Fable: Anniversary – Final Review

            Fable Anniversary’s gameworld is fantastic. The land of Albion, influenced strongly by Medieval England, is a beautiful land, one of great diversity in terms of locales; technically, it may be seen as unimpressive, or possibly just dated; the textures are not exactly mind-blowing, and the facial animations and character designs for the NPC’s are basic at best. But the game excels greatly when the more fantastical areas are emphasized; creatively, the world of Albion is very impressive and charming. This is the compensation. There are bright, forested pathways with beautifully flowering trees; almost exaggeratingly bright in terms of coloration, they still cling to reality, and an excellent balance is achieved between realism and fantasy. These bright areas are contrasted sharply by more somber environments, like graveyards and marshy areas, with in contrast dead, leafless trees. In these environments, atmosphere is furthered by an overall darker brightness, and wonderful fog effects. They can be quite impressive, based off of the moods they elicit; there is a strong air of the atmospheric. Exploring the world of Albion is a joy, and this diversity of environments brings about a largeness to the world, even as it is objectively small in terms of landmass. The dense, urban sprawl of Bowerstone stands in stark contrast to the rural, less developed Oakvale, seemingly situated miles and miles from another, though this distance is largely a façade. While a fair bit of time is spent in these two primary city hubs, a great part of the game is devoted to exploration. If the environments were bland, exploration might become a chore. Not so here; Albion is a wonder, a land which fires the imagination and incentivizes exploration, tangibly and not so tangibly. Keys and treasure chests mark immediate rewards; they may lay along the paths which connect the varied areas, and there is a subtle excitement to be had when merely exploring the world, knowing treasures are located just around the corner. Albion seems lived-in, and the world and its people are overwhelmingly endearing; the game oozes charm.    

This sense of place is only furthered by the wonderful music and sound effects on offer. As with the environments, the music can be rather diverse; tranquil at times, it shifts easily from the idyllic to the tense, when circumstances dictate the change. While it does increase in terms of intensity in certain scenarios, it never let’s go of its playfulness, and complements excellently the world-building. There is music almost always playing, though it never becomes intrusive, or even repetitive. It lends the game an almost epic feeling, increasing the grandeur of even the most mundane of actions; it is stirring. The atmospheric sounds are similarly impressive, with chirping, melodious birds, and even piercing gusts of wind at times. The sounds accompanying sword strikes or axe blows do lack a bit of impactfulness, though the groans of stricken enemies do lend a sense of the visceral as they collapse to the ground. The sparking of a shock spell as it leaps from enemy to enemy is especially memorable, and the effects for magic overall are very well done. The mentioned urban center, Bowerstone, is almost overwhelming in terms of noise, with heralds, inn patrons, merchants, and citizens all mulling about, pacing the city, shopping, and enjoying its varied delights. It furthers the sense that this is a real, lived-in place, this location again contrasting with the ambient sound effects of Oakvale, with the sea peacefully lapping along the shores. The howls of dying balverines can evoke aspects of horror, while aggressive Hobbes have an almost comedic component to their battle cries. Things like these can often be overlooked, though here they are well done, and show a great attention to detail. The voice acting is more immediately noticeable, with voice overs and a large number of cutscenes spread throughout the game’s narrative. The voice actors for the key characters are spot on, though the more minor characters speak in an almost cliched British accent, very over the top, leaning occasionally to the obnoxious. Rather than highlighting darker areas and themes, components like the voice acting develop instead a more comedic tone. I think this style, a sharp break from the grittier games which flood the market, is another one of the game’s strengths, placing it in a position of relative uniqueness, though this is not to say dark themes are eschewed entirely: spread throughout the game’s lengthy narrative, somber notes are touched on.

            The game opens in the mentioned city of Oakvale. The Hero, a young boy at this point, is tasked with gathering together a few gold coins for the purpose of buying a birthday present for Theresa, his older sister. Here, the movement mechanics are introduced, as is the morality component; certain objectives – even at this early stage – typically have multiple ways of completion, typically either morally sound and honest, or darker, and evil. A cheating husband can be exposed, for instance, or his wife can be deceived of his true actions of adultery. In the same vein, a merchant’s stock can be protected whilst he is away for a break, or that stock can be savagely destroyed. There are further instances of these morality choices later in the game, though really, they never grow in terms of real complexity, though the gravitas behind them does, admittedly, increase. At any rate, these opening minutes establish a sense of place – Oakvlale is a place of blissful normalcy and innocence, save for the scant sordid characters, like the cheating man. Quickly, this normalcy is destroyed; the village is raided by bandits, razed to the ground, burned in flames, its doomed citizens savagely murdered. The Hero is saved from this disaster, though the fate of the other inhabitants is left a mystery – did everyone die, or were any able to elude death? That is the initial mystery, and while we know next to nothing about the Hero, his sister, his family, or even Albion, a certain investment comes about; these are real people, simple people, who were subject to disaster. It is a very satisfying opening, and based off this, one might expect the tone to be on the darker side exclusively, with ruthless, savage individuals.  Again, though, tonally there is vacillation, a constant shifting between the comedic and the dark, though I do think the explicit maturity of this introduction was a brilliant way to open things, showing the hostility of the world. In this brief, tragic introduction, it is revealed that the blood of the heroes’ runs through the boy’s veins, and he is preserved. With the hero blood comes the potential for change, and a possible destruction of these damning hostilities. Still a child, he is taken to the Heroes’ Guild, to grow and develop.

