Fable: The Journey has charm, but it's also a physically unpleasant experience and completely unplayable in spots.
Before writing this review, I was going back and forth as to whether I’ve played enough of Fable: The Journey to accurately form an opinion. Then I remembered the act of playing the game was literally painful, as opposed to merely unpleasant. I think, in this case, I’m allowed to cut a few corners in order to keep using my arms.
If you’re expecting the usual Fable story with a Hero that can do all the things and Theresa the Seer following them around constantly making vague allusions to some kind of fate, you’re going to be half disappointed. Theresa is a major player in the story, and her dialogue almost feels cut-and-pasted from previous games, but Gabriel the player character isn’t exactly an all-powerful Hero. In fact, he’s a travelling merchant who has an odd fascination with his horse, Saren.
Fable has at least tried to mix up the plot with every game, and The Journey is no exception. Since, despite what you have been told by idealists and whiteboards, this journey is an aggressively linear one, Lionhead has more control over how the story is experienced, and in some ways the game is better for it. But part of what made the story of past Fables, or at least the ones I played, so good was that you were the one influencing Albion.
To be frank, without that aspect, Albion just isn’t really that interesting. Sure, Gabriel is likable enough and Theresa is actually showing emotion this time around, but I never felt like I had any real motivation to save this world of cheesy Shrek rejects without the ability to go out and see the world for myself. Talk about changing the paradigm, emotional connections, and other Molyneux-isms all you want, I just can’t feel any sympathy for Albion when all I see is the rump of a horse.
And the reason you see as much horse rump as you do is because the game is on-rails at worst, and aggressively linear at best. Sure, when you’re driving your carriage you can stop and choose how fast you want to go, but you can’t turn around. There are very light, almost transparent branching paths, but they only offer seconds of difference, and said difference usually consists of the same horse rump you’ve been watching for the entire game.
The linearity could easily be forgiven if the game worked, but the often-temperamental nature of the Kinect results in many frustrating moments. Fable: The Journey is essentially broken into three sections: on-rails shooting, mostly on-rails horse rump appreciation simulator, and minigames. I’ll go over the minigames first, considering they caused the least physical discomfort.
When you’ve decided to rest at a camp, the game takes a break from its linearity and makes you do a few motions straight out of a tech demo in order to proceed. You can heal your horse’s wounds by moving your hands around said wounds, pull out arrows from your horse’s side, operate a pump, and other nonsense. They’re not offensive, and the movements are general enough for the Kinect to properly acknowledge, but these minigames are never terribly exciting. I don’t think The Journey would have been worse off without them.
The reason you have to heal your horse so much is because said horse will get hurt a lot during the game’s driving sequences. In theory, you pull your right or left arm back to steer the horse right or left, make a cracking motion to speed your horse, pull your arms to your chest to slow the horse down, and throw your hands up over your head in despair after your horse misinterprets your commands yet again, which the game has conveniently mapped to the ‘stop’ function.
Yes, it should come as no surprise that driving the horse, as you would expect from something where success depends on specific motions, is incredibly frustrating. I only recently found a “dead zone” where my arms could rest, but half the time the game would interpret that as a command to move left. I will give commendations to whoever was in charge of finding the audio for the horse, however. When Saren was hurt, I felt bad. The noises emitting from that creature are bone-chilling, and motivated me to do better. Sadly, motivation only takes you so far when you have to wrestle a peripheral.
And believe me, you will see no finer example of wrestling outside of a WWE match, especially during the combat sequences. If this part worked, I could forgive a lot of the game’s flaws. And to be fair, when it does, Fable: The Journey approaches ‘decent’, albeit crawling on its hands and knees after its beating at the hands of the schoolyard bully Johnny Kinect. I had many a chuckle at throwing monsters off cliffs and smashing them with stalactites. But, again, we are assuming the best of the Kinect.
Pushing forward with your arms triggers one of the two spells at Gabriel’s disposal: left arm is for the force spell, and right is for the generic magical bolt, although you unlock a fireball later on. And here is where we get to the ‘physical strain’ part of any Kinect review. Due to the finicky nature of the hardware, I was only rarely able to hit a monster with my bolt spell.
Although I had more luck with my force spell, the bolt is the only thing that kills monsters outside of context-sensitive moments. So I was frequently just throwing out my right hand, hoping I could get to my foes before they got to me. I don’t know about you, but repeatedly pushing at nothing caused quite a bit of arm strain, so much so that I had to stop playing the game. Otherwise, I couldn’t get to my other Kinect review for this week or do anything else that required the use of my elbows.
It almost feels like a cop out to say this, but I didn’t entirely hate Fable: The Journey. It’s evident the developers put in some real effort, and the core tone of Fable is intact enough, but it’s not enough to counter a hardware peripheral that actively caused me pain. If Lionhead wants to make a linear Fable game, go ahead. That could turn out just fine. Just give me a controller, and I’ll be happy.
(Review copy provided by Edelman PR, thanks from Velocity Gamer!)