What the Heck Happened to Fable?

With its offering of choice, brilliant art style, smart quest design, classic RPG elements, tongue-in-cheeek (and sometimes blatant) humor, and smooth combat, the original Fable was a fantastic game that charmed gamers and critics alike. The brainchild of famed developer Peter Molyneux, it was clear upon the original Fable’s release that we had seen the start of a fantastic franchise.

So why does it seem that the series has been locked in a steady decline ever since?

For me, the original Fable is one of those special games that managed to consume hours of my time as I ran around Albion exploring the world and completing quests for its citizens. I fell in love with nearly every aspect of it, from the whimsical art style to its fluid and satisfying combat. The end of the game both made me a bit sad and left me wanting another return to it. A sequel could not come soon enough for me. And boy, have the sequels come.

Fable II was a good and satisfying game. Why? Because it took the formula of the original and expanded it into something even bigger and better than Fable I. There were more quests, more characters, a larger world, and a whole new story and protagonist to follow.

The problem with it was that it didn’t really do a whole lot to distinguish itself as a sequel to the original, aside from the occasional nod to the lore and history of Fable I. It was definitely interesting, but it was a safe sequel with more of the same conventions that made the original so great.

Now, does a game need to be a strict departure that identifies itself with every new installment? No, not necessarily. And this wasn’t to Fable II’s detriment. Rather, it succeeded at being more Fable, which was widely approved by fans of the series.

The trouble all started, however, upon the release of Fable III. Unlike II, this one was different. Very different. And not in a good way.

The game was met with largely lukewarm reviews from both fans and critics, and it was accused by many for being a streamlined and gutted version of the original. Gone were the classic RPG elements, gone were the level ups, health bars, and even the menus were severely lacking. Combat was almost too easy, the story was odd, and many complained that the game didn’t have the same content of the previous two, leaving it a watered-down game that barely fit in the universe as more of an action title.

And then came Fable Heroes, Lion Head Studio’s attempt to enter into the downloadable sphere with a Castle Crashers-esque brawler made up of the Hero Doll collectibles from Fable I. As someone who was looking forward to it for some time, I was sad to find that the game was a complete letdown. Levels were repetitive, gameplay was uninspired, characters handled poorly, and it lacked ingenuity. It received poor reviews across the board and managed to slip away quietly into the night not long after its release.

With the fall quickly approaching, we’re now facing down the latest and most troubling installment in the series yet: Fable: The Journey, a Kinect-only exclusive that allows players to use their Kinect and integrate them into the game in a first-person experience.

I want to believe in Fable: The Journey. I really do. I want it to be awesome, I want it to be something unique and fun and have it re-invigorate the series. But with a bad taste still in my mouth from Steel Battallion: Heavy Armor and my overall negative feelings on the Kinect, I’m just not sold that the game will be enough to 1) breathe some much-needed life back into the franchise, and 2) give me a reason to wave my arms around on the couch in front of my Xbox.

Even developers themselves have cited that they have gone through some doubt after being on the receiving end of some serious backlash after their lackluster showing at E3 2012. But when will they listen and realize that Kinect is not the place for Fable to go?

Now, I’m not much more than a keyboard analyst here, but I feel like Fable needs to do one thing to inject the magic back in the series again: return to the conventions of the original. Give me back the level system, the skill tress, the quests, the weapons, the amazing combat, and the choices. Give me everything that made the original Fable so great again, and I’ll be more than happy with it. Fable is not a franchise that translates well to other genres and styles, simply because it is so well established as a quirky RPG. Let’s do one thing right and keep it that way.

Of course, this might be a pipe dream. And since Molyneux has left Lionhead and started his own development company, the sad reality that Fable is pretty much done might come to fruition, leaving the franchise dangling on a thread of the greatness it once had.

Only time will tell what the eventual fate is for the series. In the meantime, I’m putting the original back in the drive of my Xbox and sitting down to once again return as the hero of Albion and experience the amazing game once again.