Fable: The Lost ChaptersReview date: 29 October 2005.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.
Before Fable first came out (for the Xbox, a year ago; the "Lost Chapters" PC port came along only last month, and has extra content and mildly jazzed-up graphics), Lionhead claimed it was going to be an incredible, totally interactive, living, breathing world, blah blah blah.
I'm uncertain whether any Computer Role Playing Game, whether real-time hack-and-slash like Fable or good old turn-and-tile based, has ever not had these sorts of claims made for it. But when Peter Molyneux makes 'em, people are still inclined to listen, on account of how they Just Don't Learn.
Despite Black and White not being the planet-smashingly incredible experience it was meant to be (and, now, B&W 2 has kinda pulled a Deus Ex 2 on everybody, and certainly not raised the bar), some people believed the hype about Fable, and were disappointed when it turned out to be a not-particularly-deep action RPG.
Even if you ignore the many-headed monster of marketing, game designers always butt up against the same set of problems when they try to make an amazing interactive living breathing blah blah sort of game. Assuming you have time to finish the project at all, your amazing artificial intelligence code can swamp the processing power available (just getting from A to B becomes horrible as the number of entities and obstacles increases), or not actually turn out to make entities in the game do anything that a much simpler system couldn't. Or, commonly, cause everything to go to heck in unpredictable ways when "smart" entities interact.
And, in reality, Fable's "For Every Choice A Consequence" tagline means very close to nothing. "Shape and exploring[sic] a living, evolving world"? Uh, no. Not really. Well, unless you count the ability to tell a shopkeeper to follow you, lead them out of town, tell them to stop, then head back into town and buy their vacant shop. Which will then just be a building that belongs to you with sad, empty shop fittings in it, until the shopkeeper mysteriously rematerialises in there and starts paying you rent. Where the shopkeeper is in between is hard to determine - they won't be where you left them.
And if you kill a guy's sister, he won't like you.
One could, if one were a little cynical, argue that Fable's view of the world (Ugly and evil? Want a wife? No problem - just give that hot chick more presents!) lives up to Lionhead's promises about realism. And the cops are all rude to you, until you bribe them to ignore you for a while (which makes burglary easier - it's faster than just getting everyone nearby drunk) - then it's all "Top of the mornin' to ye, sir!".
But, really, all the hairstyling and tattooing and body weight and alignment and title stuff is just tinsel. Means nothing. This is a single player game, after all. Buy yourself the title "Piemaster" or "Arseface" if you want; it's good for a laugh as you walk around the towns. But it doesn't have any effect on anything important. Your alignment will slowly change if you use some spells, and a puny physique won't let you swing a big weapon. These are not entirely novel ideas, and Fable breaks 'em all down into good old Munchkin-y numbers displayed on screen, which makes it all feel even more old fashioned.
Because the good/evil scale is just a simple profit-and-loss arrangement, a very good character can, say, wander off into the forest and massacre a few innocent people just for the heck of it, and retain his halo and little fluttering butterflies. Most people would agree that Pol Pot doesn't get to be thought of as good just by helping out at a soup kitchen one afternoon, but people's opinion of Florence Nightingale would probably have changed if she stabbed one person a day. Not in Fable, though.
Personally, I find most of Fable's "drawbacks" to be good things. Yes, it's very linear (or, at least, the Quests that lead you through the major plot are; the optional sub-quests don't lead anywhere), but, y'know, so's a book. And there aren't a zillion fascinatingly different items to collect - actually, some standard RPG gear, like shields, isn't in the game at all. Go elsewhere if that's your thing.
And I like the game's appearance. In some games, tasty graphics fade into the background after you've been playing for a while; I've found that I keep noticing how pretty Fable is, cartoonish or not.
And, importantly, the interface works very well. Fable started on a console, and so you don't need a million keys to work the game, but there are now easy keyboard shortcuts to a configurable quick-access bar onto which you can put items, spells or gestures via simple drag-and-drop from the similarly simple menu system. All controls are configurable, it's easy to switch between melee and ranged weapons (no pause-the-game, go-to-inventory, drag-and-drop nonsense breaking the flow of a brawl...), you can cast spells while using any weapon without putting the weapon away, and the combat both looks and feels great. Which is just as well, 'cos there's a lot of it.
