As I alluded to a few moments ago, the backbone of a good RPG is usually its story. If a player can't get into the lead character, has no emotional attachment to the supporting cast, and has no real hatred for the tale's villain, they'll generally abandon their game halfway through with no interest in picking it up again. That, or they're anal retentive goofs like myself who refuse to put a disc away until they've completely finished it, determined to stomp through the whole godawful storyline, complaining all the way. But I'm already losing my focus. The point is, in Fable, the story seems almost tertiary. There's no question the battle system was the primary focus in the development of this one, which is almost admirable, but there's also no questioning the fact that the story wasn't of any great concern whatsoever. While considerable focus went into the evolution of the lead character's physical appearance, the flash and flare of the game's different spells, the phrases spewed by the various towns' denizens and, yes, the undeniably-enjoyable battle system, I can safely say that the story itself fell flat.
Fable's main plot reads more like a book of cliched, overused storyline elements than the attention-grabbing, emotion-fluttering heavyweight it was so obviously meant to be. The nameless lead character is introduced to us as a young boy, enjoying the last few days of his innocence, when a surprise bandit raid results in the senseless slaughter of every living soul in his hometown. And, just as the bandits are about to finish the deed by wiping our young narrator from the face of the planet, he's saved at the last moment by a powerful warrior who takes the boy under his wing and trains him at his nationally-recognized "hero school." I'm sure you can imagine where the story leads from there... a neverending hunt for clues about the fate of his family, and a bloodthirsty search for revenge. Well... maybe "bloodthirsty" is a bit too strong of a word for this uncharismatic main character, since the limits of his emotional range seem to be mild annoyance and very slight pleasure. When I say this cat's lame, I mean it in the worst possible meaning of the word. Squall, the lead character from Final Fantasy VIII? He's cold, seemingly emotionless and... yeah... lame. At least, that's how he appears for the first couple hours of the game. But Squall's character went through a slow, rewarding transformation as that game progressed, emerging as a stronger person by the end of the game, despite his continuing insecurities. His story is slow-moving, but ultimately very interesting. Our lead character in Fable undergoes no such transformation. He's dull, boring and unlikeable through and through, so your eventual decision to sway him to the path of good or evil is lacking in any true ramifications. Regardless, he wants revenge, and he'll run into a few obstacles before meeting the villain, giving chase and ultimately fighting to the death. I really don't know where to begin, nor where to end when it comes to my complaints about this game's storyline. It's almost universally stale and predictable. There's no connection whatsoever between the main character and the main villain (which is, generally speaking, supposed to be the story's "home run" relationship) so their ultimate collision means next to nothing. Avoiding all the sidequests, the main plot itself is really quite short. Despite all the emphasis on your decisions throughout the game affecting its outcome, the one single decision that makes a difference doesn't arrive until after you've laid the finishing touches on the end boss. I could seriously go on forever... but I'll spare you. Rest assured, however, that if you come into this game looking for a storyline that'll knock your socks off, you'll be incredibly, incredibly disappointed. It's serviceable at best, so you're going to have to focus on the gameplay if you want a thrill.
In about as short a terms as I can define it, Fable plays like a mix between Onimusha, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Obviously, with the storyline's central focus being the main character's constant struggle between darkness and light, (and the way his everyday decisions affect that status) the comparisons to KOTOR almost write themselves. Your appearance slowly changes from everyday to angelic to demonic, depending on your decisions, and is gradual enough to keep the player from noticing straight away. Likewise, by increasing your attributes in the strength or magic departments, you either slowly grow in size and stature or whither away into a shrivelled, powerful magician. I didn't realize just how effective this technique was until I completed the game for the first time and then started a new quest. After growing accustomed to my fully-developed demonic warrior, this new character was almost unrecognizably small, unscarred and everyday. Everyone starts with the same mold, and the end results vary as wildly as night and day. The only thing I can really compare it to is looking back through the pages of an old photo album and realizing your parents, friends or pets really have physically changed through the years. You just don't notice because you see them every day. The use of magic is very similar to that employed in Knights as well, and actually borrows quite a few pages from its predecessor's spellbook. "Force push" is here, as is "force lightning" and the ability to slow down time, along with a few new tricks and attacks. Seeing as how well-received Knights was, it's little surprise Fable stuck to the basics in this regard. Using magic is simple, believable and effective.
As in Onimusha, you don't receive the experience from your battles until you've chased down the little glowing green bubble that bursts out of the bodies of your fallen opponents. Like Capcom's feudal zombie-basher, the EXP will fade away if you don't get to it in time, but you can give it a little tug in your direction by holding the "R" trigger. They never really explained this ability away in Fable as they had with Onimusha and its long line of sequels or Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, which had introduced the concept, and alongside an otherwise-realistic gameplay experience it kind of sticks out. Accumulated experience can be spent on different abilities, (such as additional strength, the capacity to take more damage, better aim with your bow and arrow, more spells to cast in the heat of a battle, extra speed, etc.) as though you were merely shopping for eggs and milk at the store. Once purchased, your new skills are immediately implemented in the warzone.
