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A Diagnosis for Fable II: A Game Suffering from Bipolar Disorder

Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageIn this review Games Editor Big Ross not only discusses the highs and lows of Fable II, but issues a prescription for what's ailing this RPG sequel.

Fable II is a uniquely odd (or is it "oddly unique"?) video game in that it is permeated by dichotomy.  It seems to me that Peter Molyneux and the game developers took the idea of Good vs. Evil and, likely by accident rather than intention, instilled nearly every positive element in this role-playing game (RPG) with something negative.  For every exciting new feature, there is an annoying or incongruous detail.  Fable II suffers from what I'll call bipolar gaming disorder; for every high (and there are plenty of highs) there is an accompanying low.  The result is a game that is often fun to play, but one that can just as often feel confusing, frustrating, and perhaps worst of all boring.  Rather than simply lament at what I perceive to be wrong with Fable II, I'm going to attempt to do one better by discussing ways I think Fable II could have avoided the negatives while preserving the positives, i.e. I'll suggest a course of treatment for what's ailing this game.

Before I delve into all of that, let's cover the basics.  Fable II is a sequel to the successful, albeit disappointing, RPG spear-headed by Peter Molyneux, developed for the Xbox, and released on 9/14/2004.  Hyped as the RPG Fable should have been (yet wasn't), its debut was met by critical praise as well as popular demand with first week sales estimated at $18.7 millionFable II is described as a fantasy-style RPG set roughly 500 years after the events of its predecessor that allows players to assume the role of a nameless hero destined to save the world.  A great deal of emphasis is placed on the dynamic of Good vs. Evil, with the player's choices affecting not only the hero's alignment, appearance, and perception by non-player characters (NPCs), but also the very world around him.  The player's choices have real and lasting consequences on the gaming environment and plot, and though there is a sense of fatalism that the hero will save the world, how he goes about it is entirely up to the player.  That's all well and good, but let's get into specifics about the good and bad of Fable II.


It's Rated G, No Wait It's Rated R, No Wait…

I honestly believe that if you were to show a trailer of Fable II to ten sets of parents and ask them if they would let their 10-13 year-old play it, a majority would answer in the affirmative.  Fable II is presented in an almost cartoonish way, with graphics that are bright, colorful, and far from photo-realistic, and character designs that seem like that could be at home in the 4KidsTV bloc of Saturday morning programming.  Even the manner in which you interact with NPCs is childish, with Fable II's expression wheel replacing the more standard dialogue choices of other RPGs.  Your hero never speaks; rather you choose an expression from a variety that include letting out a blood-curdling roar to intimidate and frighten, dancing a jig to amuse and entertain, ripping a loud fart to offend, and more.  Even the combat featured in Fable II is almost harmless and without any sort of edge.  It is non-graphic.  While you can hack and slash enemies up close with sword or axe or blast them from afar with pistol or rifle, there are no dismemberments or decaptiations, no gaping bullet holes or even blood-spray.  We seem much more tolerant of violence than we are of sex, and with this watered-down combat system I think Fable II could have easily garnered a "Teen" rating.  But this isn't all there is in Fable II.

The world of Albion is filled with other more mature themes for players to experience.  In Fable II you can find or purchase condoms that you can use to have protected sex with NPCs.  You can abstain until you fall in love (or more precisely, convince an NPC to fall in love with you) and get married, or you can be a traveling Lothario bedding NPCs in every town and village across the fictional world of Albion.  You don't even have to bother with seducing an NPC; there are prostitutes willing to engage in sex for the right price.  You can even experiment with same-sex relations if you want; nothing it seems is off-limits in Fable II.  Though your actions are not without consequences, and that applies to sex as well.  If you choose to have unprotected sex you could contract a disease or conceive a child.  And while the act itself is not shown (MINOR SPOILER ALERT: the screen goes to black and all you hear are a few sexual innuendos spoken by your lover), I'm sure that these adult situations prompted the ESRB's "Mature" rating for Fable II.  Obviously this game is intended for adult gamers, and while many of the playful elements can be fun at first, this dichotomy had me scratching my head as to just what the developers were thinking when laying out the design for Fable II, and elements like the expression wheel quickly lost their novelty and were disappointing in how they kept me feeling disengaged from the characters inhabiting Albion.  Given that marriage and parenthood have no real bearing on the gameplay, it seems that sex could have easily been left out of the game altogether to broaden the market for Fable II, which might not have solved the incongruity issue but would at least have made it more understandable why it seems so directed towards younger gamers.  

