Platforms: Xbox 360 (Kinect)
Developers: Lionhead Studios
Publishers: Microsoft Studios
When was the last time you stopped to admire the scenery? In an effort to constantly stimulate us on a second-by-second basis, most games don't give us the chance to sit back, take stock and simply enjoy being in an entirely different world. At its best, Fable: The Journey does exactly that.
As a young travelling lad free to roam the roads of Albion, you'll trek across the colourful wilds of Lionhead's world in a quest to save it from a devastating magical corruption. You'll steer your cart, ably pulled by your beloved horse Seren, using Kinect integration to tug on her reins; viewing the roads and sweeping backdrops from behind the eyes of one of the awestruck protagonist. Like the best road trips, you'll also make several stops to take in the sights, meet some zany characters and (unlike most successful road trips) engage in some first-person combat. Though incredibly linear and bound to unbreakable rails, Fable: The Journey frequently threatens to do something rather magical.
It's an intimate and immersive new perspective from which experience the parody world of Albion, which has been fleshed out like never before. Characters, from new faces to Zoe Wanamaker's Theresa, have been voiced brilliantly and offer some effective jokes along with profound, rarely obtrusive exposition. Gorgeous Unreal-powered visuals bring Albion's varied environments to life, granting us a sense of scale and majesty through epic viewpoints and vistas. For the first time, we have a glimpse of what it's really like to live in Fable's universe, to be a citizen rather than a player character, and Albion finally feels like a world worth living in. Worth caring about. Worth saving.
Sadly, Fable: The Journey ends up flogging a dead horse when tries to be a videogame rather than an open-top bus ride. Then your arms fall off.
Kinect, for its part, works well during the horse and cart sequences. Pulling the reins to steer, cracking them to spur your horse onwards and yanking them to stop feels natural and responsive, theoretically allowing you to enjoy the view and granting you the illusion of agency despite the fierce linearity of the rails on which you're bound. Steering around obstacles and belting through set piece chases adds an enjoyable change of pace, helping to even out the slower plod of the trek.
That said, having to sit bolt upright and refrain from crossing your legs or relaxing stops you from letting your guard down and enjoying the more soothing moments, and the fact that you need to hold your hand out for ten seconds just to pause the game means that you'll often take damage when needing to answer the phone or make a cup of tea. Why can't we just say "pause game" to the Kinect microphone, Lionhead?
What should have been a refreshingly immersive experience is brought low by some outrageously poor design choices, not the peripheral. Small load zones continually pull you out of the action, third person cutscenes rip you out of your perspective, while omnipresent tooltips and obtrusive tutorials constantly remind you that you're playing a game. These foibles pale in comparison to one of the laziest and most poorly-implemented experience systems I've ever encountered in a videogame to date, which sees you collecting arbitrary orbs scattered along the road to save up for a limited selection of upgrades.
There's no reason for these orbs to exist; they're never given context by the story or canon. They're just there, piling up into disbelief that becomes impossible to suspend. They turn what should have been an epic adventure into a simplistic, slow and linear version of Forever Drive (that costs £40). And most damningly of all, they force you to keep your eyes fixed on the drab and muddy trail directly in front of your cart, never allowing you to let your gaze wander to the horizon and enjoy the spectacular views that Albion has to offer. It's so galling to see Lionhead crush their project's potential, and so heartbreaking to see them do it purposefully.
But they'll be a blissful relief from the numerous times you have to dismount and experience The Journey on foot.
Stabling Seren at a rest stop lets you explore a small campsite and care for your horse in a selection of micro-games, all based on performing specific gestures. You'll pump water. Pick apples. Heal wounds and clean Seren's mane. It's clear that Lionhead wanted to inspire the same feeling of companionship as Fable 2's dog, but the limited number of interactions mean that you'll only ever really see Saren as a mode of transport, not a dear friend. It feels like a tech demo, an early one at that, a limp selection of obvious minigames that actively kills the immersion they were trying to create. Flogging a dead horse has rarely been a more appropriate expression.
Most of your time, however, will be spent in some rail shooting sections in which you'll blast magic spells at a rogues' gallery of Fable foes. The premise was fantastic: use your right hand to aim and fire spells with big sweeping movements, while directing telekinetic force with your left. Incoming fire can be deflected by bringing your left arm up across your chest, bouncing rocks or attacks back at their source. It's a lot like a traditional lightgun game, but with your hands free to effectively conduct a symphony of destruction. It occasionally comes together in some gloriously empowering moments when you'll disassemble undead Hollow Men piece by piece using your left hand, or grab boulders to crush unwary enemies with a flick of your wrists.
So it's a shame that it doesn't work. Without a reticle or crosshair, you've got literally no idea where your spells will end up, meaning that getting a shot on target is a matter of trial and error. Worse, Kinect often refuses to acknowledge your movements properly despite overlong calibration sequences that force you to quit back to the main menu (tested in numerous light conditions). You'll cast and cast and cast and cast and fail and fail and fail in an effort to hit faraway targets or those always-appalling Flitswitches, meaning that sooner or later your arms will be wracked by exquisite agony if not full-on RSI. It's genuinely horrible, literally painful, and once again lazy front-loaded tutorials have to completely break your immersion just to tell you how to play the damn game in the first place.
For the record, blocking works well, and using after-touch (flicking a bolt mid-flight to change its direction) activates auto-aim that was bizarrely absent from primary fire. But having to essentially perform the same motion twice per shot cripples your limbs yet further.
Some of my peers suggest that Fable: The Journey would have been better with a controller, but I can't agree. Without Kinect's novelty, the action is insipid, bereft of challenge and sorely lacking in imagination. Most combat encounters could be sleepwalked through if you didn't have to constantly fight the mechanics, not helped by some limp set pieces that can be completed just by sitting down and doing nothing at all - without losing any health. You'll experience more thrilling action by booting up Virtua Cop on the Saturn. Or taking a nap. Or visiting the doctor to start some intensive physiotherapy and heal your broken arms back to full strength.
Fable: The Journey hurt me, and I'm not talking about the painful twinge in my right elbow when I fully extend my arm. Lionhead had the opportunity to deliver the most immersive and intimate Fable game to date, to really let us experience what it's like to live in Albion. A huge amount of work clearly went into the visuals, characterisation and art design. But they failed to even make a consistently enjoyable action game... and they don't just have Kinect to blame.
- Albion finally feels like a fleshed-out game world
- Exquisite presentation and characterisation
- Steering Seren and enjoying the scenery is wonderful (when you're allowed)
- Horrible, genuinely painful Kinect targeting during combat
- Lazy experience orb system kills immersion...
- ... as does numerous obtrusive tooltips, awful flow-breaking tutorials and embarrassing gestures
- Stolid, unsatisfying and insipid action detracts from the beautiful scenery
The Short Version: Ropey design decisions and hopeless Kinect aiming mechanics stop Fable: The Journey from fulfilling its potential of being an exciting new way to experience the world of Albion. Breathtaking highs are completely nullified by shocking lows, constant immersion-breaking fallacies and genuine physical pain.
Mathematicians have a word for this phenomenon. Average.