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Uberlong Fable: The Lost Chapters Review
Review - posted by Role-Player on Tue 2 September 2008, 13:43:49Tags: Fable: The Lost Chapters; Lionhead Studios
Once In A Lifetime
Project Ego. As polarizing as that name might be to many gamers I never bothered much with its hype during the development cycle - though I certainly wasn't immune to it. The boasts that accompanied the brainchild of Peter Molyneux and Lionhead Studios during its development cycle were pretty hard to ignore. But when someone who never developed a roleplaying game sets out to make a game that they claim will bring a revolution to how one plays RPGs, you know you should take whatever is leaked through the well oiled hype machine with more than just a grain of salt. So when Fable materialized it was obvious that the reality could never meet the expectations wheter the result was a stunning treat or an abysmal failure - and the outcome of what Project Ego came to be unfortunately had more in common with the latter than the former.
Regardless of how one felt about the original game, it was unquestionably too short and lacking. So it came as no surprise to find Lionhead announcing a second release of Fable, with an extended version of the original's core gameplay and other additions would be set to make a debut on the PC. If you're somehow expecting to find all of the design elements spoken of during the game's development your best bet is to stay away since Fable: The Lost Chapters is still the same game that it was back during its 2004 Xbox release - only now ported to the PC and with some added curiosities that try to pump some longevity into an otherwise incredibly short title. If on the other hand you don't know what to expect from Fable or its extended version - and if I may cut to the chase for a moment - you'll find there is an average action adventure, a terrible roleplaying game, and a slew of pointless gimmicks all rolled up in the same package.
Give Me Back My Name
The game takes place in the land of Albion, a medieval fantasy realm sharing some geographic and temporal similarities with medieval England. The game proper starts in a time after the Old Kingdom spiralled into decline after Archon, its ruler, became corrupted by an ancient and powerful sword until he himself and the weapon disappeared in a shroud of mystery. The present day Albion is what remains of those dark times, a crumbling countryside populated by few city-states and largely lacking in centralized government, often leaving its inhabitants at the mercy of vicious banditry. Somewhat interesting as that may sound, the lore of the gameworld is mostly discovered through the player's own initiative, as the game doesn't take too long exposing it even during some crucial moments of the story that draw upon its own myths and legends.
The focus of the game is clearly on the main character that will only be referred to as "Hero" throughout its course. The Hero's story is as vanilla as it gets - at an early age he is witness to a bandit raid on his peaceful hometown of Oakvale but is rescued by an old mage who sees potential in him, and then taken into the Heroes' Guild so he may train to be a Hero. This sets up the premise for what is to be part of the game's story hook - discovering the events that led to Oakvale's raid, the whereabouts of his family and his destiny. Thrown in for good measure are the typical betrayals and old evils rising once more, which will intertwine with the Hero's own personal quest but these are quite predictable and forgettable. Suffice to say that the story does its job, and the extension of the original game in The Lost Chapters at least provides a more rounded out - though by all accounts still unspectacular - experience. Part of this is due to the main character's lack of personality. Throughout the story the Hero will simply be a grunt who solves quests and fetches things without showing much in the way of emotions, but then again there's not much in the story that can be considered moving.
This lack of character personality is meant to set the character as a clean slate where players can project their ego and watch it reflect their decisions, which the game manages up to a point but doesn't entirely pan out. From a story exposition perspective the game suffers from switching between a high degree of freedom in playing the Hero and suffocating the ability to make decisions with cutscenes that steal much of said freedom. In one instance the Hero is a force to be reckoned with and is capable of single-handedly slaying over a dozen foes, but is then incapable of fighting against imprisonment at the hands of two basic enemies and a character who will later on be fought and vanquished anyway. He can be played as an uncaring and evil character but will then show concern over a family member in peril. Since the Hero never displays any kind of motivation behind his actions we're left with an empty shell that is given a fixed semblance of a personality, one that sometimes may not even correspond to the personality we try to imbue in him. There are also a couple of situations where the game doesn't seem to know how to handle the freedom it offers. During the training in the Guild I repeatedly assaulted a roommate, only to be called to the presence of a Hero which grew irate with every new attempt of mine and warned me not to repeat this, or else I'd suffer the consequences. Well, the consequence here was that the same warning would be repeated on and on without the main character being punished in any way. The most powerful wizard in the guild threatened to snuff out my life force if I kept beating him but as with most dogs, it was all bark and no bite. And after the 73rd crotch punch with no punishment, it was time to move along.
Another issue that crops up concerning the storyline is that it's inexorably set in stone no matter what the Hero does throughout the main narrative. Being good or evil has no bearing on how the story progresses and there's actually no dialogue branching that reflects the character's choices or allegiances. You're left with the feeling that the Hero's role is never that important and that all his actions and consequences are mostly trivial to the gameworld. The most blatant example of this is how banditry is not an option for players since only townsfolk seem capable of recognizing the Hero's evil actions and react somewhat accordingly - bandits and other rogues that plague trader routes will attack players all the same, in spite of all the numerous quests the Hero can take to help bandits. So one minute you side with bandits to clean out Orchard Farm, help them rescue an informer from a heavilly guarded Trader convoy, and team up with some rogues to slaughter a Trader camp - but the next time you meet them in the gameworld they'll keep on attacking you as if they didn't know you. Same applies to traders - no matter how many times you help them they'll never offer discounts or special items. There's also no way to deal with traders or bandits in a permanent way or to give one faction the upper hand, since either group is for all intents and purposes empty shells that roam the countryside for your convenience. Clearing roads of bandits or traders only works until you leave the area at which point the game respawns them. Go, consequences, go!
Lifetime Pilling Up
Fable purportedly would let the player guide an avatar from childhood to adulthood and let player's decisions determine how he would evolve, but this is actually quite simplified and poorly handled. The first signs of trouble crop up during the initial moments of the game, where each year in training ends with the game asking players if they want to advance the character's age. I honestly sat there in disbelief as the game asked me if I wanted my character to advance into adulthood, and even more alarming is that there's no way around this as it's necessary to advance. Outside of the Guild though, aging took a less forced road but a shallow one nonetheless.
