An entry that attempts to make many radical changes to the franchise’s direction, Fable III more often than not disappoints rather than achieves whatever goals the developers had in mind. In an effort to make the experience more streamlined and faster, its creators took out almost everything that made the original games fun, instead making a game that feels clunky and underdeveloped. Fable III is maddeningly inconsistent game that will frustrate both fans and newcomers.
Set during Albion’s industrial age, players assume the role of a prince or princess during dark times. The player’s brother, King Logan, is ruling tyrannically and discontent is growing. When his top advisor and kin question his iron fist, it becomes apparent that the King must be deposed. Fleeing the castle, Albion’s newest hero-in-training must spark a revolution and lead the people toward better (or maybe worse) days.
In previous Fable installments, the main character has set out on a quest for revenge to right a personal wrong. This sets the character down a path where they can comfortably mold the character in the manner they see fit. A person can seek revenge against one person and be the most saintly person in the world to everyone else. They can also be a complete dick and take out their anger on everyone. Both choices can be accommodated within the narrative. By attempting to tell this style of story, Fable III creates an active contradiction that’s tough to ignore. Though you can be an asshole and murder everyone you see, the plot actively encourages you to be better than King Logan. It’s hard to kill and maim the people when you’re trying to earn their favor. You can convince them into following you through fear and hatred, but it doesn’t fit the same way. The dark hero doesn’t have solid ground to stand on in this tale of Albion.
This departure from player choice also extends further. Previous games in the series gave the player the choice of spending their experience points in particular ways, often leading to difficult choices that created a tailor-made character. You could be a warlock sharp-shooter or a warrior relying solely on speed and strength. That level of customization is sorely missed in Fable III. Instead of creating a character tailored around your own play style, you will create the same character that everyone else playing the game will thanks to a heavily bastardized character progression system known as the “Road to Rule.” As players progress through the game, earned experience is used to unlock chests along the Road to Rule.
These chests contain a variety of skills, including the ability to buy and sell property, social expressions, and also fighting abilities in three categories: melee, ranged and magic. Though these are the same three categories from the previous games, they offer no further depth. Once a chest is unlocked, you’ve achieved a new level in that area. You’re not necessarily faster; you don’t necessarily have more health. You’ll never really be sure what you’re getting at all. You’re just opening up a chest because it’s there and there’s nothing else to buy with the piles of experience that you’ll easily earn. On what I feel was a standard playthrough, I was able to open up 45 of the 48 chests on the Road to Rule without going too far out of my way. Instead of creating a character that was truly my own, I created basically a template character in a series that gloats about the freedom it allegedly offers players.
Experience points, also known as “guild seals,” are earned through combat (which nets you practically none; if you kill 30 enemies you’ll be lucky to nab one seal) or through social interaction with peasants (which earns you a guild seal each time you dance or shake hands with a different NPC). This means that instead of being focused on combat, the bulk of Fable III is centered on going from town to town and dancing with people, which is one of the most mindless things I’ve ever had to sit through in the game. There aren’t even any memorable boss battles. Not a single one. In their place are annoying social interactions that require nothing more from the player than running up to a character, pressing and holding a button for about five seconds, and then moving on. To progress in Fable III, you’ll have to do this hundreds of time, watching your character do the same dance or wave or handshake over and over and over again.
Combat has taken on such a diminished role that you can get through the entire game utilizing only the starter ranged and melee weapons. Though Fable III proudly boasts that there are lots of weapons, there’s no real reason to collect them other than to earn an achievement. You’ll also have to hop into a friend’s world over Xbox Live to even see all of the weapons, as only a few random weapons are available in your Albion each playthrough. There’s also no benefit to wearing the one suit of armor that’s offered. While you can wear a suit of armor when squaring off against a group of werewolves, you can also wear a chicken suit and both will apparently offer you equal protection.
As the Fable series has progressed, each has offered players less and less stuff to collect and carry. The third installment gives players practically nothing to spend their gold on. This allows the character to accumulate an absurd amount of gold over the course of the experience. The lack of things to buy makes the end game rather easy. As the final chapter of the game requires the player have a certain amount of money to achieve the “good” ending, getting the good ending requires no extra effort from the player. The game is supposed to be about consequences for your actions and having to make tough choices as a ruler, but I was able to fulfill all of my promises and get the good ending with minimal effort. Had the game given me things that I actually wanted to spend my gold on, compelled me to upgrade my weapons or offered me fancy suits of armor that had actual benefits, I might have been more tempted to take a little money from the treasury for myself instead of opening an orphanage.
Complicating matters further are legacy issues that still haven’t been cleaned up. Three games in, there’s really no excuse for the intense slowdown that accompanies many of the game’s battles. Even fairly mundane random encounters usually suffer from stuttering and framerate loss. And for a game that’s supposed to be cinematic, graphical clipping really takes players out of the experience. Seeing a character put their hand on the shoulder of another is supposed to convey solidarity or tenderness, but seeing a character put their arm through the shoulder of another doesn’t have the same emotional effect.
The interface is also unnecessarily cumbersome. Fable III developer Peter Molyneux complained that players spent too much time in past entries in the menus, so instead of fixing the franchise’s notoriously slow menus, they just got rid of them entirely. When players pause the game, they are taken to the Sanctuary, a room that the player can move around in and interact with the objects they would otherwise select in a menu. Weapons are kept in the weapon room, the map table occupies the center of the main chamber, and so on. Everything that you would expect in a typical menu is found in the Sanctuary, but instead of selecting whatever you want from a menu, you interact with it through the Sanctuary. It is in many ways more cumbersome than the menus it replaces and it certainly isn’t any faster.
Fable III attempts to radically reinvent the franchise, a reinvention that fans neither wanted nor asked for. Instead of following on the success of the previous entries, Fable III tries to be something other than it is, but I don’t think the developers were even sure what this is supposed to be. The developers should have focused on cleaning up bugs, graphical slowdown and improving the speed of the combat so that it plays with the fluidity of other modern hack-and-slash games. Instead, we received Fable III, a disappointing and lacking game that needed more time in development.