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Fable: The Lost Chapters

Fable: The Lost Chapters. It was designed by Peter Molyneux, who is famous in the computer game industry for his designs for such games as Syndicate, Theme Park, Dungeon Keeper, Homeworld and Black and White. Unfortunately, he had hyped up Fable a lot (you could get scars from battles, NPCs would remember you, you would meet other heroes, you could raise a family and have kids, the bad guy might come and murder your family if you stray away from the plotline for too long, you could plant a tree and see it grow over time, etc.), and the end product simply doesn't deliver. In fact, none of those features I mentioned in the parenthesis made it into the final game.

Fable: The Lost Chapters, or TLC for short, is an action-RPG. You play a character who is only ever referred to as "Hero" and you go around talking to people and killing monsters. Occasionally, you'll be presented with a dialog choice, but you never really hear the protagonist's voice (Chrono Trigger style). This might be to get you to associate more with the character, but if so, I wonder why they forced the protagonist to be a Caucasian male. The race and gender of the character didn't seem to be at all central to the plot, though some scenes would have to be voice acted twice (e.g. once with the term "son" and once with "daughter", etc.) but given the ambition Molyneux had for this game, it didn't seem like it would be such a problem. But I digress; you start off as a white farmboy and the game introduces you to the controls by having you run around town doing errands.

The game was originally written for XBox before ported to PC and it shows; the controls are clumsy, as if there weren't enough buttons for all the actions you could do (which is true with the XBox controller, but no longer true when you have a keyboard at your disposal). For example, the "run away" action and the "do a really long and intricate attack" action are both mapped to the right mouse button, and whether one action or the other is performed is determine by whether or not there is an enemy nearby. I can't tell you how many times I saw an enemy charge up an explosive attack, thought to myself "gee, I better run away", hit the right mouse button, and get caught in my long attack animation, and therefore, caught in the blast of the explosion. The left and right mouse buttons are also for navigating through the dialog tree which means you only ever get asked yes or no questions, since you only have two buttons to reply with. For some inexplicable reason, they decided not to have a consistent convention of having left click meaning yes and right clicking meaning no (or vice versa). There were a few times where the answer I gave was the reverse of the answer I intended because they swapped around which button was for "yes" and which button was for "no".

Speaking of clumsy controls, the entire menu system was pretty clumsy. This menu system is used when you want to drink your potions, change your weapons, check your stats, save the game or buy things from shops. No matter how simple the menu is (e.g. a shop keeper who only has 5 items in their inventory), it seems to take 2 or 3 seconds for each menu to load. This delay is really annoying: You select "buy", wait 2 seconds, "items", wait 2 seconds, select "produce", wait 2 seconds, select "apples", wait 2 seconds, select "1 apple", wait 2 seconds, "yes, I'm sure I want to buy 1 apple", wait 2 seconds, "leave the produce menu", wait 2 seconds, "leave the item menu", wait 2 seconds, "leave the buy menu", wait 2 seconds, and then you can actually continue on your mission in saving the world.

Yes, saving the world. The plot isn't the greatest one out there. After you play that introductory sequence as a kid, your family gets killed, and someone recruits you into the "Hero's Guild". Then the a cutscene appears which could have been summarized to just having the text "10 years later..." appear in white font on a black background, and then you find yourself playing as an adult version of your character, and conveniently you're dropped a hint as to who killed your family. As you try to avenge their death, you find out their murder was actually part of a plot to destroy the world.

The cutscenes aren't that great. The intro movie, the one that plays when you first load up the game and before you actually start playing, is particularly bad. It doesn't get you excited or pumped to play the game at all. It's just a camera panning around in a room full of tapestries. This has a bit more significance later on (it turns out these tapestries are illustrations of your legendary adventures; implicitly woven after you've succeeded in ridding the world of evil), but the designer(s) should have realize that someone who doesn't know how the game ends is gonna see the intro movie and be like "Okay, what was that all about?"

