Fable: The Lost Chapters  

Game Name:  Fable: The Lost Chapters
Developer:  Lionhead Studios
Publisher:  Microsoft Game Studios
PC Release Year:  2005
Review Date:  January 11, 2016

Peter Molyneux is, without a doubt, one of the most divisive personalities in the gaming industry today.  On the one hand, his personal brand of creative genius has helped to forge some of the PC’s seminal titles.  Development credits on Populous and Dungeon Keeper, alone, essentially birthed the genre of god game and granted him a spot squarely among Sid Meier and Will Wright in the platform’s pantheon of titans.  On the other hand, he is a well-known snake oil salesman who has a knack for overhyping a project in production and under-delivering upon its release.  While this is a bad habit to be in when working for a big-budget corporate overseer, like in his earlier days at Microsoft, it has inspired ire from the collective internet after a botched Kickstarter campaign for Godus left backers with an incomplete game and a bunch of broken promises.  Despite my own outrage at this reprehensible behavior, it is a little unfair for me to disparage a developer whose games I have not actually played.  To rectify this situation, I decided to give Fable: The Lost Chapters a try after a buddy of mine talked up the anniversary edition he bought in the Steam holiday sale.  Now that I have spent some time with this wonderful little RPG and the charming world of Albion, I can understand why it is such a beloved classic, and also why anyone still bothers to give its creator the time of day.

Perhaps it is best to set some realistic expectations from the outset, by describing what Fable is not, rather than what it is.  For starters, it is not the kind of mammoth, open-world adventure that gamers are becoming increasingly used to.  Not only is the realm of Albion relatively small by modern RPG standards, but each parcel of land, including the large town of Bowerstone, is subdivided between load screens into areas that could be easily rendered by the first Xbox’s limited hardware.  Even within one of these spaces, though, player movements are constrained by the type of restrictive environmental barriers that defined 3D gaming for much of the 2000s.  However well the lovely cobblestone walls seem to fit into this fairy-tale depiction of a medieval, European-esque landscape, they ultimately impose a great deal of linearity onto the hero’s epic journey.  Many gamers may chafe at such restrictions, but they do legitimately help guide newcomers through a genre that can sometimes be a bit too expansive, so it ends up working in a way.  While I personally enjoyed not getting disoriented and lost in this virtual world, there are fortunately enough well-written side quests to satisfy a hardcore audience that demands more content than what the main storyline can provide.

Fable is also not an RPG that follows in the tradition of developers like BioWare, with their complex morality systems and branching storylines.  Sure, there seems to be a good and bad way to accomplish any task and these actions will change the visual appearance of your character, with pious deeds providing a halo and hovering butterflies while despicable acts result in glowing eyes and devil horns, but it is all very superficial.  My own playthrough saw me filling the role of a goody two-shoes for much of the tale, and I still had the option after the last boss battle to experience the evil finale.  In a way, though, this is liberating and gives players the freedom to do what feels natural, rather than what is needed to see a given ending.  Early on in the story, I was told by my character’s father that I would receive a gold coin for each good deed I performed around town.  When I came across a man who was clearly meeting with his mistress while his wife was away at home, I did what anyone would do.  I took a bribe from him in exchange for my silence, promptly reported him to the local authorities, who did not take kindly to cheaters, and then went back home to receive payment for my ’good’ deed.  It is hard to imagine engaging in this type of fun and frivolity in most other RPGs.

But then, Fable’s developers tried their hardest to make sure the game feels anything like a traditional RPG.  To its credit, it reminded me more of a British reimagining of the Legend of Zelda series with an experience system tacked on.  All the trappings are there, like epic boss battles that require a special attack sequence, treasure chests scattered across the game world with a range of prizes hidden inside, and enjoyable mini-games that give the hero a chance to fill his coffers.  Even the story tracks with that of the green-clad warrior of Hyrule, since the Hero of Oakvale begins his adventure as a young boy and must ultimately acquire either Avo’s Tear or the Sword of Aeons, which both function as a stand-in for the Master Sword, to vanquish the evil Jack of Blades.  There is a wonderful familiarity to it all, and if I am being honest, it is some of the best source material to borrow from since Nintendo has never allowed its premier franchise to move off its own platforms.  The only notable gameplay difference comes on the character development front, where all of those experience points from killing bandits, trolls, and werewolves can be used to fundamentally alter the combat model.  For me, mixing it up in sword fights while my summoned minions provided support was the ideal way to play, but if I had wanted to launch devastating fireball attacks or shoot multiple arrows from my bow at once, it was nice knowing I had the freedom to do so.

If Fable has one major flaw, and I am not talking about its obtuse inventory system here, it is that this emphasis on player choice amounts to nothing when gamers lack the ability to select the hero’s gender.  Wait a minute, you may say.  Nobody complains about Link being a man and lady gamers tend to love the Legend of Zelda series.  Well, Hyrule does not present the kind of sexist worldview that seems to hang above the lands of Albion like a storm cloud.  Take the game’s primary love interest as the perfect example.  Lady Elvira Grey is unlike any mayor you have ever seen; mostly because she would not look out of place in a porno, with an impractical purple dress that reveals her ample cleavage and curvy hips in a way that leaves little to the imagination.  Want to get her in the sack after tying the knot?  Well, it will only take gifts of perfume, chocolates, and precious gems to put her in the mood.  If this does not adequately send the message that women can be bought, why not just take this ridiculousness to its logical extreme by patronizing the Darkwood Bordello where gold can be exchanged for sex?  Or perhaps it would be better to just have a fling with one of the many thin-waisted, well-endowed common folk who can be romanced with nothing more than flirtations and heroic poses?  It would be easy to laugh at this all if it were not so sad.  What more can you expect, though, from a game that counts a player’s sexual escapades with its built-in statistics tracker?

In Fable’s defense, I suppose this is all just part of immersing gamers into the world of Albion, which is inarguably the title’s great strength.  Whether it is a heroic instrumental track that Danny Elfman assisted on, stylized graphics that give off a warm and cartoonish vibe, cut scenes which incorporate what looks like illustrations from a book of fairy tales, or incredibly hilarious British voice acting that could have come from a Monty Python film, this is not so much a game as it is an experience for gamers.  Fable will not provide most players with anything that they have not already seen before, but it does not have to.  What it will provide is one of the highest quality and most well-polished RPGs that has ever been made.  This is easily the best game I have played in my three year journey through the land of retro PC gaming, and if not for its juvenile male tendencies, I daresay it would be perfect.

Verdict:  Recommended