Fable III is a lot like the fairy tales your parents used to read to you before bed: It started off well, but the longer it went on and the more it strained their imagination, the worse it got. This game is very similar, opening with a tale of intrigue, revolution and mystery but soon devolving into a poorly paced slog that stops being fun about midway through. Albion needs you to be its savior — if you don't get bored and decide to play something else first.
The game's plot is set 50 years after the events of Fable II. The great hero who saved the land and was named king has died of old age, and players take on the role of the monarch's younger son (or daughter). Your older brother Logan has taken the throne and is crushing Albion under the weight of oppression. Subjects outside of Bowerstone are treated as second-class citizens, and the city is so choked by the smog of industry that it has become dirty and gray. You never stood up to Logan because you never really understood how bad things were, but certain events force you into exile, and you lead the rebellion meant to topple your maniacal sibling.
This early section of Fable III is incredibly exciting and creates a lot of promise for the rest of the experience. As you make alliances with oppressed peoples and build up a following of your own, it really feels like you are inspiring a grassroots rebellion. These first few hours are by far the game's best and will go a long way toward keeping you hooked for the duration of the adventure.
Unfortunately, the middle part of the game bogs down considerably, and it slams on the brakes at the end. The disjointed narrative provides little inspiration to keep you on the beaten track, and once you manage to take the throne, Fable III turns into light exercises in urban planning, forcing you to make decisions that really should be relegated to advisors or other lesser nobles. This boring conclusion is made all the more frustrating by a meaty and interesting plot twist at the end of Act 2 that really renews interest in the game. Unfortunately, all the excitement is squandered by the time you're trying to decide whether to build a sewage plant or dump the poopy water into a nearby swamp.
An area where Fable III makes an interesting, and mostly positive, departure from previous franchise entries and RPGs in general is the way it handles experience and leveling. Completing quests, befriending villagers and vanquishing enemies earns Guild Seals, which are the exclusive currency of the Road to Rule. This mode, which represents your ascension to the crown, scatters chests along the path that can only be unlocked by spending your hard-earned seals. The rewards within the chests do things like upgrade your melee power or allow you to buy real estate, so players must carefully choose which upgrades they want now and which ones they're willing to put off until the future. It also allows you to customize your character precisely to your liking, tailoring your skills to emphasize melee, ranged or magic attacks as well as what sort of social abilities you wish to have. It's a clever addition that works very well.
Sadly, that's about the only feature that works, as many other "improvements" made for Fable III only further dilute previously awful exercises. Interacting with villagers has been restricted to one-on-one encounters, so you can no longer win friends and influence people en masse. Thus, every time you want to woo or frighten a villager, you must engage in extended sessions of dancing, whistling, farting or burping, and then do it all over again for the person standing right next to him/her. Even worse, when a villager wants to befriend you, he'll send you off to an entirely different part of the world to dig up an item or deliver a letter for someone, and then you have to trudge all the way back to complete the quest. Imagine doing this over and over again, and you'll quickly decide that it's best to be a loner in Albion.
The game's new hand-holding mechanic is yet another mechanic that Lionhead tried to "fix" even though it was never broken. In order to get a villager to follow you anywhere, you must first grab him by the hand and then physically drag him wherever you want to go. Since they're AI constructs, they almost always get stuck on the world's geometry or refuse to take your hand even though you're looking right at them and pressing the button. It adds nothing to the experience.
Rounding out the complaints are numerous technical bugs and glitches that further muck up the experience. Slowdown and frame rate chugging are commonplace, often nearly breaking the game. Enemy AI is also awful, as all you need to do to win most fights is wade into range, take a few potshots and back up until foes mysteriously stop giving chase, turn around and then walk back to their posts. Your treasure-obsessed dog is also still dumb, often walking in circles or pointing into thin air for a treasure chest that isn't there. Fable III is a very buggy game; maybe they should have spent the time they used on hand-holding to clear up the tech issues.
In spite of all the visual and technical flaws, there is a still a bright point in the presentation, and that's the voice acting and sound design. UK heavyweights like John Cleese and Simon Pegg lend their talents to the game, and the results are wonderful. The soundtrack is also as impressive as ever, managing to always convey just the right mood, whether you're in a dark and creepy cave or visiting a camp of nomadic gypsies. Perhaps one of the greatest moments in gaming is listening to Cleese as a butler react to your decision to put on a chicken suit. It's pure comedic gold.
The Fable franchise has always been ambitious, promising big things and often failing to deliver. Unfortunately, Fable III suffers from the same plight, serving up a mediocre experience that's difficult to get excited over. If the series continues, it would be wise for Lionhead to pull back on the big ideas and spend some time working on the little things. Once they get that right, we can talk about grand experiments. Your parents' fairy tales may have ended with "happily ever after," but the Fable series needs a hero to ride in and rescue it from itself.
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