The voice acting isn't so hot either. It's obvious that each sentence is its own sound file, as the timing between them is off; often comically so. There's the classic timing error of: "My lady, if you would only lis-" (3 second pause) "Silence! I've had enough of your nonsense!" Additionally, everybody has a different accent. If everybody had a British accent, I'd be like "okay, fine, this game was made in Great Britain", but it looks like they went through great efforts to try and get as many European accents in there as possible. There's one scene towards the end of the game where you have to rescue 7 elders, and every elder sounds completely different (e.g. one with a squeaky high pitch voice, one with a gruffy mumbling voice, one with a quavering weak-old-man voice, etc.) How often have you walked into a room with 7 people and had their voices so distinct you could immediately associate stereotypical personae just from their voices alone? Most people I meet have fairly similar voices (perhaps differing mainly due to their gender) with only a few people standing out as having really odd voices. If it seems like I'm making a big deal about the accents, it's because it really is that irritating in this game! I've played games where the voices differed before (e.g. see my Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas review), but not one where it seemed like a main selling point was how many different wacky voices they could squeeze into it.

While we're on the topic of acting, the skeletal animation was pretty bad too. Skeletal animation, for those who don't know, refers to the body-movement of the 3D characters. The animations are dopey and exaggerated. The only time I've a guard march the way the guards in TLC march were in the Monty Python Ministry of Silly Walks sketch. When the protagonist spends his first night in the Guild of Heroes and starts crying because his family was slaughtered, I burst out laughing at how ridiculous his crying animation looked.

Once you're initiated into the guild, you're allowed to take on missions. That is, the general public will post up missions along with rewards in the Guild, and you can look at all the missions and choose which one you want to undertake. But don't be fooled, this isn't a dynamic ever changing world where if you miss a mission it'll be gone forever. No, there's a set of "do these anytime you want" side missions, and a set of "If you want the plot to progress, you must do these missions" missions, and it doesn't matter how much of your sweet time you take, those missions will always be there until you complete them.

The game has a map system set up so that icons show up on the map showing you the location of your current active mission. But the map system was rather poorly thought out. If you select the mission, it'll show you a close up of the town in which the main objective of the mission resides. For example, if the mission is "Rescue Brownstone Village from wolves", you'll see a nice map of Brownstone Village on your map. Great. But where are you in relation to Brownstone Village? North of it? South? It doesn't say. You have to quit the "active mission" menu (don't forget those 2 second delays between each menu layer), and then enter the map menu and then you'll see a closeup of the region you're at (e.g. "Darkwood forest"). Okay, great. But where is Darkwood forest in relation to Brownstone Village? North of it? South of it? It doesn't say. If you could just scroll the map around, that'd be great. But I guess back in the medieval ages, they didn't have scrollable maps.

The game has a morality system, but it's surprisingly arbitrary to the point of not providing the player with any interesting ethical choices at all. You're asked to kill these beetle infestation in the guild. If you actually do kill the beetles, you get "good" points. Then someone asks you to kill the sparrow infestation. Do this, and you get "evil" points. Why is killing beetles okay but killing birds not? Because beetles are icky and birds are cute? Many of the quests can be solved in two ways (i.e. the "good" way and the "evil" way) and this can actually present quite a problem. I was given a quest which simply told me that this guy is going to get executed and some bandits where gonna try to free him. I could either help the guards escort the guy to the executioner's, or help the bandits free the guy. The quests says nothing about whether the guy actually did whatever crime he was being accused off, and since the dialog trees only have 2 choices, I have to choose to help either the bandits or the guards. How can I possibly know what the right choice is?

I figured if the people who made this game are the type to think beetles are bad and birds are good, they're probably also the type to think bandits are bad and the guards are good. Luckily I was right. But it turned out that maintaining your morality isn't all that big a deal, because if you just donate money to church that is painted white, you can essentially buy good points (or buy evil points if you donate to church that is painted black). But like I said, where's the moral dilemma that makes these kinds of choices interesting? Instead, it's just a fairy tale version of morality: Kill the wicked witch because her name is "wicked witch"; nevermind what her motivation was for doing whatever evil deeds she did, and nevermind that you don't actually know what evil deeds she did - her name is "wicked witch", isn't that enough?