Instead of aging as time passes on, the Hero ages depending on how many times the player spreads experience points on the character. So a fairly unexperienced hero will roughly look like a teenager whereas a highly trained character will show age through muscles or wrinkles and white hair. This brings several inconsistencies into the mix. Age only matters from an aesthetic perspective since gameplay remains the same as there are no drawbacks to aging, making it rather pointless as a concept and plain silly to see an old man swing a sword as vigourously or running as fast as a youth can. Also, after the Hero finishes his training in the guild he will be the only character in the world of Albion that progressively ages while all other NPCs in the gameworld will remain the same. You'll be introduced to a set of characters during the Hero's teenage years and it's actually possible to become older than them through experience orb expenditure. Likewise, NPCs the Hero marries with will also retain their youth while the character becomes a wizened old man. While the core idea of character aging isn't necessarily bad - and indeed can be a great element as seen in Microprose's Darklands, where characters began to lose physical prowess the more they aged, thus leaving players to decide if they would risk using an aged character or retire him - in Fable it's just a cosmetic change that has no impact on the game whatsoever and actually breaks whatever immersion it might hope to bring. Having aged 50 years in 20 days of game time isn't revolutionary, it's just plain dumb - even moreso when age doesn't have any negative impact on the Hero's performance, which means you can rack up experience and improve almost all of the attributes without any penalty whatsoever. Funny how in some instances characters will refer to a 65 year old man as a boy completely neglecting his actual age. It's certainly understandable how this qualified for Game of the Year material.
Growing up in Albion is not all it's cracked up to be.
Attributes, at least, have a more noticeable effect on the Hero's development. Increasing Attributes will usually modify the character's appearance as well as provide some sort of bonus. There are three fields of attributes - Strength (which governs physical abilities), Skill (which dictates how nimble the character is), and Will (which is all about spells and spellcasting). A higher Skill will allow a Hero to become stealthier while also making the character model's physique slender, whereas the more Will powers a character learns the more chances there will be of magic literally becoming visible on his fingertips. The system isn't entirely based on aesthetics like age so besides seeing the Hero's musculature develop as you increase any Strength-related skills, you'll also appreciate that he'll do more damage with melee weapons, will be able to wield heavier weapons and sustain more damage.
Sadly the system isn't this refined across the board. See, whenever the Hero uses anything that is directly tied to an Attribute, he will gain group-specific experience points. This means that if you repeatedly hit enemies with melee weapons you will gain experience points that can only be applied to the Strength group, while firing and hitting with ranged weapons will reward you with Skill points and casting Will powers will amplify your Will experience pool. There are also general experience points gained from slaying enemies and performing quests, and these can be used in conjunction with group-specific experience orbs, so that if you don't have the required experience points to increase an attribute the game automatically allocates general and group-specific experience points to increase it. Now, the thing is while Strength and Skill have three sub-categories which can be increased with specific points, only using the sub-categories based in combat will actually reward players with experience. So if you're not actually using the attribute it wants, the game won't reward you with group-specific experience. This is extremely limiting and forces players to focus on combat since that's when Strength and Skill points are generated. You can't use Guile - which affects merchant prices and stealth levels - to increase your Skill points, you have to use ranged weapons in combat which is governed by Accuracy.
Likewise, taking damage and recovering from it doesn't increase your natural armor or resistance, you need to inflict melee damage to bolster the Strength point pool. In the meantime, Will goes the opposite route in an almost absurd way since anytime you cast a spell it rewards you with Will points. Whether you cast damage, support or healing spells; whether the target is a hostile, the Hero himself or there isn't a target at all Will points will be awarded simply for using magic. This leads to a lack of balance with the attributes since melee is often the only way to succeed in close quarters combat (of which there is a great deal) and magic experience points can be increased at almost no cost - leaving both of these as primary sources for experience farming while placing ranged combat at a distance. At least a secondary way of developing Attributes would have been nice since it wouldn't force players into certain gameplay styles and would reward them for branching out and trying different approaches to situations. As it stands, characters who shoplifit or open locks - which are the only ways you have of emulating roguish personas, since you can't even pick pockets - will never be rewarded for making successful uses of their skills, while spellcasters can become godlike by simply standing rooted to a spot and spamming spells.
Picking locks during nightime; paying fines during the day.
Experience itself is earned through either the completion of quests or combat. Aside from the group-specific experience which is automatically awarded, slain enemies will drop Experience Orbs which are basically green energy orbs which you need to draw to you to reclaim experience points for a kill. That's right, you don't get any experience from enemies you kill unless you draw these orbs into you - and they will disappear if you take too long to do this. This system has two major flaws. First, it's no surprise that you can pretty much lose these orbs during hectic combat that requires you to pay more attention to a group of enemies surrounding the Hero, or you need to handle the interface to perform a quick set of actions. If you're trying to perform stealthy takedowns with a bow against an enemy group in the distance, you may find that you're too far away to draw these orbs and running closer to them really isn't an option for sneaky tactics. To make matters worse it's not uncommon for these orbs to get trapped behind scenery the Hero cannot access which means that they can't be drawn in.
This happened several times in areas with walls surrounding the main path - such as in Greatwood - where some Bandits and Nymphs were projected into a good distance by the force of an attack and their Experience Orbs just popped out into a part of the scenery that was off limits, despite just being behind a very small obstacle. A more elegant way of solving this would be to have the orbs hover above slain enemies or turning the orbs into a single one, or make them intangible, or have them use the Z axis instead of being perpetually grounded; that way, they would cross over or go around these kinds of obstacles. Second, Experience Orbs bring no benefit over a more traditional system of experience rewards, and can even fail to properly reward player skill in certain circumstances. On one hand, a player who repeatedly casts area of effect spells until he disposes of the opposition didn't do much to gain the experience in the first place, and can be rewarded for basically standing still; on the other hand, a player who expertly moves and strikes blows or performs headshots may have done more to earn his experience but is getting the same amount he would win if he was casting AoE spells. And on both accounts, players may still be cheated out of their earnings because those orbs have a tendency to get stuck in level geometry. As it stands, it's just change for the sake of change and it does a pitiful job at providing anything worth changing to.
