The Retrospective: Fable II

Oh, the Xbox 360. At one point in my life, you were an instrumental factor in my happiness. With more than a couple killer apps and a predecessor with my favorite game of all time, how could I help but love you? And then you burdened by the kinect actually finding success. Suddenly, you didn’t need me anymore. You had families to care about. And Sony easily lured me into an alley thanks to my newfound cuckoldry.

Back in the day, if you had an Xbox, it was all about the Mass Effects, the Halos, and the Fables. Well, in the case of that last one, only one Fable really mattered. The second one. Fable 1? Fable 3??? Hah. Don’t even ask. The middle game was something special… according to people I knew.

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No, I never played Fable II. Peter Molyneux scared me back then with his empty promises and unfulfilled grandiose ambition. He seemed like the game industry equivalent to a snake oil salesman, and I wanted nothing to do with his games. Also, I was in early high school and had little income to support game purchases that weren’t of dire need. Then again, I bought, and played, Star Ocean: The Last Hope back then, so who knows what my priorities were.

Anyways, my friend’s Xbox fried a few years ago, as all Xboxes eventually do, and his games sat around his house rotting until he decided to sell them. Looking at the sad state of my neglected collection in comparison to the behemoth tide of PS3 games that have since invaded my shelf, I decided to buy a few or six and make it a little more respectable. And now, I have as many 360 games as I did Wii games. Go Xbox.

One of those games just happened to be Fable 2, the game that I had tried so hard to avoid back when it was fresh and new. And here I am, a writer of a not-so-popular column about old video games I never played! It was a match made in heaven.

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But what of the legacy carried by this title? After all, a good deal of why I cover these games at all is because they typically have some sort of following. The Fable series isn’t exactly beloved in its totality. People have generally cool attitudes towards every other member of its circle, especially 3 and that loony one on the Kinect.

Even still, this was a game series that Microsoft pushed hard, calling the original one the best action-RPG on the original Xbox. Of course, that’s ignoring a few other greats like Jade Empire. Even still, it was popular enough to warrant so many sequels, so it must have commanded some amount of success, unlike the try-hard Sony’s failed attempt at similar economic magin with Folklore. No, I’d say it’s fairly safe to say that somewhere out there, legitimate fans of the Fable series do exist. And if that’s true, it’s likely entirely because of this game.

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Starting it up for the first time, I had a fairly basic understanding of what kind of realm I was entering. Of course, I knew that Fable occupies a pretty standard high fantasy realm, complete with castles, paupers, wizards, and shit. Not really my favorite setting (more of a sci-fi kind of guy), but under the right mechanics and story it wouldn’t be an immediate turnoff. I’ve fallen in love with some Final Fantasy games, adored the newest Fire Emblem, and still cling to my beloved Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess as a beacon of greatness. With the right combination of elements, any game has the potential to be loved by me, no matter the setting.

But beginning my quest, I realized one thing. This was a world that lived in the brains of theater kids everywhere. It’s whimsical fantasy, with big bendy top hats, old spooky forests, and British children stickin it those mean old adults. Only this one’s rated M so you can also fart in the presence of and sexually pursue anyone you please. It creates the first great dichotomy that broke the atmosphere for me. This felt like it was sopposed to be a friendly, cartoony happy world. But there were surface elements that seemed too out of place. Sure it might be fun to be evil, but everything seemed to point in the direction of the good path. And no, having someone come up to you in the middle of a mission offering to lead you down the evil-er path doesn’t correct this when the atmosphere itself is propagating that insinuation.

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But enough of that top-down examination. Let’s look from the bottom up. I began my adventure as a young girl (yes, I usually pick female protagonists) who everyone insisted on calling sparrow. I wished there was some element of character customization, but apparently that comes in the form of player choice later down the road, so I guess that’s acceptable. This is, however, another point that I walked into Fable 2 already expecting. I know player choice was something that largely fell apart in the original Fable, but here was a game in which player choice really did affect the protagonist and world.

Unfortunately, without obvious dialogue wheels and explanations of the system, I found that I was accidentally choosing paths without knowing it. Returned a bottle to a drunk man because he asked you nicely to do so? Evil points granted because apparently he’s an alcoholic or something. Usually the choices were a little more clear, but it made me a lot more paranoid than it made me feel free. If every little step could change things without me knowing, I’d have to be much more aware of what I was doing. Constantly.

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And yet, I found that there was something remarkably calming about wandering the hills, building reputations and playing with the constructs of this world. Seeing how people and things react to your godlike human presence is an interesting experience, and it really is true that everything affect something. To the point that too much meat in your diet will actually make your character fat. Ridiculous.

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Admittedly, I didn’t get extremely far before passing up the opportunity to dive further into its seemingly rich realm. There was something a little overwhelming about limitless freedom without much reason behind it. Yahtzee once made the point that Fable 2 has all the options in the world without much giving you the drive to achieve any of it. What point is there to collect all the money and wed all the wenches in the world?

Or just chillen with the dog.

Or just chillen with the dog.

Even in other games with deep exploration and free player-driven progression like Fallout 3, there’s some kind of contextualization for it. In that specific example, the Capitol Wasteland is a place of scavenging and survival. You have to move if you want to live, and the ruins of a familiar society make for a perfect setting in which to do so. A vanilla fantasy setting with little to distinguish itself from other vanilla fantasy settings isn’t the most terribly interesting space to explore, and building a reputation or family or what have you is better served in a more casual experience like Animal Crossing or Minecraft.

Because trying to make the freedom to do anything without much dire consequence or reason is not a good concept to form an entire big budget experience around. You can certainly have it play a role, but this is a game that sorely lacks the constant presence of a villain and concrete plot to keep you pushing. By allowing us too much freedom, the game systematically had to do away with such, and my purpose and supposed special strength is left vague.

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So that, ultimately, is what I thought of my time with Fable 2. It wasn’t bad, by any stretch of the imagination, I just didn’t feel a pull to keep going. And I love me some open world games, so that’s saying something.

Next week, I think I’ll take a look at another purchase from my newest haul, Darksiders.

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