When you play this game, you do NOT get the sense you are in a living, breathing world. I mean, sure, there's passage from day to night, and there's the occasionally weather effects (i.e. it sometimes rains), but none of the background characters care or react to your behaviour! And the day/night thing is actually pretty annoying, because some missions can only be complete in the day, and if it's night, you don't have the option of just sleeping anywhere you want to pass the time. You have to actually, in real life, just sit staring at your computer monitor for a few minutes until enough in-game time passes for it to become morning again. If you start slaughtering people in the village, the guards will get angry at you and make you pay a fine. Pay it, and all if forgiven and forgotten. People will still cheer your presence (you ARE a hero, after all), shops will still give you special discounts for saving their town, and girls will still flirt with you. Or don't pay the fine and just leave town for three days. Come back, and everyone will have forgotten your murdering their friends and family too. Or, you can go to a shop, buy a potion for a certain price, and immediately sell it right back to the same person for a higher price. Repeat the process and you have a source of infinite money. I sold batches of 200 potions at a time, and could make $10'000 per transaction. I needed to raise about $2'000'000 anyway to donate to the church to get my morality back in the "good" zone after having murdered so many villagers.

The combat system is unbalanced. In other words, there is a "one best attack" that once you mastered, makes the game trivial. Enflame. Cast this spell, and everyone around you dies. Always. I killed the last boss with this spell without breaking a sweat. I found the fights too hard at first, but once I found out about this trick, the game became trivially easy.

When you beat the game, the end credits play. The credits is just the camera panning around in the room full of tapestries again, except now there's text scrolling upwards showing who made the game. What's really weird is that the credits repeat themselves, as if not enough people worked on the game for how many tapestries they wanted to show. I think I read that Uberhouse did the compression engine for Fable no less than 4 times. The credits also mention that the London (?) Philharmonic Orchestra performed some pieces. The music was actually quite good, but quickly became repetitive (did they only have 1 battle song and 1 "walking around" song?) Before it became repetitive, the music helped the mood along, but without becoming too noticeable or distracting. And if you actually paid attention and listened to the music, it turned out to be very decent. Kudos for that.

There were a few situations where I wondered what would happen if I had taken the other choice (e.g. should I keep the ultimate most powerful weapon in the game, or save my sister's life? and Should I put on the mask that will grant me ultimate power, or throw it away and destroy the evil soul imbued in it), but the game was certainly not fun enough to make me want to play through it a second time to reach those points and try out the alternate endings.

Also, once you beat the game, you can "keep playing", but it looks like this feature wasn't fully implemented. I mean, you're back in the world, but when you go into town, people are still saying "Please, save this world from (name of last boss here)!" even though you already killed the last boss. And when you go to the guild elder to talk to him, the game plays his talking skeletal animation (i.e. you see his lips moving and his arms gesticulating), but he doesn't actually say anything. Didn't the developers think that the first thing a player would do after they had saved the guild from total destruction was to talk to the guild leader to receive thanks or some reward or something? I guess the developers forgot to program that part in.

The game was okay. I made Meiko play it, and she couldn't stop trying this one quest over and over again (the one where you have to run to a point and back in under 50 seconds). TLC has this addictive quality to it where you want to keep playing. I won't say it's empty or unfulfilling, but it certainly isn't a game you're going to want to talk to your friends about after beating it, except to complain about all the little annoyances and quirks you encountered along the way. It's also rather short (about 10-12 hours of gameplay). If you're an RPG fan, think of Fable as a snack until a better game comes along. 6.8 out of 10.

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1. Nebu Pookins said:

Choice quote:

GameSpot: One thing I do want to ask you though: Are we ever going to see a Syndicate remake?

Peter Molyneux: I wish I could do. I mean I don't have the rights of property for doing Syndicate, but I would love to do a Syndicate remake. I would love, absolutely love to do a Populous remake. That is the one. If I had one wish it would probably be Populous first and Syndicate second. Definitely.

Posted on Wed October 19th, 2005, 7:59 AM EST acknowledged

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