Ladies and gentlemen, we have an early frontrunner for my 2008 game of the year.
It wasn’t long ago that I wrote about the poor state of Japanese gaming, with particular mention of how the RPG genre was thriving in Western hands thanks to its splicing with more mainstream genres, and Fable II is an ideal demonstration of this. While JRPG developers are seemingly content to remake their sacred cows until FFXIII comes and shows them what to do next, Lionhead has picked the best tropes of the traditional RPG and discarded the rest, replacing it with cherry-picked elements from straight action games and thereby opening up a staid and traditionally hardcore genre to a new audience.
Its simplicity is one way that it does this. Far from over-simplifying things, the controversial one-button combat – actually more like three buttons, to be fair – takes the battles away from both turn-based menu-digging and the mindless slashing of something like Oblivion. The closest comparison I can think of is a fighting game, thinking ahead as you input a three-hit melee combo followed by a rifle blast to the chops and a quick blast of fire to give yourself some room, all with only three different buttons. There’s no memorising button combos for certain spells provided you take the time to get used to how the spell-charging works, and it means combat never becomes a chore.
There’s now a minimal penalty for death, which is a small hit to your experience, and this coupled with the lack of levelling – although you do get more powerful as you trade experience for enhanced stats and spells – means that you’re never fighting the game to progress and it’s not a game that’s likely to sit unfinished because you got stuck.
But if the measure of an RPG is its towns, which is a theory that I definitely subscribe to, Fable II is right up there with the best. Coming off a spell in the wilderness to find a nice little hamlet to do some shopping and rest up has always been the best part, and good ones will guarantee that an RPG lives long in my memory, whatever flaws it may have – who didn’t love Skies of Arcadia despite the obnoxious random battles? The feeling is the same in Fable II, showing off just how beautiful the game looks.
One such moment that lingers in my memory is the first inter-city journey you undertake, going from the capital of Albion, Bowerstone, to the rural village of Oakfield. After a few in-game days spent travelling through groups of bandits and a cave full of nasties, I arrived right as the sun was starting to go down and the rays were coming through the trees in the orchard, and it was just beautiful.
It’s varied in its visual styles, too. One early highlight has you – minor spoiler warning – fighting Balverines (werewolves) in the subterranean Howling Halls, an apparent Mines of Moria homage. It’s a great action sequence in itself, but the lead up to it as Balverines stop their random attacks in a dark and stormy forest and you catch glimpses of them watching from atop ruined masonry as you walk into their trap is brilliantly executed. But seriously, who can be surprised that an ambush is coming when you’ve been fighting werewolves and get funnelled into an underground crypt called the ‘Howling Halls’?
The humour and voice work is as exemplary as it was in the first Fable. It’s seriously like a Monty Python game, chock full of very British humour and accents from all over Britain – which, to be fair, makes sense for a game set in a world called Albion – from the rude Scottish insults thrown at you from the game’s hidden gargoyles to the familiar tones of the rural folk. I’m not sure how it plays abroad, but I like a fantasy world that doesn’t fit into the mould of the dashing American-voiced hero or the fantasy realm where everyone speaks like English royalty. Let’s have more funny accents in games.
Of course, it’s not perfect. There are as many niggling bugs as any other open-world game, the expression system can feel clunky and really needs shortcuts – letting me map four to the D-pad in lieu of the flaky context-sensitive commands would be nice – the online co-op has clearly been rushed to make a day one patch and will hopefully be improved before too long, and the dog is cool but has some annoying flaws like a tendency to run through you and a habit of falling behind whenever you have to swim. There’s apparently an update in the works, which is never the ideal way to do things, but there you go…
But still, the good far outweighs the bad for me. Tons to do, from quests to raising a family – or families – and becoming a real-estate magnate, buying up any property in the game to rent out or doing up and selling on for a profit, and the rest, all wrapped up in a beautiful and humorous package. This will take a lot of beating.