests contain upgrades like more damage from weapons or the ability to blend spells, but you’ll have to pay the cost in Seals before you can open them. Each gate carries a Seal cost, too, but stays open once you’ve unlocked it, leaving the way open to return to older chests should you want to.
In an interesting twist, you’ll have to unlock some chests to regain skills you had from the beginning of Fable 2, like the ability to buy houses or stores. You’ll also find chests with various colors of dye, new expressions, and even the ability to raise a family. The cost for these chests is typically quite low, but it’s a nice concession to customizability – if you couldn’t care less about coloring your hair or buying a shop, you can leave those chests locked for good.
I only got to spend a few hours with Fable 3, and so was forced to leave much of the game’s attributes untouched. I didn’t get to sample the new take on co-op (but, seriously, it’s not like it could be worse than Fable 2‘s), or try the improved home decorating, or cast any blended spells. Like its predecessors, Fable 3 has a lot going for it, but it has some vexing anomalies, too. I expect to sigh, and shake my head, and look at Fable 3 the way a teacher looks at a brilliant student that could really shine if he tried just a little bit harder. But all of that can wait. For now, I’m just going to appreciate that Fable 3 solved a problem I never even knew I had.
Susan Arendt is curious to know the genesis of Fable 3‘s obsession with chickens.