Fable: Anniversary – Impressions 2

            One thing that has really stood out to me in Fable Anniversary after twelve or so hours is the clever marriage of linearity and more open-ended level design. The maps are all rather small in size, basic too, though certain of them have branching paths, which often lead to side areas and locations which may not be featured in the plot proper. The sense of exploration is a great asset, limited as it is at times, with few ways of interacting with the world. Still, the crisp colors and creative world designs only serve to heighten that feeling of joy which arises when stumbling upon some new area, exploring freely. The whimsical music, too, furthers the sense of immersion. The whole game is oozing with charm, even as it hits occasionally on rather dark themes. Certain of the maps even visually reflect this somber tone, furthering the diversity of landscapes; graveyards and marshes, for instance, are gloomy and wonderfully atmospheric. While the game is in no ways open-world – there are loading screens dividing each area, though luckily they are very brief – the quest system itself is fairly open ended. At any one time, there may be a multitude of side quests on offer at the Heroes’ Guild. While many of them are simplistic at times, almost all involving combat in some way, they serve as enjoyable diversions from the main quest strands, which are understandably more refined. These side quests, though, even if rudimentary, serve as impetuses and incentives to explore the world of Albion. They may only offer gold, experience points, or the much-coveted renown, combat the only challenge, but the stories in some of the more elaborate side quests serve as some of the game’s greatest moments so far.

            One such side quest I currently have in process is related to the enigmatic, despised mayor of North Bowerstone, Lady Grey. Having just participated in the Arena, and emerging victoriously, I am given permission to enter that formerly barred area. Up to this point, Lady Grey has been but a rumor. Many NPC’s in the game world talk about her, usually always negatively. Finally meeting with success, she shows a particular interest in the Hero. So great is her interest, in fact, she poses the proposition of marriage. And yet, the decision comes with a great many complications. Her initial requirement is that the player owns a house. Easy enough – there is a house purchasable in a nearby district for a paltry sum. This done, she informs the Hero about a family heirloom, an ancient necklace newly gone missing – stolen. After asking around the town, news arrives that it is in Oakvale, town of the Hero’s birth. Finally travelling there, the thieves are sought out and the precise location of the necklace is revealed through some clever eavesdropping. I have stopped the quest at this point, as I am not quite certain how to proceed, which choice I want to make. I initially when to go further on this marital route, finding completion there to lie in the defeat of Thunder, an older, rival Hero, competing suitor. A second, decidedly different action exists, though: the truth behind Lady Grey – her shady past – and her nefarious ways can be pursued and revealed. This is achieved primarily through the assistance of a prisoner, who has a great deal of suspicions regarding the figure of Grey. This entire narrative and flexibility is wonderful, and the fact that the entire mission is optionable and easily missable is rather tragic. Still, it stands out precisely because of its elaborate nature, and while no combat has been directly involved, it is as engaging as any of the main objectives – many of which are quite spectacular and compelling on their own.

            Of the main quests completed so far, two really stand out to me. The first mission involves a raid on a nearby bandit camp, the bandits therein supposedly harassing the people in the adjacent area, one even having knowledge of the whereabouts of the Hero’s sister, who has survived the blaze shown in the game’s opening in the idyllic Oakvale. Initially, it is very frustrating. For whatever reason, the developer’s chose to include a forced stealth section here. The gates to the bandit camp proper are closely monitor by a handful of lookouts. There are even a trio of guards pursuing the immediate area. The objective is to enter the camp undetected. This wouldn’t be so bad if the controls for stealth weren’t so awful. There is a crouch feature which lowers the chance of detection, but the movement speed while in this state is painfully slow. The enemies can also be fairly perceptive, and because of the lousy mechanics, the entire thing comes across as forced and frustrating. I must have failed nine or ten times, with each failure meaning a further influx of guards and the temporary closing of the gates. Once the camp has been entered, though, the mission improves dramatically.

