There’s an observable cycle with Fable games that we’ve all grown very familiar with by now: promises are made, promises are broken, fans are upset, rinse, repeat. Even with this Kinect spin-off the cycle remains unbroken. Peter Molyneux, still struggling to exercise self-restraint when it comes to promoting his games, followed last year’s terribly wooden E3 showing of Fable: The Journey by declaring he wanted to, “state on record now that Fable: The Journey is definitely not on rails.”
Predictably, this title is very much on-rails, the only possible direction in the unwaveringly linear adventure being forward. At this rate the “life-changing” centre of Curiosity’s cube is likely going to be filled with photos of Molyneux’s old socks.
There is some player-controlled navigation in The Journey, but not a great deal. It’s located in the half of the game spent in the driver’s perch of a horse-drawn carriage, where each snap of the reins with a quick motion of your arms sees your horse Seren go from a trot, then to a canter, then a full-on sprint. Moving one arm in and the other out controls the steering, much as it does in Kinect: Star Wars’ podracing, except here the far slower speeds and narrow roads make it half as exciting. Some sections, such as where the player is pursued by a chaotic force named The Devourer and must steer the cumbersome carriage at a full gallop, hint at the possibility of a faster and more entertaining experience, but Fable: The Journey never delivers on this potential.
The second half of the game, in which Theon Greyjoy sound-alike Gabriel dismounts from his carriage and progresses on foot, takes place entirely on-rails, with the only control the player has being the direction in which they cast magical attacks.
It’s a bit like Virtua Cop but without the peripheral, which coincidentally makes far a far less enjoyable experience. Gabriel has a set of magical gauntlets that, by the end of the game, allow him to cast five different spells, the right hand able to arc out spells such as fizzling sparks of blue energy or spears of stone that shatter into shards once cast. The left hand controls a lasso of green energy that snares enemies and enables the player to throw them over edges or up into the air with a second flick of the wrist.
As Gabriel tidily positions himself around levels you’ll take on swarms of Hobbes, Balverines and Hollow Men, using tricks such as directing the path of a misfired bolt while it’s in midair, or yanking shields from an enemy’s grasp before following up with a secondary blow. The occasional boss fights in particular require various skills used in conjunction with one another, making for some of the most engaging moments of the game.
Nevertheless, Fable: The Journey is passably entertaining at best, irksome at worst. While never threatening the same lack of sensitivity as the hopelessly bad Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor did earlier this year, Fable: The Journey still offers a less-than-perfect Kinect experience, with many of your thrown spells launching off in the opposite direction intended or sometimes failing to launch at all. It’s a complaint we’re very used to hearing of Kinect by now, but once again you will find yourself flailing frantically at the screen throughout Fable: The Journey, finding luck more reliable than skill in progressing from one combat encounter to the next.
In a single-player that lasts up to eight hours the repetitiveness of the game design and frustrations with Kinect can make for an experience that’s more of a chore than a challenge. Variety is attempted in optional off-the-beaten-track sections that usually offer little more than a chest with a dull and worthless collectible inside, and there are stables where you can stroke, feed and heal your horse as if it were a virtual pet for extra XP (see Strong As A Horse), however they do little to remedy the malaise that sets in quick and never fully dissipates.
It would be even worse if it weren’t for the redeeming feature that is The Journey’s setting. Like a prettier, chunkier and more colourful version of Skyrim, the bucolic fields and dense woodland of Albion are better presented here than ever before in the series. Now running on Unreal Engine 3 instead of Lionhead’s proprietary game engine, Fable: The Journey has created a cartoon world that’s a pleasure to inhabit, from sun drenched panoramas to the dark blues and greys of cave systems.
It’s a clichéd word to pull out of the bag when discussing games, but Fable: The Journey does exude charm from its world and characters. Even though they’re poorly written, the new performance captured animations and earnest voice acting make the various personalities you meet along the way something to be savoured in an otherwise bland adventure. We mentioned Virtua Cop earlier, but perhaps, in many ways, Dead Space: Extraction is the better comparison. One may be a blood soaked horror and the other a whimsical fairy tale that – have no doubt – is aimed at kids, but both use the on-rails template to weave new and interesting stories from otherwise familiar worlds, and they both do that very well at least.
Nevertheless, Dead Space: Extraction at least had the Wii Remote. Fable: The Journey only has Kinect, and once again it’s too unresponsive, too fiddly and too annoying to carve a genuinely enjoyable experience out of Albion. Whether Fable: The Journey was a labour of love or a contractual obligation matters little; when all’s said and done the only thing that matters is that this feels like another nail in the coffin for this generation’s version of Kinect – and perhaps even its last.