And, like all of Zelda's post-N64 titles, the actual hackin' and slashin' is both challenging and enjoyable. You'll occasionally have trouble trying to target a specific enemy in a horde, or maintaining a lock on your target while dodging arrows and blades, but that's acceptable and actually quite a ways more realistic than most of the competition. Plus, the battle system itself is loose enough to make correcting for these quirks a snap. You can choose between fighting close range with a blade, short or long range with a bow and arrow, or any distance with your magic, with each method offering unique pros and cons. I found these forms of attack to be pretty heavily weighted towards the bow and arrow, as they're incomparably more effective and powerful than a sword or any combination of magic, but a good fighter can learn to balance all three together in their ongoing quest to become a more effective killing machine. It's just kind of odd how simple it is to kill anyone and anything with a bow and arrow without taking a hit yourself. Seriously, with only one or two exceptions, every boss in the game can be obliterated by drawing your bow, targetting, then slowly circling and firing away. Actually, now that I think about it, it wasn't just bosses... most of the enemy AI was on the weak side, which in effect worked to further strengthen the bow's power. I can't tell you how many times I've shot a lone bandit with an arrow, knocking him to the ground, stayed on target while he calmly picked himself up, slowly drawn and loaded a second arrow, and watched him jog right in front of me and launch into a series of taunts rather than attacking me while I readied my shot. Naturally, you'll have less success with that method if you're totally surrounded, but the fact that it's a problem at all is cause for concern. I can understand the more notoriously stupid monsters having this problem... goblins, imps, orcs and ogres aren't really known for intelligence... but EVERY ENEMY IN THE GAME is this stupid. The humans, the animals, the sorcerers, your fellow trainees... only the end boss has the slightest hint of strategy to his attacks, and even he falls with relative ease to a combination of persistence and the "target and circle" technique.
Off the battlefield, gameplay is an absolute blast. The world isn't as extensive as seen in, say, Grand Theft Auto, but it's broad enough to lend the sense that you're stomping across a pretty good-sized nation and each of the dozen individual towns that cover the landscape has its own unique style and personality. A big part of the game lies in your interaction with villagers, shopkeepers and guards in and around the various communities, and often feels more like The Sims than Lord of the Rings as such. You'll form friendships and relationships, chat it up with the locals, play games in the taverns, earn respect by showing off your loot, study up on the game's back story by discovering and reading literature and potentially fall in love (even the main character's sexuality is up to you to decide). If you've powered up your character's stealth appropriately, exploring the various towns after dark takes on a whole new meaning, as you gain the ability to steal items from the stores' counters (but only if no one's looking) and pick locked doors (gaining some sort of perverse pleasure by standing over random villagers, looting their dresser drawers as they sleep). I took particular joy in yakking it up with the storekeepers themselves, slowly feeding them beer after beer until they're completely drunk, then leading them out on the street to stumble around for a bit while you pillage their store of every last valuable. Your character works with a really limited vocabulary, which is slowly spiced up a bit as your decisions start to lead you more toward the path of good or evil. If you're good, for instance, you can apologize for your actions or break out a jolly, room-brightening laugh. If you lean more toward the dark side, you can offend your peers with unprovoked obscenities or pelvic thrusts. You aren't quite as free to do anything imaginable as I'd anticipated, but the range of available actions still far exceeds any previous Action / RPG title. If you don't like the way somebody responds to your decision to run around town in nothing but your boots n' boxers, you're free to get them drunk, lead them to an isolated field on the outskirts of town and brutally slaughter them. If you're particularly well known as a kind soul, you can slaughter a villager right in front of a town guard, repeatedly shout "SORRY! SORRY! SORRY! SORRY!" and they'll let you off with a stern warning rather than the stiff fine and beating that usually accompanies such an act.
It's these towns between missions that really set the pace of the game and almost make up for the lack of a driving story overall. After a couple hours of fierce, teeth-grittin' battle out in the woods, it's nice to relax a bit, kick around some chickens, piss off some villagers or break a couple windows in a stranger's house while they're away. One of the game's big selling points is how your alignment toward good or evil affects the way townspeople look at you, and while that's amusing for the first couple of hours, it isn't enough to carry the whole package alone. There's a limit to the amount of times you can snicker at the flock of children fleeing for their lives when you enter the school before it quits being revolutionary and starts being redundant. Still, it's a nice touch to overhear the occasional admirer, speaking in hushed tones about your achievements, when you enter a town or bar. Nothing that's going to change your life, but a cool little addition.