            The stealth objective is especially odd, considering the first action upon entering the camp means the slaughtering of all the bandits therein. The Hero needs to obtain a suit of bandit armor, to infiltrate the more heavily-guarded areas of the camp, where the target character, Twinblade, resides. It is fairly straightforward yet enjoyable, involving increasingly refined combat and joyous treasure hunting. Once the outfit is obtained, there is a further obstacle in entering Twinblade’s sanctuary. A diversion must be made to gain entrance, and this can come about in multiple ways. Ultimately, I chose to murder a prison guard, and steal a key in his possession. Luckily, as he was positioned quite a ways away from the other bandits, his death when unseen. Next, I proceeded to liberate a pair of prisoners. They fled the area, creating in their wake the needed diversion. I entered Twinblade’s camp and engaged in combat with the man.

            Really, the boss battle was quite lackluster. Twinblade expectantly has a great deal of health points, and his attacks inflict significant damage. Usually, I employed dodges to avoid his blows, whittling away at him with arrows. He goes down rather quickly and is left in a totally vulnerable position. Before a decision on his fate can be made, the Hero’s sister, Theresa, is reintroduced. Totally blind, she is instantly made into a compelling, likable character – mysterious, too. She informs the player of her fate after the burning of Oakvale. Supposedly, she was taken in by the bandits responsible for the raid. They coddle her, nurture her, Twinblade especially, and show her great care. This complicates the choice at hand, whether or no to end Twinblade, or spare him. It’s not exactly binary: on the one hand, Twinblade slaughtered the Hero’s family and friends. At the same time, he rescued and raised Theresa. While revenge may seem logical, in the end, I left Twinblade to his own devices; my sister was saved, and so comes to conclusion another of Fable’s fantastic missions. It is all a very involved process, with a combination of flawed stealth, regular combat, treasure hunting, guile, and even decision making. The voice acting on offer for both Theresa and Twinblade are quite moving, he noticeably gruff. It is very satisfying overall, ambitious and unique all the game’s wonderful components coming together, synergy established.   

The Lady Grey incident, too, further shows the complexity which extends even to some of the side, secondary objectives. True, they are not universally interesting – there are the standard collectable missions, like gathering together books for a resource-depleted elementary school or collecting silver keys in pursuit of legendary weapons and armor. But the majority are interesting, and can only exist, I think, in a game such as this design-wise. In a true open-world game, repetition can set in fast, many missions serving as iterations of other missions, with little deviation in terms of design and objectives. Not so here. There is freedom, but it is a carefully reigned in freedom. Many things can be missed in the game, but the fact that many objectives are so involved and interesting, only serves to make the impact of these losses and over-glossing all the greater, more painful. True, as has been said, not all of these side-activities go to the depths to be found in the suiting, courting mission. But even if they are lacking in complexity or intrigue, they are still enjoyable to complete, due to the game’s deep, flexible combat systems. Combat in this game goes hand in hand with exploration. While the world-building and immersion are impressive, if the game failed in terms of combat mechanics, it wouldn’t excel quite as strongly as I think it does. Swapping deftly between bows, spells, and swords is done perfectly, and there is a strategic element to the combat, particularly against certain types of foes. Certain Hobbes have access to long-range damage and should thusly be singled out and eliminated first. Similarly, there are cross-bow wielding bandits who pose significant threat. The diversity of spells on offer only furthers to complexity here, some spells even restricted to certain moral alignments. One other especially enjoyable mission that is very combat-intensive occurs in the Arena, which poses great challenge. But that is for another time. What’s here, though, is great, both in terms of combat and exploration. The world is lovingly made, always with something intriguing around the corner – a beautiful sunrise, or some dense, crisp, and colorful foliage. There is a lot of combat, and yet, the game shows restraint. So many games today have lost that sense of reprieve intended to temper the more intense moments. Fable Anniversary has, so far, struck a perfect balance and I am enjoying it greatly.                 

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