            These opening sections at the Heroe’s Guild serve as another tutorial, teaching the mechanics of combat specifically, in a relatively straightforward way. Combat in this game stands right alongside exploration as one of the primary focuses. It often times takes center stage, and luckily, there is a great deal of depth here. Combat is divided into three primary branches – strength, skill, and will. There is, then, some complexity in terms of character development, though rather than specializing in any one area, I grew my character into something of a jack-of-all-trades. I think this is the safest way to play, and with these specs, I never ran into any conflict that was completely insurmountable. The organic combination of these varied abilities is very impressive and also quite satisfying, particularly when they have been mastered. In these introductory segments, though, little of that complexity is hinted at, but the skills gradually develop through the acquisition of experience orbs, spendable on the various upgrades. Experience orbs are awarded upon both quest completion and even on triumph over enemies; the game is fairly generous in their distribution, though it is still impossible to perfect all attributes and unlock and refine all of the spells. Still, there is a constant sense of improvement, which is very satisfying. This impulsive drive for self-betterment furthers the desire for exploration, with frequent experience-holding enemies prowling the land of Albion. Uniquely, there are very few numbers and statistics to manage and obsess over, so progression is intuitive and straightforward. There is depth, though the game never ventures to the convoluted.

            Developing further the combat. There is a surprising degree of flexibility on offer, with many varieties of melee weapons on offer, with lighter, swifter, smaller weapon like a cleaver, through to the massive, lumbering great-sword. The combat animations are at times basic and clunky, though this misstep does not detract from the enjoyment factor to be found in clashing blade with blade. For the most part choice of weapon comes down to preference; it is subjective, and all are viable. I used an axe for much of the run and was quite satisfied with it. Towards the end of my playthrough, though, I came across a larger, two-handed battle-axe. The animations for this weapon were noticeably different, and it felt fun to use, with its own distinct handling. Legendary weapons complicate the issue, though. While objectively stronger in terms of raw strength, they lack augmentation slots, which can be installed on basic weapons. Ranging from increased damage through to health regeneration, these augmentations have significant benefits on offer once they have been fashioned onto a weapon. This places further weight on the decision of weaponry. Combat is very broad in scope, too, when considering these calculations are confined solely to one branch of combat, that related to might. Ranged combat is not quite as developed – there are only two varieties of weapons, bows and crossbows – but they still play a crucial role in a large variety of engagements. Expectantly powerful at range, where they truly excel, the targeting system is such that they maintain certain powers and effectiveness even within melee range of the enemy, though in close proximity in this way, again the veers towards the clunky. The greatest complexity, though, is related to will, or magic. There are a dizzying amount of spells on offer, each of them upgradable. Certain spells are blocked depending on alignment, healing spells being accessible only to the benevolent, demon summoning confined to the malicious. I only dipped my foot in the water and experimented with relatively few of these spells, but the spells I did invest it quickly became an important part of my combat repertoire. Some may choose to eschew this tree for role-playing purposes, focusing entirely on the other two branches, but I can’t imagine doing without will and the increased options which accompany it. Taken together, these three pillars of combat result in an overall experience that is visceral, enjoyable, complex, flexible, and intuitive.

            While the world of Albion is lovingly crafted and fun to explore, I did find the majority of the side quests to be overly basic and even lackluster. Initially, I did not feel this way at all; I was very impressed with their quality and inventiveness. Some side quests stand out greatly, like one which has as the primary goal the wedding of our Hero to the feisty, corrupt mayor of Bowerstone, Lady Gray. Very involved and elaborate, this quest was spectacular. But beyond this, many of them are simple collection quests, tasking the player with finding hidden mushrooms, for instance, or building upon an elementary school’s scant library. The courting of Lady Gray was somewhat of an anomaly. Many of these side quests are simply forgettable, though there is just enough diversity on offer so that the repetitious does not set in. The quests further encourage exploration of the game world; even if narratively they are simple and inconsequential, they act as impetuses for exploration. Considering the strength of the game’s world, that is a wonderful thing. Similarly, they do award the coveted experience orbs of variable value, so they are certainly not fruitless endeavors, even if they are a times far from satisfying. Many of the quests also have dual iterations, supporting the morality system. A bandit may be under escort of guards, being led to Headsman’s Hill for execution. The Hero can accompany the guards, repelling the expected attacks of the bandit’s kinsmen. Conversely, the Hero can side with the bandits and murder the escort, freeing the marked man in the process. Throughout my playthrough, I tended almost exclusively towards the benevolent side – it seemed logical and right; in this quest, it seemed only natural to assist the guards. Aiding them in this way, my alignment slider moved in a positive direction, literally reflected in the appearance of the Hero. This character morphing is a key component of the series, and it is done well enough here. I think it’s great the developer’s worked in this flexibility, in offering the choice between good and evil, this encouraging role-playing. Throughout the main campaign, there are a few decisions of greater value and impact than the choices to be found in the lesser side quests. Almost all of them, though, are extremely binary, black and white choices. In one especially memorable quest, the Hero triumphs in the Arena, a rather challenging gauntlet. He is assisted in these fights, though, by Whisper, a friend and rival from the Hero’s childhood in the guild. After all enemies have been bested, a proposition is made: kill Whisper, and receive in return a large sum of gold. A massive amount of gold is already promised for success in the Arena, and it is unfathomable to me how anyone could consider killing her, especially given her role in the Hero’s development. I can understand if someone was truly role-playing as a dedicated, consistently evil character, but I just wish these choices were more numerous and more ambiguous – as it is, there is virtually no gray area in terms of decision making.

