‘There, there Seren, it’s okay’ I mutter to myself as I gently rub the open wounds of my faithful horse, my healing hands binding the skin back together. The muscular steed looks back at me with her deep black eyes as if to say, ‘what are you putting me through?’. And I’m almost thinking the same thing.
Emotional attachments are ingrained into the genetics of all Lionhead games, right back to the pets in Black and White eleven years ago, through to the dog in Fable 2 and 3 and continuing in Fable: The Journey in the form of this majestic horse. This is something that creative director Gary Carr is keen to express when discussing their upcoming release. Asked what he feels the closest current experience to Fable: The Journey is, he states ‘undoubtedly this is a Fable game, and continues the tradition of the series. It is not Fable 4, but everything that one expects from the series is present: emotions, stories, humour and, of course, Britishness’.
As I whip my hands down, ordering Seren to trot onwards, I begin to understand what he means. Those trademark Fable cartoon style graphics, British voice talent (Zoë Wanamaker’s passive-aggressive style is instantly recognisable as the voice of Theresa) and clumsy sarcastic comedy is clear in every second of play. Fable: The Journey is obviously a Fable game, but I am controlling it with my body through the Xbox’s Kinect system.
There is an obvious disparity though, since some of the ideals of Fable, such as complete control over the characters and open-world adventuring, are noticeably absent. Fable: The Journey’s gameplay is far more akin to an on rails shooter. This is something that needs to be cleared up judging by the confusion around the subject: it is certainly an on rails game. During my few hours journeying I experienced two distinct gameplay styles, riding the cart and climbing off to fight monsters.
While riding the cart, players instruct Seren with delicate body movements. Shifting the left arm forward and right arm back, pulls the cart to the right, and vice versa. Performing a whipping action with both arms drives her to gallop faster. It feels fairly natural, like pulling on ethereal reins, and surprisingly accurate. Most of the time riding is spent avoiding obstacles, which can hurt Saren if she hits them, or collecting experience points that inexplicably litter the road. It is certainly an interesting experiment, but I find myself struggling to convince myself it is enjoyable. There is this distinct feeling that we are stuck on this straight path with beautiful scenery passing us by yet we are unable to turn our heads to investigate.
Suddenly a massive troll smashes through the floor and begins hurling huge boulders into our path. I grab hold of the virtual reins and compel Seren to ride like the wind. Suddenly I realise there is an issue with control while under stress from the action on the screen. With the adrenaline pumping, arm movements become much faster and erratic and here the Kinect can let you down. If any movements become slightly imprecise it struggles. Perhaps it is a lesson in controlling the body in moments of duress, but there is far more an inclination to blame the technology than yourself.
This is a feeling that dramatically amplifies as you climb down from the cart and walk around. These sections follow a far more generic on-the-rails shooter set-up, rather like a fantasy Time Crisis. Following our hero Gabriel in first person each hand becomes a powerful spell, one invoking lightning blasts, the other kinetic energy. Lifting a hand readies it to fire, then pushing forward in a direction unleashes it. When it works, there is a rather beautiful rhythmic movement to it all. Flicking a monster off the ground and then volleying them backwards with a punishing lightning blow feels thrilling and is an exceptionally unique experience. Shots can be spun around walls using an aftertouch system, and their are plenty of clever combinations to experiment with.
Unfortunately, at least from my short experience, it rarely works this way as creatures fill the screen and you are forced to move quickly. Lightning bolts fly off in random directions and the sense of control seems to quickly dissipate. These are perhaps issues that will clear away when played with the Kinect properly configured in the player’s own room, and Gary admits that there are a few bug fixes to improve accuracy in the full release, but it does highlight an issue with the Kinect in general.
Lionhead truly believe that Fable: The Journey is the first real Kinect game built for the both the ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’ gaming audience. Gary points out that not only is this game built from the ground up as a Kinect game (the Project Milo team at Lionhead moved over to this), but also to be played while seated. ‘You will not have to move your living room around to play it, and hardcore gamers can play as long a session a they wish.’
While arguably ridiculous marathon sessions that some gamers manage to pull off may result in serious muscle pains, I managed to play through our three hour session with nothing but slightly tired arms. Some hardened players may well manage to swing their arms through the entire twelve to fifteen hour game in one sitting.
However, there are several niggling issues that make me wonder whether Lionhead have really managed to target the ‘hardcore’ audience successfully. Firstly, the pacing of the game is exceptionally sluggish, with a very slow learning curve as the players are taught the techniques in an unskippable format. There is an overwhelming desire to simply get on with it, as you lead Seren down yet another path strewn with jagged rocks, or slap a few more hobbes (the strange goblin-like creatures of Albion) into the air. Secondly the experience system is disturbingly simple, with just a fairly irrelevant binary choice after each completed level (interestingly coins collected in Fable Heroes can be used in Fable: The Journey). Finally, the single unwavering level of difficulty might frustrate those looking for a challenge. Health regenerates quickly, and blocking an attack is a simple matter of bringing an arm across your body. As the press convene after their individual sessions, we all discuss whether anyone managed to die. Not a single person raised a meek hand.
This is something I put to Gary: ‘I think the Kinect is a great leveller. Not everyone has had a controller in their hand their whole lives, but everyone is used to their bodies. We found that most players, young, old, gamer or otherwise had a similar first experience with the game.’
Admittedly, after only three hours we may have only just turned the first corner and the path ahead could be long and treacherous. However, the overall impression I got was that many players may well breeze through the whole journey.
The arcade mode that is unlocked after completing any part of the story offers more of a challenge and helps improve the longevity of the game. Jumping straight into these individual sections, players can swing their arms around competing for high scores or trying to discover whether objects can be manipulated to defeat enemies (throwing an explosive barrel at an incoming hobbes is surprisingly amusing), or uncovering one of the many collectables that are locked away in chests throughout the world.
Despite all my issues with lack of exploration, pacing, very basic experience trees and difficulty I must still admit to an overwhelming desire to return to the world of Albion to finish Gabriel’s journey. What is the corruption that is spreading its dark tendrils over the land? What intentions does the mysterious Theresa (who has appeared in all the Fable games so far in one way or another) have? What will be the fate of Gabriel and Seren?
Looking back I realise this is what Gary Carr was explaining at the beginning. Fable games have never pretended to raise the banner for difficult or challenging gameplay in the way say, Dark Souls has, but they have always experimented and reinvented. The on rails setup of Fable: The Journey allows Lionhead to tell a rigid story of Albion, in a way open-world RPGs simply cannot. It is a game playing with the emotions of compassion, humour and wonder, set along a beautifully crafted path and the involvement of the Kinect allows the players to use their bodies to become more entangled in these feelings than a controller ever can.
Whether players will warm to this way of gaming is another question and one that may well decide the fate of Fable: The Journey in the gaming annals. Perhaps this is why Gary Carr is so keen for people to get their hands on, and into, the game. The release of the Xbox Live demo, out now, weeks before release is unprecedented for the company and demonstrates these intentions. It is a game that requires playing to really understand - screenshots, videos and words may well fail to grasp the full experience. Which, I suppose, is a rather muted way of closing this piece.