Burning Down The House
This lack of diversity in character options also extends to quests. Since all quests are designed to be accessible and completed by any character build, the game often forces players to take the same routes and make the same decisions when performing quests. There's no kind of variety in them because Lionhead didn't think it was a good idea to present alternate paths or solutions to them, so not only will a stealthy character be forced to do something else to gain experience, there's also no chance he could use stealth - even at the expense of some experience - to get the job done. One particularly vexing example of this kind of design can be seen in a quest where the Hero must find clues about a lost relative, and has to travel to a Bandit camp. The quest requires players to find five pieces of bandit armor scattered across an area just prior to the Bandit camp. Stealth users looking to hide in shadows and steal these pieces are out of luck because that part of the quest is a completely linear area that feels like a corridor - which in a way describes much of the game's areas - which gives no room for stealthy maneuvers. Since there's also no spell that cloaks the Hero's presence, you can see where this is going. Just slash, shoot or spellblast anything that moves. Combat is the only way to go here and what's worse, all the armor pieces are neatly folded and waiting to be found inside treasure chests anyone can spot a mile away. To add insult to injury you can't enter the next segment of the Bandit camp without the armor â€“ but once you're inside you can walk around freely without it! Funny how this kind of amateurish design received so many rave reviews.
I really wish that single example was the only case of bad quest design in Fable but it really isn't. Not only are the majority of quests really made so as to make combat the only option, they all sport some of the worse design I've seen over the last few years and across a good number of platforms. Quests come into three varieties - "good" or "evil" optional quests, or "main quests" which are tied to the main story. While the division would seem important, they're not. Main quests are obligatory to advance in the story and the Hero can freely take optional quests that are in stark contrast to his actions or morality. A noble knight can very well sign up for some Trader slaughter while an evil mercenary can help poor farmers defend their goods.
Now, while it's good that we're not forced into one single path because of our choices, what really is the point of tracking down decisions if they don't influence what kind of quests are open to my character? Another painful example of how consequences are botched and how the Hero's role in the world seems unimportant comes to mind. Earlier on in the game you can help some bandits plunder Orchard Farm. At the end of the quest the farmer will confront the main character and will bear clear animosity towards him for his actions. Some time afterwards you get a quest to help the farm. If you accept the job the farmer is happy to see the Hero and will have no qualms about him coming near his farm again. Also, while the quest is optional it does beg the question of why am I being asked to help a farm I've just helped rob or why he'd ask for my help. The only traces of consequences to a choice here are - solve a quest, unlock the next. That's all there is to it.
Most choices are pretty black and white, and Renown doesn't help much.
Lionhead apparently couldn't bother developing something that was engaging to play so they created incredibly obvious and hand holding situations for the players to solve, but it short-changes them as well as anyone looking for a challenge or inventive quests by leading players in a completely lazy and contemptible way. Nearly all quests require you to either kill someone or do something incredibly inane. Save traders? Kill bandits. Help bandits? Kill traders and/or guards. Even when you're confronted with the choice of letting someone live, you're bound to have killed someone during the quest's course just to get this option. There's not much in the way of negotiation or bribing, and stealth had close to no use. Looking back I can only remember five quests that had a smidgeon of negotiation or that didn't depend on combat, but three of them required the Hero to travel to areas infested with either bandits, lycanthropes or undead, and another was playing an insultingly easy minigame that rewarded you with a quest item - even if you failed!
One of these quests began in Bowerstone South and involved finding signs of corruption with the mayor. After finding this evidence I was given a choice to either expose her or agree to cover up the murder and marry her. It was unfortunate that the area where I found the evidence had to be filled with undead, and that the outcome of either option I had was largely the same, but while not particularly well written it was a good change of pace for the clickety-click of all else I had to endure. Another quest involved finding Blue Mushrooms so a witch could craft a potion to cure a boy's hallucinations. All of these Mushrooms had a couple of ways in which they could be acquired so it wasn't a complete hackfest - though that option was there. This was also the only situation in the entire game where stealth could be used to solve a quest, since I could steal one of the shrooms from its owner if the Hero's Guile skill was high enough. Too bad the shroom was blatanly placed over a table where everyone could see.
Since we're talking about quests one of their better aspects are Boasts, if it wasn't pretty limited in the first place. Boasting basically allows a Hero to perform a quest with added objectives. For instance, you can choose to perform an entire quest wearing no armor whatsoever (No Protection), using only unarmed attacks and no magic (Fist Fighter), or not taking any damage (Without a Scratch). Some Boasts are natural to all quests, while others are quest specific such as doing quests under a given amount of time (Timed Quest), or not letting any harm come to NPCs that will help or accompany you (Protect). Each boast requires a wager in gold, which the Hero must pay upfront so that in turn he may gain more money after its completion; if he fails the boast he loses the money. Heroes can choose to simply take a quest or to take a quest and its respective boasts, which sees the Hero standing on a platform boasting to bystanders who grow in size the more reknown the character has, which is a nice touch. After all the Boasts are chosen the Hero then begins the quest. This would have been a good attempt at trying to give an extra challenge but doesn't always work for the best.
Boasts can work very well or very badly depending on your play style. Starting characters will often lack the necessary power and speed to succeed at the Without a Scratch and No Protection boasts since most enemies in the game are melee based and quickly surround the Hero, always managing to at least register one hit. But completely negating player skill, characters need only to purchase one or two levels of Physical Shield to have the shield absorb those hits. Instant Boast accomplishment. In the same quest you need to find five pieces of bandit equipment, one of the possible Boasts requires that the Hero kills no bandit whatsoever - which, if you read the quest outline, screws you up bigtime unless you run around not hitting anyone or buy the Slow Time spell to slow everyone down. And unless you're trying to roleplay some specific character concept like an exclusively melee or ranged combatant, any character can just purchase a few spells that will allow most of the Boasts and quests - and combat - to become a breeze. Actually, those two spells alone pretty much allow you to get through anything in the game.