            This Arena mission, which occurs maybe halfway through the main questline, was preceded by another memorable mission; elaborate in terms of length and objectives, it involves infiltrating a notorious bandit’s camp. Driven to the camp by rumors that Theresa still lives, having survived and grown amongst the bandit’s, the hero uses stealth, deception, and even a disguise to enter their camp. There are a lot of stages present in this one mission, and it becomes quickly apparent what the developer’s focus was: the crafting of a fairly linear, straightforward main quest line, determined to tell a moving story. It largely succeeds. I like all of the characters greatly, particularly Theresa, the blind seer, with a nice visual design and solid voice acting. The main missions are almost universally interesting, with more depth and challenge by far than the side missions. I simply adore exploring Albion, because of its creative diversity and world design, but really, it is these main missions which are most compelling, involved, engaging, and enjoyable. From the Hero’s training and maturation in the Guild, through to his forays in rescuing his sister – saving her from the bandit camp – fighting in the arena, slaying a mythical silver balverine – these missions make up the heart of the game, and reinforce the idea that this is a linear game, most of all, despite the branching pathways and freedom in terms of character building, quest acceptance and completion. The main antagonist, Jack of Blades, is subtly introduced in the arena mentioned, though his villainy is only hinted at. He quickly emerges as the dominant foe for the Hero, and while his grander motivations are never explicitly developed, what is here is extremely cliched, involving the ho-hum search for a sword, and the power contained therein. In being introduced relatively early as veiled villain, the Hero is provided with another motivation for his actions and searches. The Hero seeks merely to stop Jack from pursuing this quest for power, a goal which takes the Hero from the Guild, through to a prison in search of his Hero mother, who survived the Oakvale slaughter, then to the snowy wastes of the north, all in the hopes of gaining the upper hand. The scale is epic. But while the path is long and winding, there is indeed some intrigue here. Narratively, the game is impressive if protracted, but it is truly carried by its world building and its nuanced combat systems. The game ends with one of the mentioned, fateful decisions – ridiculously, the conclusion is rather unsatisfying, the moral choice very clear. I have yet to play the added content from The Lost Chapters, but I am very hopeful that some greater resolution will be achieved, and that new, exciting environments are also introduced. Albion is a wonder, and I am very excited to see more of that diverse, compelling game world, with its diversity, humor, style, and creativity. I don’t expect it to change things from a gameplay perspective, but I am hopeful that narratively it will soar.   

Anniversary’s Albion is without a doubt, a spectacular world, wonderful creatively, being exceedingly imaginative and almost arresting. It is a land packed with diversity, which incentivizes exploration, encourages immersion in its living, breathing world, a world steeped in humor and charm which never become totally overbearing; there is a fantastical element to this Albion, a fairy tale aesthetic. The game seems like one epic journey, with constant character progression and riveting gameplay. Critically, the game adopts a unique, hybrid linear/open design, and I think it benefits greatly from that, sets it apart, allowing it to carve and create its own distinct identity. The strengths of the game are bolstered by a tight, compelling narrative, though it is a narrative which kind of outstays its welcome as things truly come to a head. I spent around twenty hours with this main campaign, and while I don’t seek to replay it any time soon, I can certainly see myself having a repeat playthrough down the line, to focus on a darker morality, and maybe change my combat styles – there is depth here, and being a remaster, many but not all of the cracks from age have been filled in. The U.I. has been refined and is very intuitive, while the control scheme has also been altered and modernized. It is very accessible, enjoyable, and I would certainly recommend it, even as it falters somewhat in its occasionally meandering narrative, certain quests seeming superfluous and unnecessary, though this arbitrary nature extends most strongly to the simplistic side quests, some excelling narratively and in terms of intrigue, though many others totally falling flat. There is great fun to be found here, though, the intuitive gameplay compensating for any narrative lulls. My foray into the world of Albion was an enjoyable, satisfying one. And there is still The Lost Chapters to play through!      

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