Fable's teleportation system means you don't have to spend much time running through places you've already been, unless you want to see what fresh monsters are there. In fine 8-bit game style, Fable monsters regenerate when you leave the map-section they live on, though you often get a different crop of monsters every time. You can grovel back through places you've been looking for secrets, but there aren't too many of those - places to fish, places to dig, unlocked chests, silver key chests, and Demon Doors, which often require you to do something rather silly to get them to open. That's all there is. And you can't climb steep hills, swim or even jump, so you can't spend time hunting for an invaluable bonus in the branches of a tree sticking out of a cliff behind a waterfall deep in a cave.
This may irk the people who pride themselves in getting 100% of everything in even the most diabolically laid out secret-laden console adventures. Personally, I'm glad that I don't have to look under every weed to see if a Wand of Wishing's been put there by a lazy level designer.
Good old Morrowind is widely accepted as the best example so far of a 3D fantasy adventure game. It's a bit dated now (good news for people who don't have a cutting-edge PC...), but it's everything that Fable is not. Far more complexity, far less linear, far more serious (though certainly not completely so; it doesn't take long before a wizard falls screaming from the sky...), far more play time.
(Well, for most people. The basic Morrowind game, not counting either of the two expansions, is meant to be good for "at least 200 hours" of fun. The record's down to seven minutes and 30 seconds, now - and three and a half minutes of that is taken up by the intro, character creation and the final sequence. If the same techniques could be applied to Test cricket, we could get a match over with in about 36 seconds, including lunch and afternoon tea.)
Anyway, I've played Morrowind.
I didn't care for it.
High on my list of complaints about Morrowind is the way it rolls the freakin' dice every time you swing a weapon at an enemy. When you aren't much good at fighting, you usually miss. This means that despite Morrowind's first person perspective, which ought to make you feel more a part of the game than Fable's third person view, you (or at least I) actually feel as if you're just waving your darn sword around in front of your bemused enemy.
Similarly, attack spells and arrows in Morrowind can just whoosh out, hit an enemy and... not hit him.
Sure, you get used to it, and Morrowind isn't all about the ass-kicking. And it's excellent value, these days; the pack with Morrowind and the Tribunal and Bloodmoon expansions, which ought to be enough to keep the most fanatical unemployed gamer off the streets for about a month, sells for $US20 now.
But in Fable, when you hit someone, you hit them. They may block you and not take any damage, but you still see and hear the hit. (Apparently, Elder Scrolls IV will work like this too. It's due out in early December 2005.)
It's not, of course, very fair to compare Morrowind and Fable, since they've got only slightly more in common than Falcon 4.0 and Crimson Skies. Fable is a beer and peanuts game. In Fable, you run like the wind, you never get tired or hungry, and your bow has infinite ammo. That ought to give you the idea.
Since I'm not a heavy gamer any more, that's the way I like it. If you think likewise, go and get Fable for the Xbox or The Lost Chapters for the PC. You'll like 'em.
Slightly Spoily Stuff follows
OK. Now for the Hints And Tips. Of which there won't be many, because there's no way I could possibly beat the Gamebanshee walkthrough, even if I wanted to.
If you're looking to Make Money Fast in Fable, ignore all of the brilliant tips that tell you how to make 250 gold here, 1000 gold there. Various tips, exploits and cheats ("...that's one of those irregular verbs, isn't it?") for the Xbox version will work in the PC version, including all the nice little earners. But it's much easier to just abuse the game's rudimentary economic model.
If you've got Guile of 3 or better (actually, you can start doing it slowly at 2), then when you buy a shopkeeper or trader's entire stock of something, you're likely to be able to sell it back to him for more than you paid. Will and Health potions are good candidates for this, since they're numerous and fairly valuable.
So you can buy and sell and buy and sell interminably (without even having to walk away and come back in between transactions), and build up ludicrous amounts of money quite quickly.
Those of us who played games back when colour monitors were a luxury, of course, never discover any of the lesser Fable scams for ourselves, because we try this arbitrage trick by force of habit the moment we see that we're playing a game where prices vary with supply.
It's not hard for programmers to implement a less broken economy than this. Heck, just giving traders a slowly-replenished limited cash supply will half-fix it, and that's no biggie in a single player game. But it's still the first thing we try when we're sick of working for a living in a game, because it still, sometimes, works.
I'm not going to harp on about the other jarring errors of logic in Fable, because its silliness is why I prefer it to games that bother with stuff like encumbrance. But I would like to register an official protest about the developmentally delayed fishing minigame. When the thing you're fishing out of the water is not, in fact, a fish, or even alive, you shouldn't have to let it run and then, when it stops, reel it in with frantic clicking.
