Platforms: Xbox 360 (Kinect)
Developers: Lionhead Studios
Publishers: Microsoft Studios
There's always a caveat that comes when describing a promising Xbox 360 title that centres around motion control, one that comes with a seemingly contradictory three-word buzz phrase: good Kinect game. It's the Kinect part that changes the perception, we can all at least recognise some core qualities of a generally good game,, but it's implied that what constitutes a good Kinect game might require at least a certain amount of patience, forgiveness, and a specific mindset indeed.
So it is that to call a game a "good Kinect game" might be to damn it with faint praise, lauding its qualities on the one hand, and quietly laughing at anyone who'll spend full price on it.
Kinect still irritates me enormously, though much of that is down to the fact that I'm physically a bit too tall for it at times, you can't play anything energetic on it in a flat that's not on the ground floor for fear of being shot by your neighbours (justifiably, I might add), and few of its experiences linger once you've abandoned your console. Only Child of Eden came close.
But Fable: The Journey draws you in, utilising Microsoft's gimmick to its fullest advantage, and delivering an incredibly immersive experience that, perhaps for the first time ever, makes Albion seem like a lived in world rather than a stopping point for quirky characters, amusing cameos from established actors, and pantomime humour. For all of its comic brilliance, Albion never quite came together as a whole, and your attachment to it as a character was tenuous at best. You could affect events, sure, but I found I never really cared. But not any more.
The Journey is set half a century after the events of Fable III and you step into the shoes of a young, daydreaming Dweller named Gabriel. He's a well-meaning but rather scatterbrained, earnest young fellow, albeit something of a layabout, and it's his tardiness which gets him separated from the rest of his small tribe, after having overslept. As the convoy moves to cross a furious river, a storm, seemingly driven by the Spire cracks the bridge which spans the river's gorge, and Gabriel is tasked with guiding his trusty steed Seren and their cart across via a different, longer, and far more dangerous route. In fact, not long after they set off anew, they bump into Zoe Wanamaker's seer - Theresa - who's fleeing from a dark force known as the Corruption, an evil power that manages to wound Seren.
Microsoft let us loose on the first three hours of the game a week or so ago, and whilst the first hour is predominantly made up of slowly driving your cart, it does at least allow Lionhead to really root you in the world of Albion. Whether Gabriel is absently talking to Seren, or Theresa is regaling the young man with old tales of the land's history, Fable, as the name suggests, has always felt like playing through a bedtime story for adults, and that's still very much he feel of this game.
The bond with your horse is established incredibly quickly, in fact the very first things you'll do with your hands is to call over Seren and give your horse a bit of a stroke. It gives Kinect a chance to react to your position, lighting, and the multiple movement inputs that will later become a staple of the action, but it also sets about developing a very personal relationship to Seren. When she gets injured later on and you have to pull a huge thorn from her flank, I actually found myself wincing a bit.
Driving the cart is a simple matter of flourishing reins as you would were a real pair in your hands, and moving left and right by moving one arm forward and one arm back, stopping with a pull in towards the chest. Simple stuff, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that, with regards to turning at least, the gradients of movement are smooth rather than simply offering three channels of rails. There are three speeds - trot, canter, gallop - and you have to mind Seren's health, so no marathon gallop sessions or she'll start to wane, and you have to mind objects, obstacles, and rocky terrain.
Some might feel that it drags on a little bit, but this is a Kinect game designed for long periods of play, after all, and driven by a strong story. That it's been specifically designed around seated play is crucial, and by and large it works fairly well. Better yet, you'll start with hugely exaggerated motions, particularly when it comes to turning, and the game will tell you to chill out a bit and relax, to rest your arms on your legs between direction changes, and to reassure you that the game will pick up on subtle movements.
Seren's injury, following the encounter with the Corruption, leads you to the Spell Cave where things start to get interesting. Here Gabriel learns how to fight - a quality that will stand him in good stead against the marauding Hobbes and and Baverines that inhabit Albion's roads. A pair of metal gauntlets that bind themselves to his arms allow for the maniuplation of energy. You can essentially Force Push objects (thrusting forward with your left arm), fling energy missiles with Bolt (whipping your right arm forward in the desired direction), redirect those Bolts with Aftertouch, and defend against attacks with Shield (holding hand to your chest).
For the most part these moves all work well, with a statue-felling mini-game on hand to ensure that your calibration is right. It's incredibly important to make sure that the setup is just right, as the Hobbe camp you'll come across soon after will put your newfound abilities to the test. It's important to learn the way that the game works and build on that rather than flinging Bolts about with abandon based on instinct. Do that and the game becomes an accurate advertisement for Kinect's power and Lionhead's fantastic design, truly immersive and a lot of fun, although there were still one or two enemies that we couldn't hit no matter how many times we tried. We hope that was due to the setup on the day, or at least maybe a bug that can be ironed out before launch, as it would be a real shame for so much good work to be undone by the odd moment of avoidable, immersion-breaking frustration.
It's clear to see that Lionhead have tried to work within Kinect's confines, and that's a good thing, because it makes for an experience in which you're rarely disappointed. The pacing allows the developers to give Albion a greater, more explicit sense of identity and make it a more dangerous place. It is on-rails, of course, in spite of previous quotes and rumours suggesting otherwise, although there were a couple of camps and cameos to be foud along the side of the road that allowed the player to slow up and occasionally move away from the cart. One such sideshow involved rescuing a villager with a dislocate hip who'd been hung upside down for a few days in a Hobbe camp. Once free, he promptly popped his hip back into place with a snap and bade us thanks.
Of course, it's one thing to forgive the slow pace over three hours, but another for the twenty or so that Lionhead are aiming for, and only a full playthrough will really determine if Kinect can be turned into a satisfying medium for longer-form, narrative-driven titles. Fable: The Journey is on the right path, but there are still one or two niggles that need ironing out ahead of launch, and that's really not far away at all. Still, with a stronger sense of character and setting, I find myself cautiously looking forward to The Journey for the first time since it was announced, and I've not been able to say that about a Kinect game in a while.