Maybe I'm boasting. Maybe I just like to walk around naked. It's creepy either way.
Another downfall of Boasts is that NPCs often comment on the quests themselves, but never on boasts. Seems contradicting to the whole point of boasting if no one gives a damn about them later, doesn't it? People will cheer me when I claim that I'll go through an entire bandit camp naked, use nothing but my fists as weapons and not draw any blood - but they never care when I actually do this.
Quests only pick up somewhat at the ending stages of the game, but by then it's too late. The Lost Chapters extends the original's story a bit longer and thankfully manages to present some venues for both good and evil characters as it reaches its climax. The only real highlight of the quests in the main story comes at a time where the Hero must find souls to unlock the way to reach the main villain. The game gives hints at whose souls he must get and the player is left to decide if they should slay some other Hero for their soul or find a replacement. This is what the game needed earlier: quests which present several ways of being solved without being clearly outlined as "good" or "evil", and that let the player decide for himself instead of leading him by the nose. All of these three quests basically hint at who might have a suitable soul the Hero can acquire but never tell him what to do, he is free to take the easiest way or to find a substitute.
The finale, however, is a typically atrocious "choose your own ending" that takes none of the Hero's past actions into account. Whether good, evil or something in between players will watch a cutscene that demand players to make a choice. Take too long and let the cutscene fully play out and you'll get what is considered an evil ending; click the mouse button before the cutscene ends and you'll do the "right thing". Evil is slow, good is fast. That's it. I chuckled long and hard when the game gave my evil and power hungry character time to consider if he wanted to be even more evil and poweful. This was a character who did all the "evil quests", had fully developed horns, stacked fines of 50k and upwards in several cities because of crimes, slaughtered every possible Hero he could, and sacrificed innocents for items of great power - does it look like he is going to say no? "Yeah, I slaughtered almost everyone in Albion just for kicks and power but I think I'll just pass up being more evil and powerful now that I've finally got that chance". Right.
Looking into how they could screw quests even more, you can't save while doing quests. Once a quest begins you can no longer save the status of the gameworld until you complete it and can only resort to something called Hero Save, which only saves the Hero's equipment and experience. I guess I can understand the motives behind this. It's not uncommon for players to save their quest progress to get themselves an unfair advantage or to reload for better results, but the method they went with is actually worse. You can work your way up to the later stages of a quest and do a Hero Save - only to reload and find that the Hero hasn't yet begun the quest but has experience and equipment he gained doing it on a previous playthrough. Since it won't save quest progress, you can repeat it up until wherever you please, reap some rewards and save the character. This opens up all cans of worms in regards to balance since a player can easily gain unlimited items and experience. At one point during the main story I am asked to sacrifice a person or an item of great power. When I reloaded my Hero Save, I had to play through the quest again and decided to sacrifice the item... Only to find it on my inventory anyway. The game saw fit to put the item in my inventory before I made the choice and I saved not knowing this; because the Hero Save tracks what I have in the inventory, I managed to walk away from the whole ordeal by making a morally good choice while keeping the reward had I went all evil.
There seem to be a couple of bugs with area information that can mess up quests, too. While exploring a small area I found an abandoned house with some cellar doors that I could not interact with. For technical reasons I had to save my progress and return to it later. After loading the game I was suddenly able to interact with the cellar door. Likewise, the area was now infested with Undead which weren't there before I saved the game. It was only later on when I actually received the quest to investigate the mayor of Bowerstone that I realized what I had to do to open the cellar doors but by then it was broken since I found the quest item before the quest was triggered. This happened in several other places, breaking a couple of quests or allowing me to get items I shouldn't be getting at all.
Speaking of slaughter, combat is probably the one thing that Fable manages to get right - to a point. It's a fairly solid direct action model: left clicking attacks, middle clicking blocks, middle scrolling navigates between learned spells, and right clicking activates a Flourish - a powerful but slow attack that powers up by successfully hitting an enemy several times. Middle clicking while running or sprinting - there's no walking per se - allows the character to roll, while left or right clicking while holding down left shift will cast a spell from the left or right lists of spells. If you want you can lock into a target so you can be certain you're hitting it and not swinging in the air. All these keys are configurable so that's a plus. Melee combat is easy to get into depending on both character skill and player reflexes. Even a Hero that isn't very strong or agile can survive if you play your cards straight, so success is still possible - it just might take a bit more effort.
There's not a whole lot to it since it's mostly a question of timing your hits and blocks, although ocasionally you may stun or knockdown enemies, the latter enabling the Hero to perform a coup de grace to quickly finish the opponent. Ranged combat is pretty simple but effective. You can lock onto ranged enemies and safely strike from a distance without much problem, or you can call up a behind the shoulder perspective that gives you a more precise control over the weapon's targetting, especially since you can zoom in or out. The best part of ranged weapons is that you can perform headshots that can instantly kill most humanoid enemies, which is great if you need to make quick or stealthy takedowns. Enemies close enough to the target you just killed may spot you from a distance or investigate the downed foe so some care usually needs to be taken here. There are two types of ranged weapons - bows and crossbows - but I haven't spotted much of a difference between the two, other than for some reason you need to pull the bow strings for crossbows, which actually depend on a mechanism instead of only bow strings.
Shooting your way through combat is a nice change of pace from the melee component.
Spellcasting is where the real meat of combat lies, although it's unbalanced. There are many spells to obtain from a total of three groups: Attack, Surround and Physical. Attack deals with offensive combat spells, Surround deals with manipulating things around you, and Physical basically allows the Hero to manipulate himself to a degree. Assassin Rush will allow the Hero to propell himself forward and teleport behind an enemy, which helps when you want to take down someone fast. Berserk literally bulges the Hero's proportions granting him added physical prowess, while Force Push will create a wave of force that pushes back nearby foes. Every spell has some use and aside from some obvious choices there's really no best way to go. However, a couple of spells mentioned before - Physical Shield and Slow Time - will allow for an incredibly easy time through the game. It's actually possible to succeed in combat with just four spells through the entire game: if you add those to your reportoire plus a couple of high damage or multiple target spells, you're set for life.
