When Mel Brooks said, “It’s good to be the king,” he was only talking about one facet of the job. Sure, the parties can be fantastic and the furnishings are exquisite, but being in command of a kingdom is more of a royal pain than anything else.
When you first start Fable III, you don’t get that impression. As the youngest child of a legendary hero, you’ve heard the vague rumblings from the rabble that your brother, King Logan, is a tyrannical maniac. Maybe it’s the random executions. Perhaps the high taxes and child labor have left negative impressions on the citizenry. Regardless, those kinds of complaints are beneath your station in life – but that changes quickly after a tragic turn of events. Soon you’re scrambling to assemble an army. Enough is enough! It’s time for a revolution, baby!
As the prince or princess, you travel the lands of Albion with your mentor, Walter Beck. As luck (or fate) would have it, Walter just so happens to be friendly with a variety of assorted riffraff, rebels, and revolutionaries. Those factions have one important thing in common: They cannot stand King Logan, and they will do whatever it takes to overthrow him. Since you’re a member of the royal family, though, you have to win over each of those leaders by performing acts of heroism and doing a few favors.
Most of those missions are variations of the typical “go here, kill this, retrieve that” formula that we’re accustomed to in our adventure games. Fortunately, Fable III has more than a few tricks up its sleeves.
Fable III is the latest example of Lionhead’s battle against cluttered interfaces. Much of the HUD has been stripped away, and combat is similarly bare. At least, that’s how it seems at first. There are three main types of attacks in the game – melee, firearm, magic – and each is performed by pressing the button that’s permanently attached to it. You could conceivably get away with mashing away, but players who time the attacks to correspond to the action and charge attacks at the right time are treated to devastating finishers that show you flattening your opponent’s head or perforating their backs in a dramatic slow-motion closeup. I had fun with it, but combat isn’t a wildly different experience from Fable II; you press a button, swing your sword or cast your spell, and move on.
Other genre mainstays are tweaked significantly, though sometimes it feels as though Lionhead is tinkering with things simply because it can. Character progression eschews a traditional leveling system in favor of a more literal experience system dubbed the Road to Rule. In the beginning, the hero faces down a winding path that ends at the castle. Gates block your progression, and are unlocked one by one after completing important story-based tasks. As players work their way through the path, they can spend Guild Seals (essentially XP) to open chests. Those chests contain things like combat upgrades, emotion packs, dyes for clothing, and new spells. It’s a nice way to present leveling up, though it doesn’t fundamentally change the mechanics beneath such systems. The same can be said for the player’s home base, called the Sanctuary. Staffed by Jasper the butler (voiced by John Cleese), it’s an all-in-one visual replacement for the various menus players usually zip through to equip gear, fast travel, and change appearance.
Lionhead’s efforts to replace abstract gaming concepts with more literal interpretations is interesting, but the overall effect is one of getting a flashy paint job instead of an arguably unnecessary overhaul. Sure, menus are weird gamey things, but there’s a reason they work – they’re faster than walking into a virtual closet. The interface doesn’t take anything away, but it doesn’t add anything extra to the experience, either.
Fable III’s focus on simplicity sometimes comes at a cost. Previously, players could choose from a variety of different actions when interacting with the townsfolk. Now, you’re limited to random selections that represent good, evil, and rude actions. Not being able to choose means that my prince had to do a lot of pelvic-grinding dance moves and games of patty cake with other men in order to become friends with them. It certainly doesn’t break the game, but I was disappointed that a game trumpeting player choice takes a significant step backward from Fable II’s level of NPC interaction.
The story is grim at times, but that’s not to say that it isn’t also one of the funniest games of the year. The writing is top notch, and there are at least three or four quests that rank among my favorite missions I’ve ever played. One highlight has the hero joining in a bickering trio’s Dungeons & Dragons-type game, complete with hoary descriptions and every RPG cliché you can imagine. Other times you might be asked to break up a doomed marriage or even try your hand at acting. You’ll find plenty of variety and choices to make.
Eventually, after working through the game’s storyline (and Road to Rule), the revolution is at hand. After assembling an army, making a promise or two, and saving the day dozens of times, you think that would be the end of things – you know, pop on the crown, sit on the throne, and call it a day. That’s where you’d be wrong.
Before you take a seat on the king’s chair and doze off, Logan fills you in on a few key things. Albion is facing a horrible threat, and the nation’s defense is in peril. As he tells it, that’s why he had to make the tough decisions he had to make – and be branded a tyrant because of them.
As king, players have an accelerated year to establish a strong defense before the invasion comes. Thankfully, you’re a hands-on leader, and you’ll occasionally exit the stuffy confines of your castle to discover valuable artifacts and mingle with the riffraff. Other times, you’ll have to sort out the worst kinds of problems: other people’s problems. Remember those promises? Well, people expect you to keep them. As you hold court, a parade of familiar faces comes in and asks for your help – which most often comes in the form of money. A lot of time is spent in your court, though I found the situations that arose every bit as riveting as beating back highwaymen or slaughtering groups of hobbes.
The Fable series has always focused on morality, and Fable III is no different. This time, however, the choices are far beyond the typical “kiss the baby or kick the baby” extremes that we’ve faced in the past. My first playthrough I was as evil as evil could be, and I broke my word at every opportunity. Every decision I made was born from greed, and I lined by bank account and bought up every square inch of available property. When the time of reckoning came, the kingdom suffered because of my greed.
On my second attempt, I decided I would be daddy’s li’l angel. I went out of my way to be good to everyone, and I kept every promise. My advisor warned me that popularity would be fleeting if everyone died because of the kingdom’s insolvency, but I didn’t care. People cheered when I entered the throne room, and it felt great (particularly compared to my earlier reception). And wouldn’t you know it? Just about everyone died.
You can’t be everything to everyone in Albion. Some people are going to be disappointed in you. No easy answers exist, and there aren’t any last-second saviors to bail you out from your poor planning. After playing through the game twice, I know more than ever that I’m not cut out for public office.
Even after you “beat” the game, new quests, locations, and characters open up. And those decisions you made as king? They’ll affect the way the world looks and behaves, too. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that when I said just about everybody died, I wasn’t kidding. From raising a family, becoming a land baron, and even partnering up with friends locally or online, this is the most fully realized version of Albion yet. It’s a must-play for fans of adventure or anyone who thinks they can run things better than those bums in Washington. Good luck.
There’s a lot to do in Fable III, and the package is alluring enough to make you want to actually do it again and again.