A Fabled Story Returns

Fable III is not simply about fighting your way to the throne; it’s also about the weight of power and responsibility once you get there. It appears to be a game of two halves, but the better, second half is over too quickly.

Too late you realise that it’s just the last quarter of the game. Don’t rush Fable III or you will lose out.

On entering Albion for the third time, everything seems to be terribly familiar (which isn’t always a bad thing). It’s the same old story – tyrant on the throne, oppressed masses, you must gather support to form an uprising and take over the kingdom.

This time, it’s your brother who’s the tyrant and you play a princess (or prince) who flees the palace with a trusty friend and a servant. They will stand by your side to help you stage a revolution and reclaim the throne.

Ye Olde Technology

The first thing that struck me about Fable III was the fact the graphics haven’t moved on since Fable II and it really shows. The lip-synching is atrocious, which is inexcusable in a year that gave us Mass Effect II and Red Dead Redemption. Walking through the world, your are greeted with cardboard cut out foliage, roughly hewn textures and nasty, misted landscapes to disguise scenery popup, which is not something I expect, to this degree, on a 360.

My first hour or so of gaming was a tad underwhelmed, as I reeled at the graphics, but the gameplay soon had me under its spell. It was good to be back among the crooked billets of Bowerstone, buying property on the wrong side of the river, in the hope that I would get a chance to do some riverside renovations once I was queen. Then there’s the chance to cavort with locals, winning them over with a whistle or disgusting them with belching and farting. So no change there then.

Just when I was beginning to feel cheated, the Lionhead team pulled some stuff out of the bag, which had me chuckling and remembering why I love the Fable series.

Some ingenious side quests keep you coming back for more. The most notable of which is a mission for three wizards, who turn out to be table top gamers. You shrink down and enter their game, while they GM the story and quibble about the details from on high, as only RP geeks can. A great poke at gamers and the source of RPGs. One mission requires you to dress up in a chicken suit and another sees you play a part in a play, where your fellow actors are ghosts. It’s these amusing asides that keep things fresh, witty and full of that Fable charm.

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

It’s fair to say, that the first half of the game is the usual, hack, slash, guffaw of Fables of yore. Most of Fable III involves building an army of allies to help you stage a rebellion. You must travel around Albion to meet various leaders and persuade them to support you by going on quests for them and wooing their citizens. Every time you engage with an NPC you can earn yourself a Guild Seal (otherwise known as XP). On being entertained by you, some NPCs will ask you to go on a quest for them, which could be finding a lost child, delivering a package or helping them get a divorce. On completion you earn more seals, which helps you progress.

Your Guild Seals are spent on The Road to Rule, a visual levelling up environment. Following in the footsteps of BioWare’s simplified RPG system, Lionhead has chosen to get rid of the progress bars and points distribution system most RPGs rely on. Instead we have a cobbled road with treasure chests lining each side.

The road is interspersed by large, iron gates, which need to be unlocked and basically represent different levels. Other than getting through the gates, there are no levels. But on opening a gate, you gain access to new chests, which contain weapons upgrades, new social abilities and magic spells. This is definitely the new, friendly face of RPGs; a road we are once again being lead down. This is no bad thing, but just a word of warning for the RPG hardcore.

Many of the chests along my road were left unopened, as I chose my particular character build, which was big hammer and a master level on a couple of key magic spells.

Promises, Promises

Along the way, you make promises to your allies, in exchange for their support. These range from restoring tribal lands, to protecting a region already ravaged by a dark power and banishing child labour when you come to power. Each promise is punctuated by a signed agreement, which you agree to by pressing A. This is then hung in the Sanctuary, a central gaming hub, where you can change clothes, weapons and game settings.

Once you get to the throne, these promises come back to haunt you. With the royal coffers running on empty, most of these pledges will cost your kingdom dear, at a time when it needs every penny you can get. And this is where Fable III gets interesting.

Halfway through the game, you gather all your allies and stage your attack on the palace. You are hailed as ruler, but all is not as it seemed. Without issuing any spoilers, your tyrant of a brother explains why he made the decisions he made and reveals that there is an even greater threat to your kingdom, which could change the choices you make for the rest of the game.

Heavy Weighs the Crown

What you think is the halfway point in Fable III, really isn’t. On getting to the throne relatively quickly, I was excited to think that the game was only just beginning. The big story reveal and shift in gameplay and pace had me thinking I was entering more of an RTS-style game. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

The kingdom’s treasury is in dire straights and it’s your job, in the second part of the game, to try to get some funds to help protect the kingdom. The dilemma is, keep your promises to your allies and be seen as a popular and just ruler today, or break your promises to collect more cash, making your citizens suffer now, only to save them in the long-term. And you only have one year before your realm wages its biggest battle.

Every day you meet with your treasury advisor who asks you whether you want to put taxes up on an already struggling populace, ban alcohol for the poor to improve productivity and approve child labour. Your decisions have real consequences in the world. People will sing your praises and cheer if you keep your promises, but jeer and complain if you make things harder for them.

As always with Fable, your moral dilemmas are very black and white. Build a school or turn the building into a brothel. Drain the lake and mine it for resources or make it a protected area. Sometimes, I wanted a bit of middle ground. However, I did chuckle when I had to choose whether to bail out the economy or let it collapse – it was a tough decision, but I followed Gordon Brown’s lead. Not that it helped my kingdom at all, as far as I could tell.

The major decisions are done in the throne room, where you hear about a project to renovate part of the kingdom, build a school, subsidise the library or protect some forest. Reaver, voiced by Stephen Fry is on hand to counter the project with some dastardly plan that could involve child labour, charging for knowledge or mining the land for everything its worth. Press A and you’re on the path to good, but press X and your karma takes a beating, but the stash of royal gold starts to stack up, ready to bolster your military might.

As it felt like there was so much to do, I romped through the second half of the game, expecting it to last much longer than it actually did. Before I knew it, I’d got to D-day with a budget deficit worthy of post-recession Ireland, then I’d killed the big baddie and the credits were rolling. Huh!?

I had decided to play the game on the side of the righteous, making all the pious decisions, but feel as if I kind of shot myself in the foot. After the credits roll, you’re thrown back in the world to carry out more side quests. However, my kingdom is pretty devoid of citizens, which could be because they all got killed, due to the lack of cash to fund my army in the final battle.

Be warned, once you decide not to raise taxes, there is no going back at a later date to reverse that decision, which seems crazy. The game leads you to believe that your time on the throne will play a major role, but it’s less than a quarter of the game.

Take your time in the second section of the game because it goes by very quickly indeed.

Despite a few niggles, Fable III never fails to entertain. As always, the use of British regional accents is welcome in an industry that feeds us Americana at every turn. The voice acting is superb with star turns from Stephen Fry (who steals the show), Simon Pegg, Jonathan Ross, John Cleese, Zoe Wannamaker and Oscar man himself, Ben Kingsley.

This is gaming with a capital F, for fun. Don’t expect the bosses to take three days to take down. The battles are never challenging, but it’s not about the grind, it’s about enjoying yourself every step of the way.

Kudos to Lionhead for changing things up for Fable III. I just wish that the Queen section of the game was longer, so that I could have tinkered with my decisions. I guess all that’s left for me to do is play it all again and see if I can make a better job of being ruler the second time around.

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