Part of the problem with spell balance is that many spells, even at level 1, offer a considerably high benefit at a relatively manageable cost. Slow Time, for instance, slows down everything except the caster but does not improve over time, gradually improving with more spells levels - it considerably slows everything down right from the start. Other spells while increasing in power are still damn useful at lower levels. My basher only took two one level of Lightning - the same Will power he learned during training - which served him well up until the mid stages of the game. Regardless, spells provide many options that can help during the thick of battle and aside balance, the only real problem here is the same that applies to most everything else in the game and that's a lack of variety or some thoughtful design. Even the more interesting spells are usually let down by not being very special or unique. Summon calls up a creature from the netherworld as an ally for the Hero. If the summon manages to kill an enemy then it is replaced by the soul of the slain enemy which is a nice touch, but all I ever managed to summon was a puny Wasp - the weakest enemy in the game - even at the spell's maximum level because I went through enemies faster than the damn wasp can turn them into a better ally.
Every spell is useful in their own way but could definitely use some tweaks.
An interesting addition to the combat formula is the Combat Multiplier. The more you successfully hit an enemy, the more Combat Multipliers you'll gain. These multipliers award you with experience points based on how many hits and damage you score against enemies while not letting yourself be hit, effectively multiplying your experience by whatever Multiplier number you've reached. This means 20 experience points would become 200 if you had a multiplier of 10. Each hit you take the modifier goes down so care must be taken. The first time you're hit you'll only lose 1 point, but if you're hit one more time before you can start increasing it again, then the penalty is 5 points for every other hit next. Not hitting anything also makes the modifier start dropping, while switching areas will cut a modifier's level by half. Technically there's no limit to how high a Multiplier can get but this depends mainly on the amount of enemies around you, and your ability to dodge their attacks and to pull off chained attacks.
There's a couple of issues with that, though. Through the use of Physical Shield and liberal use of mana regenerating potions you can pretty much rack up on very high multipliers, from 100 to 500. Since it blocks any kind of attack, you can just focus on hitting and increasing those numbers even if you're being mauled by a handful of enemies. If you think that there might still be some shred of balance let me tell you about Potions of Ages. These potions basically award the Hero with 1000 group specific experience points every time he quaffs them, so an Ages of Might potion would grant the extra experience to the Strength Attribute field. However, since they are treated as a normal experience reward when taken, that means you can take advantage of the Multiplier - if you were to drink one of these potions when the Hero's combat multiplier is at 25, then he would get 25k experience points from it. Clearly the stuff of legends.
While the combat is generally fast, it's also very repetitive. There's not much here that helps since all weapons are pretty featureless and enemies aren't inventive. Big weapons are slower but more damaging, smaller weapons are fast but cause less harm, ranged weapons, well, attack from a range. There are different damage and speed ratings but these aren't terribly important. Sure, a faster weapon is better suited to enemies who block often but no weapon ever presents any tactical advantage that can't be replaced by a player's quick reflexes or thinking. If every weapon had specific damage types such as knockback, wounding or stunning effects then there might have been more of a difference and players would find themselves choosing over what was the most indicated for a situation.
Thankfully you can add Augmentations to basic weapons with available slots which are basically special effects that grant some sort of added effect, though strangely you can't do this with armor. The better the weapon material, the more slots it can have - Legendary weapons have pre-slotted Augmentations so it may not be a good idea to get rid of those basic weapons just yet. There are basically three groups: weapon damage, regeneration or experience. Weapon damage grants things like a flaming or silver effect to weapons which can inflict extra damage on certain creatures, while regeneration will slowly fill back your health or mana bars. Experience basically grants a bonus to any experience you acquire. The added weapon damage is a hit-or-miss thing. though; the Flaming augmentation seemed to be a dud while the Silver augmentation was pretty useful against Balverines (your standard lycanthrope) and Undead, it doesn't seem to do much more that a series of well placed blows and Flourishes can't. There was actually a quest that required me to place a Silver augmentation to my weapons so I had to kill a nasty Balverine but contrary to what NPCs said it wasn't necessary to do so - it just took longer to kill but I still managed. The Sharpening augmentation and the Piercing augmentations (which increased the total amount of damage dealt and reduced effectiveness of enemy armor respectively) were a pretty useful combo to have, though.
There's a lot to kill in Fable: The Lost Chapters, and guess who's turn it is to clean house?
There's also not much in the way of enemy variety, either. Most enemies get recycled so it's not uncommon to find in the later stages the same kind of enemies you've been killing ever since the first levels. Some enemies are just a clear paint job of an existing model but with a different name. Another issue is that for some reason, rolling makes the Hero totally invulnerable to enemy attacks. I've tried this several times and have yet to find an attack that stops the Hero when he is doing this move. Also, locking into enemies is pretty irregular. Locking itself is fine but every time you defeat a locked-on enemy you have to retarget another enemy. This wouldn't be a problem if the game actually made some sound decisions and didn't decide to lock into whoever is closer to the Hero's visual range, meaning it can go from locking onto a Bandit to targetting the Trader you were initially trying to protect from the Bandit. In the heat of rapid button clicking, I've left a few Traders mangled on the side of the road because of this. The game should lock onto hostile creatures first and foremost since they present the most immediate danger, then move onto neutral or friendlies.
The much vaunted dichotomies between good and evil are one of the biggest failures in the game. According to your actions the Hero will gradually change to represent his morality. Performing good deeds, saving people from harm and donating at temples will grant a halo, butterflies and a holy light over the character's head, and blonde hair. Being a prick, killing innocent bystanders and stealing is evil so that rewards the Hero with fiery red eyes, horns, red smoke that traces his footsteps and flies buzzing around his head. So good is a cutesy aryan, evil is a stinky Christian representation of the devil. Gotcha. However, the system tracks down your accumulated points but it never registers specific actions, it just lumps all negative or positive points and generates a physical result. This means that killing dozens of creatures that contribute to a positive or negative alignment will be more important to the overall representation of your morality than, say, specific events such as saving the child of a town mayor without any conflict, or killing an entire bandit camp without taking any damage. In other words, you can be a symbol of virtue by doing all the evil quests as long as you kill dozens of creatures in the wilderness to compensate for it, because they are considered evil and will reward you with good points when you kill them.
