Any mention, review, or article on the Fable series will inevitably take time away from the actual critique to comment on the series’ legacy of broken promises. The “Molyneux Cycle”, as I’ve heard it being called before, casts a shadow over this action-RPG franchise, and to this day there are gamers out there who’ll launch into a tirade whenever the series comes up. Justified as these frustrations are, it’s a shame that a landmark fantasy franchise is forever stained by them.
That is not me rushing to the defense of Peter Molyneux, I should clarify. Though I’ve been known to enjoy the man’s games, I concur that Molyneux is a liar, whose actions have turned actively harmful as he began venturing into the world of crowdfunded indie games. In fact, my only other mention of the Fable series on this website is me bemoaning how his recent controversies have made it hard to look back on this lovable series nostalgically.
Criticism of Fable‘s marketing is also entirely valid. Every game in the series has been overhyped by its developers, who promised amazing features and untold levels of freedom, for what always turned out to be semi-restrictive games, to the point of being outright linear in places. These were lies, whether they were born from a genuine overestimation of what the studio could accomplish or simply made to prop up sales before word got out. And, as the cycle repeated game after game, it became a frustrating routine that soured people’s opinions of these games.
However, while no Fable game would ever become the super-dynamic, open-world masterpiece experience we’d be promised, I do feel that each of the games was still pretty dang good. Not as open-ended RPGs, but as linear, story-driven hack & slash games with RPG leanings.
Ever since the first Fable on the Xbox (and later The Lost Chapters on PC), the games have been excellent at taking basic fantasy storylines and subverting your expectations of them. The first and second games are almost textbook examples of fantasy plot hooks, as both begin with your child characters having their simple lives ruined, leading to them taking up the life of an adventurer destined to avenge the evil inflicted on them.
From there, the storylines developed in wildly unexpected directions, with quests and setpiece moments that would be far more memorable than those of any other RPG at the time. While the open-ended Oblivion struggled to make a battle with like 20 soldiers seem like an epic fantasy moment, Fable and its sequels achieved so much more with their focus on better writing. From quests where you have to rob graves to humor a riddling skeleton to genuinely intense plot points like going undercover in the villain’s lair and acting out years of your life as an evil minion.
The characters in these games have also been frequently downplayed in discussions, in favor of complaining that generic NPC townspeople aren’t engaging enough. When I think of Fable, I think of fantastic characters like Whisper, Walter, Theresa, Reaver, Jack of Blades, Hammer, Logan, Lady Grey; it’s a long list. These characters form the heart of the Fable story and frequently starred in its more touching moments, lending the games an emotional layer that pays off big whenever it gets to shine.
But that’s all story stuff, of course, while many of the promises related to gameplay; legends of being able to plant acorns and watch trees grow in real-time and such. While the Fable games never lived up to the depth of gameplay they implied, I do have to say that I am happy with the features they did implement.
On its surface, the games are pleasant little hack & slash titles with some light RPG mechanics, but each of the games has interesting twists to the gameplay that I feel are much more valuable than the random nonsense that was hyped up. Fable 1 starts you off as a mockery, with a nickname you have to pay to get rid off and townsfolk laughing at you in the streets. You gain renown by doing quests, using their trophies to impress crowds of people, and taking on additional challenges to make your missions harder. What other game lets you complete a quest naked as an actual objective?
Fable II added the dog, jobs, and cooperative play, Fable III had an entire kingdom management aspect to it, and every game in the series has features like your character dynamically changing based on your decisions, starting families, buying up swathes of land, and playing various mini-games. It’s gimmicky, sure, but it’s fun to play around with and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
With all of that in mind, I have to say that I feel sorry for people who bought into the hype, for whom memories of these games are ruined by feelings of betrayal. Gamers are remarkably susceptible to marketing, as they conflate the trustworthiness of random developers and constantly feed each other’s excitement for upcoming games. Peter Molyneux and his ilk took advantage of that and I too would feel let down had I paid pre-order prices for these games and awaited their release for months.
I won’t demand that anybody revisits these games if they had been wronged by them in the past, I understand their grievances. However, if you are unfamiliar with the games outside of their reputation, then I wholly recommend giving them a look. They are fun, unique games with funny writing, interesting characters, and all manner of quirky surprises. Lionhead Studios is gone, Peter Molyneux is a mockery, but let’s not let their failures defines Fable‘s legacy.