I am willing to retract this complaint upon receipt of an explanation of how, exactly, a silver key swims.
Goofy rules are only fine if they don't make things harder for no reason. Humbug.
The trader trick makes it possible to make far more money than you can spend on anything quite quickly, but there's actually a reason to keep doing it after that. Trading for profit gives you Skill experience points. If you do it while your combat multiplier (which is a neat feature, by the way; it rewards players handsomely for not getting hit and for fighting bravely) is high, it gives you lots of Skill experience.
If there isn't a handy wandering trader (who deals in something expensive that you own in quantity...) nearby when you've just built up an impressive multiplier, just teleport to Bowerstone South and use Derek the Marketkeeper, conveniently located near the teleport point. You'll lose a chunk of multiplier when you teleport, but even a mere 5X will make the points mount up pretty impressively.
Since there are foods that give you experience as well - fish for Will, carrots for Skill, red meat for Strength - you can drag and drop those foods onto the quick access bar when you've got a lot of them, and munch 'em down whenever your multiplier is high. Even in the middle of a fight, if you're fast.
That's right - while you wait for that last bandit to get to you, why not kick back and eat a hundred carrots?
(Honestly. I'll make no more complaints about lack of realism. None. Seriously.)
(Well, except to say that when you've got a gold Quest on the boil, every peasant you pass insists on telling you, for instance, about those terrible bandits, and how bandits are such a problem these days, and how they saw Twinblade, the leader of the bandits, the other day. This is par for the course in computer role-playing games. But I draw the line when you're actually in Twinblade's camp, and a trader there tells you with the same sense of awed astonishment that he, too, saw Twinblade the other day.)
So, the trader trick works. And it's safe. Enjoy.
Don't, however, use the infinite-silver-keys cheat, in Fable for Windows at least.
Yes, the game practically forces you to cheat with its "Hero Save" feature (when you've started a Quest, you can't save the game normally, but you can save your character, including everything you've acquired in the Quest so far). And yes, it's easy (if tedious) to start the Rose Cottage Hobbe Cave quest, run to the circle of flowers, dig up the silver key, Hero Save, load the save game (thus restarting outside the quest area again), and run in to lather, rinse and repeat, gaining one key every time. You can do the same sort of thing in various other Quests, but the key's close to the quest starting location in this one, making the process much faster.
Doing this, however, makes the game unhappy. In due course - possibly quite a while after you cheated - it will corrupt both your save file and the start-of-mission autosave file, and you'll have to start all over again from the very beginning of the game, if you don't have a clean save file somewhere.
(The game puts save files and screen captures and such in subdirectories in Documents and Settings\[username]\My Documents\My Games\Fable\, by the way.)
There may be some threshold below which the munged saves don't happen, but I'd Just Say No if I were you, and not scam myself even one cheaty silver key.
There's little enough point to the silver key cheat, anyway. Much of the stuff you find in silver key chests (and behind Demon Doors) isn't that fantastic compared with what you can buy for a few tens of thousands of gold pieces. A Master Greatsword does more damage than many of the low-level Legendary weapons, even before you add Augmentations to it, and Fable isn't one of those games where only Special Named Weapons are immune to damage. Nothing in your inventory can be broken, stolen or worn out.
Fable: The Lost Chapters is everything a console port should be. It retains the simplicity of a cheerful keys-chests-and-flaming-swords console adventure, takes advantage of the better display and input hardware on a PC, and has enough quests, skills, spells and items to be more than a coffee-break game, without requiring the kind of dedication (...to the avoidance of sport and the playing of games on the school Apple IIs...) that I haven't had since I was eleven.
And Fable's still got character. Good British voice acting (I wouldn't mind a few more phrases in the villagers' vocabulary, but you can't have everything), a pleasantly dry sense of humour (it's clear that Heroes like you are a bunch of narcissistic, fame-obsessed opportunists, even if you're Destined to Save the World blah blah blah), and a respectable number of entertaining details.
You can get a whole town drunk if you've got the money (it doesn't work on the guards, but bribes do), overmatched enemies express their doubts about taking you on, an early Quest makes clear that hallucinogenic mushrooms are popular in these parts, and kicking chickens for distance does them no harm at all.
Never mind the hype - Fable's dumb, but it's fun.