Because of this people can comment that you comitted an evil act and still applaud you. The system basically reduces every action to a set of points, which really takes away all the point of being good or evil since individual actions are meaningless in the greater context of things. Actually meaningful actions get forgotten or drowned out in the large pool of points you acquire through forgettable and repetitive actions. Being evil is actually hard to pull off in the game and often feels more like an optional challenge instead of a full blown path. Since the creatures you encounter are considered evil by the game and killing them awards you with good points, an evil character has to do his best to avoid killing these creatures which are all out for his blood. The system is pretty absurd at times. Killing non-hostile bandits on one area will net you good points in spite of the fact killing someone who is not hostile toward you is clearly evil, but kicking down barrels in their camp is considered vandalizing property. So killing neutral bystanders is good but kicking barrels is evil. Bioware's take on good and evil seems brilliant by comparison.
But while the character's physical expression of morality can influence NPCs, the idea is ruined in implementation again since you can achieve equally effective methods of influence through accessories like clothing, hair styles and tattoos. Almost all of a town's populace may start cheering if you're good and cower in fear if you're evil, but the problem here is that you can get the same result by simply wearing certain tattoos or clothes. A tattoo with a high rate of scariness and some Dark coloured set of clothes will garner the same reaction that a negative reputation would; in fact certain types of clothing can shift your alignment in a positive or negative way simply by wearing them. Light coloured clothes will shift alignment in a positive way while worn; Dark coloured clothing will do the opposite. And the same laughable set of rules apply: an evil warmonger can be admired in town by wearing tattoos that increase his attractiveness and a set of Bright coloured clothes or amour - throw in some funky haircut and moustache and you're set. Being fashion conscious apparently outweighs wanton slaughter and cruelty.
Bards in taverns will sing of your actions but only if they were quests or main story events. They'll never sing of your Boasts, for instance, but will sing about events every single character will have to do as they play through the main story. Eventually one or other change may apply: if a quest asks you to make some decision this may very well be featured in a song, but that's it. For a game which keeps track of such a vast amount of pointless statistics and information - ranging from how many times the Hero had sex, to the biggest fish he caught, to how far he kicked a chicken and so on - the game does a pissant job of actually making those matter. It's not even hard to shove this kind of information into a song so I can't see why, since they were going for a subtle humor across the game, they couldn't include them in a song about the Hero's achievements.
Naked old men near children are good, rude and pale horned-types are evil!
Garnering admiration from townsfolk and assorted NPCs comes in the form of Renown, which increases as the Hero achieves greater things. By greater things I'm of course talking about quests and the more you gain, the more optional quests will be unlocked at the Heroes' Guild. Aside the standard Renown, as you perform quests you'll receive Trophies which symbolize the quest in some way: help escort some Traders to safety and you'll receive a set of feathers that all traders use, while saving a child from the Hobbe cave will reward you with a Hobbe head. The trophies aren't equippable items but the Hero can display them in towns to gain even more Renown as he goes around the town showing it to NPCs in a set amount of time - the more people he shows it to, the higher the score and the higher the Renown multiplier. But increasing my Renown earlier on still gave me the exact same number of optional quests throughout the course of the game. Some of them become available earlier on but that's pretty much the extent of it. The Trophies themselves have another use, though. It's possible to invest in property and placing some of these Trophies in houses you acquire will increase their value when you try to rent or sell them. This is one of those nice touches that aren't entirely filler, though it's certainly easy to abuse: the more dangerous quests you perform the more valuable Trophies you get and at some point a house's selling or renting value can reach astronomic prices - which people will pay.
Investing in property is a mixed bag, however. An enterprising Hero should be able to negotiate with some townsfolk to buy their property. All that Renown and goodness could be put to good use here, since it could benefit a town's popularity to have such a good and heroic landlord to take care of its citizens. Guile could even determine success in convincing townsfolk or even shop owners to pay more or less rent, or to even get a share of a shop owners' income in the form of potions or other items. Well, not here. There are only two ways to invest in property: you either buy a vacant marital house - and there's one available in every town - improve its decoration and then rent it; or you kill townsfolk and take their houses. That's it, really. So the only way of a good Hero to own property besides marital homes is to slay innocents and activate the "Buy House" sign outside of a house the second its former occupant kicks the bucket. Either that or charm an NPC to follow him, take him into the wilderness, have it killed by whatever wildlife or bandits you want, then run back to the city - hey, a new house for sale! At this point you must be asking just how moronic the designers were. Well, at this point they probably couldn't care less about you since they must be rolling around in the money they got from all the misinformed kiddies who bought into the hype. To put things into perspective of just how bad it gets, this might be a good time to remember you can offset your bad actions by killing random enemies outdoors. So a virtuous Hero can slaughter everyone in town, buy their houses, charge rent, leave for a while to kill enough eeeeevil wildlife animals, then come back to a town to be greeted with the cheering and praise of the townsfolk that just mass respawned out of thin air, along with their rent conveniently left at their house's doorsteps. Of course, this isn't without consequence since this kind of crime sets off an alert mode where Guards will come at you in droves if you refuse to pay the fines... But why pay when you can camp outside a town and wait a given amount of time for the Guards to forget your crimes, or just donate money at a temple? Unfortunately, I'm not making this up. It's that bad.
Investing in real estate may require copious amounts of violence. Which will be forgetten the next time you pay everyone a pint.