As you make your way through the game, you retrieve your main quests from the "Hero School" I described above. Apparently, a big part of the school's (and your character's) funding comes from the completion of various tasks, missions and requests as proposed by the world's citizens in need. Your quests range from "help the merchant through the dark, scary woods" to "hunt down and decapitate the bandit mastermind," and are all over the board in terms of difficulty, length and reward. To help him keep in touch with you, the school's headmaster gives you a special shiny blue stone thingie that has two unique powers, one useful and one highly annoying. The stone allows your character to instantly teleport at any point in the game to one of a dozen special spots throughout the world, cutting down significantly on the random wandering that fills many other RPGs. Naturally, that's the good power. The bad? It allows the school's headmaster to speak with you whenever a thought pops into his head, whenever he thinks you're doing something the wrong way, whenever he gets lonely and wants to chit chat, etc. And he repeats himself. God, how he repeats himself. If your life is low, he'll shout "USE A POTION! USE A POTION!" until you drop your sword and do as he says. It's like Navi from The Ocarina of Time, only she can say more than "hey!" All things considered, though, if that's the only bad thing I can say about the battle system it should mean something. Gameplay really is a dream come true.
Considering the large amount of possible actions, the control scheme does its job remarkably well. Movement is, naturally, controlled by the left analog stick and is quick to respond, pressure-sensitive and all you'd expect. On both the bottom-left and bottom-right hand corners of the screen sit collections of four spheres, roughly matching the layouts of your D-Pad and the four primary buttons on the right side of the joystick. The left set of buttons are your customizable expression / item shortcuts, and the right set of buttons control your actions (or your magic, if you're in fightin' mode and holding both trigger buttons). Since there's obviously no way in hell for you to fit every single item and / or expression in the game into the allotted shortcut spots, pressing "up" on the D-Pad brings up a Microsoft Windows-esque pulldown menu that lists every item in your inventory in a small, scrollbar-equipped window that takes up a minimal amount of space while the game continues in the screen space behind it. Ditto for your magic and regular options; your magic is divided into sets of three, each assigned to either the "X", "B" or "A" buttons, and pressing "Y" cycles from one set to the next.
Of course, you aren't thrown into the game with all of those advanced controller options in place and ready to roll. The game does a great job of easing you into its control scheme, introducing new elements one at a time as they become necessary. After a couple of hours, when the action finally starts to build some steam, you're cutting loose on the enemy throngs with a firm grasp of your character's abilities and their correlation to the Xbox controller.
The graphics are tough to classify. On one hand, they don't even compare to the photorealism of some of their contemporaries, (Final Fantasy XI obliterates this game if you're looking for a complete digital representation of humanity, the world that surrounds it, their weapons and their dwellings) but on the other... they don't really aim to. There's a visual flair to the graphics of Fable, a distinct style that alludes to photorealism but retains the kind of personality, emotion and, for lack of a better word, humanity, that's missing from most games. While they don't look exactly like the kind of people you'd see walking down the dirt roads of the local renaissance festival, they've got just as much emotion in their expressions, reactions and personal flairs. Occasionally this style distracts from the heaviness that the story is aiming for, but it's refreshing to see somebody emphasizing substance over flash for a change. And for every time the style doesn't exactly work within the confines of the situation, there are half a dozen where it really triumphs and establishes a mood all on its lonesome. The enormous, fifteen-foot-high trolls, composed entirely of mud, rocks or grass, are especially impressive. There's one scene in particular I'm remembering where your character rounds a relatively obscure corner out in the wilderness, just as the skies begin to well up with rain, and one of these trolls pops up from out of nowhere. It's a thrilling quasi-cinema, even though nothing's really going on, because the sudden thunderstorm is so well timed and the troll itself is so nail-bitingly cool.
Finally, the audio is a home run. No questions asked, no doubt about it. The villagers have almost thousands of different expressions, reactions, quips, comments and responses to fit any situation. The headmaster of the hero school all but demands respectful obedience, even as a disembodied voice that follows you around and repeats itself too often. The lead villain, whose role in the story is criminally minimal, makes up for it with a passionate delivery of each and every line. The easily-identifiable British accent of every character in the game helps Fable stand apart from the pack, and solidifies its timeframe somewhere in the middle ages. The villagers even borrow a few lines from Monty Python's Search for the Holy Grail, and while that's one of the most wrongfully-quoted movies of all time, it's used sparingly and effectively here and feels more like a funny side joke than an annoying, forced homage. The musical score is minimal, and the occasionally-necessary transition from the "wandering alone in the forest" theme to the "ambushed by thieves" theme is quick, seamless and effortless. I'm not going to rush out to the stores and pick up the symphonic score, but the musical accompaniment provides a solid enough melody to keep me from muting the television and throwing in a CD. It isn't noticeably repetitive, it doesn't use anything that's out of place, it's just a solid, non-confrontational score. It does its job.
Basically, in Fable you've got a game that looks great, sounds great, plays like a dream, incorporates some unique new gameplay elements, features some outstanding voice acting, attempts to perfect on some tried-and-true existing mechanics, and simply lacks any sort of mentionable storyline. If you can live with making that one sacrifice to enjoy all the greatness that surrounds it, you'll really enjoy yourself with this. I don't know that I'd go the full fifty bucks for it, but once it's below thirty you won't find a better bargain. The big problem here wasn't necessarily in the game itself, but in all the hype and delays that cornered the title before it could even hit the market and the lack of focus on a clear, interesting story.
Overall Score: 8.3