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Saturday, 18 October 2014

Fable II.

Fable II.

Well, last week I did Fable III. May as well work my way backwards through the trilogy. 

If Fable III was a heaving monstrosity of poor game design, tedious repetition, and nonsensical political decisions that left you wondering whether the writers had actually lived in a cave all of their lives and only seen politics as a series of alarming shadows on the wall, Fable II was probably where the series peaked. 

Some four years in the making, Fable II places you in the shoes of Sparrow, a young child who makes a wish on a magical music box only to shortly thereafter have his or her sister murdered. Raised to adulthood by Theresa, the protagonist of the first game's sister, s/he sets out to get his or her revenge, and to thwart plans to raise a gigantic wish-granting tower of doom. 

- Incidentally, I say 'places you in the shoes of Sparrow', you can change your name to a variety of options for a fee, and actually if you stick with 'Sparrow', people on the street will complain at you that you need to grow up. Which is rude. I eventually changed it to 'Ranger' on my first walkthrough, much to the delight of in-game women who remarked on how woodsy it sounded.

All heroes have concrete or abstract nouns as names.
Seen here, Garth, which is a grassy quadrangle surrounded by cloisters.

To this day, Fable II remains in my mind a shining example of good game design, but I struggle to say why (which is a terrible thing for a journalist to admit). Probably in large part because it built on Fable in all of the right ways: Fable was a good but flawed game, a little simplistic in the gameplay department, a little rigid, a little small. Fable II took everything people adored about its predecessor, like your protagonist changing and evolving according to their skills and alignment, forming relationships with NPCs, the beautiful graphics, and made it that much slicker, that much more in-depth, that much bigger. 

The new features that it added were also surprisingly successful. No small amount of people, including me, expected that a dog companion would be tedious. Actually, the dog is one of the best parts of the game, a constant companion who instantly proves his worth by finding you treasure as you're wandering along, and it's easy to form an emotional bond with it, despite it not being real. 

One gripe that a lot of people had was with a lack of proper boss battles, especially as your final boss (some two or three hours before the end of the game) is just a very large floating pyramid with no personality or particular motivation, that just shows up out of nowhere. Which is a problem: Boss battles are one of the most fun and memorable parts of a video game, and I will happy gripe at other games for not having them (Alice: Madness Returns is a prime example of a game where their absence is noted). But this is a story driven game, and while the game could have done with replacing with the Giant Shard with something a bit more memorable, and putting more bosses in elsewhere, I'm glad that the game didn't culminate in an explosive showdown in the aforementioned wish-granting tower, as some people wished it too.

This man is not final boss material.

Fable II is, ultimately, a story about striving for things that are lost, after all. The game's events are set in motion by a man driven mad by loss taking the main character's sister from them, and the allies you gather in your journey are all people who have lost things important to them - A parent, over a decade of freedom, their humanity - and can never be regained. It's fitting, then, that the game ends not with a triumphant battle, but with the protagonist, who has lost everything at this point, rejecting a perfect but false world in which they could have everything they ever wanted, before ultimately taking down the very fragile and very human villain in a single gunshot (or not, if you wait too long to shoot). 

These are the kinds of themes and deep stories that I've loved about video games, so it was a treat for me. The story's bolstered by a host of well-known actors, such as Zoe Wanamaker, Stephen Fry and Ron Glass, although not as many as Fable III (which sees Stephen Fry return, along with Simon Pegg, Sir Ben Kingsley, and John Cleese). 

Hammer should be a fitspiration for more people. Along with
Sorceress Adel.

Fable II demonstrates just how good the Fable franchise could be, and the heights that, now that Peter Molyneux has left and Microsoft has taken over in earnest, will probably never be achieved again. It'll always hold a place in my heart - although probably not a place in my games library for a while as my copy is broken and freezes up whenever you try to leave Bowerstone and I need to find a cheap used copy to replace it. 

Next week, Fable! The third in this series of backwards reviews, we're going back to the roots of the series and the game which - okay, well, Black and White made Peter Molyneux's name as a game developer, but the other game he's really well known for.

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