That pretty much defines the bulk of NPC interaction right there - whatever you do to them or with them is of little consequence. Any consequence that comes from dealing with an NPC can be reversed in some way, thus losing any importance. There's no dialogue with them unless you're dealing with quest NPCs or shopkeepers, and the only possible way of interaction is through actions or expressions the Hero learns along the game. These are basically emotes which someone at Lionhead assumed were funny and useful. They're neither. There's quite a lot of things the Hero can express. He can belch, giggle, strike a manly pose, flirt, do a Cossack dance, fart, tap dance, sneer, crotch grab, imitate a chicken... But NPCs commenting on those is basically where their usefulness ends. You're certainly not going to get anything out of anyone by imitating a chicken.
Some of these emotes would seem useful in other contexts but they only affect townsfolk. You'd think something like a bloody roar - or a sneer, or hell, even tattoos - could be used to frighten enemies, but not here. They'll only become relevant to townsfolk. Lessons learned? Anything that attacks the Hero has to be left clicked until it dies, while anything that applauds or cowers in fear should be farted on because really, there's no other way of expressing how much the limited artificial intelligence stinks. Probably the best interaction I remember was with town Guards, since I could sponsor a break (read: bribe) so that I would have an easier time stealing which really should appear a whole lot more in RPGs. But most aspects of NPC interaction just don't play out that great. One of the most hyped features was the possibility of marriage with male or female characters in the game. You'd think since having offspring was scrapped that they would at least develop this one a bit more.
To put it mildly marriage is, shall we say, a bit more irritating and vacuous than standard NPC interactions because it relies on repetitive expressions to get anywhere. NPCs can be charmed by the Hero or will develop affection of their own based on the Hero's Renown level, and a heart icon will float over their heads indicating this. The bigger the icon grows the closer to a proposal the NPC gets. The game often suggests that giving gifts - which can be anything from chocolates to perfume to expensive jewels - will do the trick but it isn't really necessary. They speed the proccess but just standing there in front of an NPC doing a sexy hero pose or flirting repeatedly will get the job done. Eventually they'll ask for a ring and at that point when you offer one, their aura will turn green and the next interaction will have them propose. A short clip will play out and, well, the Hero marries. Yay. It doesn't get much better afterwards. For some reason Lionhead canned the ability to have children and see them grow but decided to leave the chance to have virtual sex with the NPCs - male or female. In any case, to do this you have to go through all the motions you made for marriage without offering a ring in the end - then its off to some moaning goodness with a black screen. Unimaginative and unproductive, to say the least. A spouse will ocasionally offer items like jewels or weapons to the Hero but unless the Hero married early in the game, most of the items given out will pale in comparison to the items or money he'll acquire. And if the Hero married earlier, chances are what you had to offer to get married cost more than what you'll be given. Divorce is also possible if you beat up your spouse, which will label you as one mean man across Albion. But if you've been reading this review you should know by now you can counter this by - you guessed it - killing some wildlife. Beating your spouse is bad, but letting him or her die at the hands of wildlife is inconsequential to reputation, and buying some beers at the local tavern will have townsfolk forget how mean you were.
A song and dance will open the way to romance, but swords are a pretty good way to get to the heart, too.
My last complaint about how these reactions work has to do with the way the Hero can be given titles that reflect his level of renown or achievements in the game. These titles are twofold: the first part defines his notoriety, the second is an actual title that can be bought. At the beginning of the game the Hero is called "Unsung Apprentice called Chicken Chaser". "Unsung apprentice" means the Hero has not yet achieved anything particularly noteworthy, while "chicken chaser" would reflect a title the Hero has purchased for himself - though you still get it regardless of any chicken chasing you may or may not have done. Consequences! Anyway, the system is pretty nonsensical - townsfolk will often only recognize and call you by the title you bought, and not the title you've earned. This means that a title as puerile as Arseface can't even be earned by breaking wind against every NPC you meet, you actually have to buy that title - in essence making townsfolk react to something you may not have even done to get the title, while the title that actually defines your Hero is ignored.
There are two titles that can actually be awarded depending on what you do at some temples, but one of these is based on how much you donate to the temple - not very different from buying it. At least the other title can be awarded by your choice to sacrifice innocents, which is cool in itself. The Hero can order a town NPC to follow him (and if they refuse, just shower them with attention or gifts) and then take them to the Chapel of Skorm, at which point he can offer followers as sacrifices - even children. Delightfully evil as that may sound the process is a bit too formulaic, with a cultist just claiming the follower will die by means of a randomly chosen torture, but all you really see is the NPC hovering above some fiery orb and disappearing. And I really wanted to see children go into that Rope Engine thingy. Bummer.
Buy a title to hear it repeated across NPC soundbites; or have someone sacrifice NPCs for you to be called a Necromancer.
Wild Wild Life
Albion is perhaps one of the most bland and uninteractive gameworlds I've ever experienced. And it's a real shame because while it's not the most vibrant digital world ever seen in the genre, it's got enough production value and appeal to make you want to see and explore more - but you ultimately can't. There is always something there to remind you of how limited in scope and size this game is, and it's pretty hard to apply the term "epic" to something this simplistic. The land of Albion is actually pretty small, with only a handful of cities existing between the boring outdoors filled with respawning enemy waves. The Lost Chapters adds a new city and some other locations but as expected these are all filled with combat and some loot, and there's simply not much worth doing even in non-combat areas.
Part of the gameworld's lack of interest comes from a terribly confining level structure that totally blows away the promised sandbox design. Instead of wide and expansive regions to explore, most areas in the game are basically long corridors which funnel the player from one area into the next. It's frustrating to want to go well beyond the level geometry's obstacles but being unable to do so since even the smallest of pebbles blocks a path that you can see but can't actually reach. If there's not a clear path in front of you, you can't go there. All the scenery boils down to pretty but invisible walls that block your exploration - and for no good reason either. In fact, the scenery is pretty inconsistent in that regard: in several areas you can cross small pools of water but in other areas you can't even though they look exactly the same you just crossed a few minutes ago. If one barrel doesn't have a red aura around it, that means you can't break it down despite it looking just like every other breakable barrel you've come across. The game often plays like a corridor shooter, except here the corridors are lush environments and the chests scattered unashamedly throughout the levels play the part of health packs and better weapons or gear.
Besides the fickle and easily manipulated AI, there's not much else to bother with in Albion. If you get tired of flipping the bird or doing pelvic thrusts in villagers' faces to get the same reactions over and over, there are some extra scenarios that players can participate in but they're mostly pretty negligible minigames which Gamemasters in taverns will ask you to play. These are just real life games or hackneyed variations. Developers can't seem to find the time to create something unique and that actually feels like it's part of a different world and Lionhead follows the same pattern - there's not much here that's original as we're treated to the kinds of games you'd find in some British pub or PC budget card game compilations.
There's also the ability to fish or dig around in spots to find extra items but these fishing and digging spots, when not being totally obvious to the player, are indicated in the interface by context-sensitive icons. Digging just involves selecting a place to dig while fishing requires the player to whip out your rod and sit there left clicking to manage between drawing the "fish" and taking care so you won't snap the line. The rewards aren't particularly good, but considering they only take about 30 to 40 seconds it might be worth your time to collect potions and other stuff. There's a fishing competition even, but it's handled in a pretty pedestrian way. All you have to do is catch a big fish and if it's big enough you'll win the third, second and first prizes. Considering that after more than twenty attempts I've never actually managed to catch a fish that was below the given limit, I can't find much of a challenge there either. Time management could have been an extra challenge in these cases but incredibly enough, fishing and digging will pretty much freeze the gameworld so it's quite possible to do either in the middle of combat as enemies will just stay there waiting for you, even in the middle of a jump attack. Immersion!
Minigames are tepid and have been done better elsewhere.
In some towns you'll find arenas where fighting matches are possible to undertake though you must fight unarmed and wearing no protection. They get progressively hard and are a nice distraction, but they still retain the same banal premise of other diversions. There's no challenge at finding them, it involves the same kind of stuff you've been pulling off ever since the game began and doesn't really reward you well enough nor does it stand out like it should.
The only worthwhile extra challenges in the game would come from Silver Keys and Demon Doors but the trend of Lionhead screwing up even the most simple and interesting of concepts still applies. Across Albion, you'll find giant stone faces that will demand something before they are allowed to open themselves to you. These Demon Doors can ask for anything: a high combat multiplier, that you confront its minions, that you bring some item or perform some action. Figuring out how to open some ranges from the obvious to the challenging but these will never stump you. Not a bad concept itself but Fable's limited scope makes it so there are only 15 doors, four of which are related to the main story and won't prove to be much of a challenge since you'll most likely have done or found something that allows you entry by simply working your way through the mandatory quests. And the remaining ones only have some potions, armor and legendary weapons to offer - all of which, while nice, are just there to justify the combat. Since the game is combat intensive this isn't necessarily bad and at least keeps the player on edge thinking about how good the next addition to their arsenal might be, but once you've seen one Legendary weapon you've pretty much seen them all - and considering simple, augmented weapons are more than enough to survive in combat and any legendary weapons become unnecessary. Silver Keys on the other hand, are just that - keys which you can find when doing some tasks and that enable you to open special chests which clearly warn players how many keys they take to open. These chests carry the same problem that haunts Demon Doors - just more of the same weapons and items that aren't that special, although the best armor in the game is locked in a chest that requires 25 of them. But there's no real challenge here either, since you never expend the keys you've earned - it's just a matter of picking up keys and unlocking chests that demand more as you find them. This could have been a good time to provide players with some game-lasting consequences to their decisions: do they risk opening something earlier on or wait a little longer for something that may be even more powerful? Don't bother thinking, Lionhead is here to make all those painful decisions go away.
Demon Doors will demand either common sense or quick button mashing, while Silver Chests are more passive. Chicken Hats are just stupid.
Seen And Not Seen
While Project Ego might have been an excellent concept with many interesting and revolutionary aspects, Fable is just a truncated action adventure title which is barely average and remains largely bereft of any roleplaying elements. Nothing it sets out to do is actually revolutionary. The take on good and evil is a gimmick that Knights of the Old Republic actually managed to handle better by providing more solid moral choices and consequences, the customization options aren't much better than what was seen in games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and the ability to influence NPCs isn't particularly novel when compared to the likes of The Sims. Credit where credit is due, this may very well be one of the first role-playing games that attempts to combine all of these features - but that doesn't make it necessarily a good one, specially when all of these elements fail to succeed at actually improving role-playing. All it does is drown out players with choices that are ultimately irrelevant to the character's development or only help muddle it. "For every choice, a consequence" may be a nice tagline, but here it simpy isn't true to any serious or well designed degree.
In fact, by adding more things to do in the world of Albion, The Lost Chapters actually makes the lack of balance more glaring. Whereas Fable's short length didn't allow many characters to invest in nearly all of the Attributes by simply playing through the main story arc, the expanded version includes quests which reward lots of experience and locations with even more powerful items. By the end of three playthroughs in Fable, all of my characters were incredibly similar because I had an ample amount of experience to spread across nearly all the Attribute sub-categories that even if I started focusing on different Attributes at the beginning of each game to create different archetypes, I'd still have a large amount of experience that would spill into the other sub-categories. And unless I went out of my way to gimp characters they'd all pretty much have the same powerful equipment open to them. The game's weaknesses become more apparent and the less stellar aspects are that much more pronounced, while most extra content ranges from boring to really questionable. I'm not sure how Pimp Hats, customizing tattoos and a brothel really improve my gaming experience, nor why I should try getting the Hero to crossdress to work as a prostitute.
All in all, there's not much I can recommend in Fable. Even forgetting it falls short of nearly all promises made there's not much here that stands on its own. The combat is easy to get into but doesn't provide much of a challenge, there's barely anything to explore due to the gameworld's limitations, and the quests are often just an unrelated set of challenges that range from the pointless to the unavoidable. Lionhead tried to do many things, that's great - but that's also pretty much where it ends. I'd rather have a game with traditional gameplay that works and is fun than a game that shoots into all directions and fails to deliver anything worth playing. The novelty wears off a couple of hours into the game and never quite manages to surprise or entice you after that. At times it can be a barely decent action adventure game but it never becomes a good or even fun roleplaying game, and that's all that matters.