Time is Money, Even when You're Not Playing

The developers designed a monetary system for Fable II that differs from most games of this kind.  Players are not automatically rewarded with gold by defeating enemies or completing quests.  There are only four ways to acquire it: treasure hunting, working a job, theft, and commerce.  Treasure hunting is self-explanatory, but suffice it to say there is quite a bit of gold (or items that can be sold for gold) scattered throughout the world of Albion either in treasure chests or buried and waiting to be dug up.  Jobs in Fable II range from the mundane (blacksmith, woodcutter, bartender) to the more interesting (civilian displacement, bounty hunter, assassin).  The more interesting jobs carry more risk, and as such pay more, though if you're willing to work at becoming the best blacksmith in Albion you can make some good money in a short period of time.  If you're of an evil mindset, you can eschew the law and simply steal items to make a quick profit; however, you do so at the risk of discovery and punishment by the authorities.  The last option to accumulate wealth is probably the most interesting.  Virtually every property in Albion is available for purchase, provided you have enough gold.  There are businesses in every town and community, and if you invest in a produce stand, smithy, or clothing tailor you will receive a portion of that business's profits indefinitely.  Here's where things get wonky.

Fable II has an in-game clock that advances continuously during play such that 12 hours will transpire in 20 minutes of real time (give or take).  The design of the commerce element is such that you automatically receive profits at regular intervals – the in-game equivalent of ~5 minutes of real time.  Where things get weird is how the game interprets the passage of time with respect to advancing your profits.  First of all, in terms of this commerce element the game assumes a normal passage of time even when the game is not being played.  In other words, if you're playing on a Monday night and save and quit, when you come back to the game and resume playing on Wednesday, you will immediately receive an amount of gold equivalent to the sum that has accumulated at the rate of x gold multiplied by the number of 5-minute intervals of real time since you last played, where x=the amount of gold you receive in profits at every update.  If it's not obvious, this could mean potentially huge rewards for doing nothing.  While a friend of mine thought this was cool because (I'm paraphrasing) "it's not like the world of Fable II stops when you stop playing," I have to disagree.  That's precisely what happens.  If I receive a notice that there is a job opening in a distant town that expires in 10 days, if I save and quit, I will still have 10 days in which to opt to take that job when I resume playing.  So the only aspect of time passing while the game is off is this commerce mechanic.  But wait, it gets messier.  There is at least one point in the game where a quest  (The Tattered Spire) takes 10 years of in-game time to complete.  To accomplish this the game essentially fast-forwards time via cut-scenes, and at no point either during this quest or after does the game recognize the passage of time with respect to the commerce element.  In other words, I should have been accruing profits from any businesses I own during the 10 years I was off questing, yet I didn't get a single gold piece.  Granted I was isolated from the rest of the world, so I wasn't exactly available to collect, but this is never really explained.  Did the shop owners presume me dead, and not feel a need to give me my due?  Might I have been away so long that all of the businesses reverted to their original owners?  Could someone else have come along and made them a better offer?  None of those possibilities take the cake, as once play resumes after completion of this particular quest profits begin accruing as before.  It's all very nebulous, and at the very least the easiest fix would be to recognize that if time (in-game) stops when the player isn't playing, then that should apply to all aspects of the game, including the commerce element.

ImageForget the Food Pyramid, Vegans Know Best

Fable II's attention to detail extends to your hero's consumption of food.  Like other RPGs when you are injured you can heal yourself in three ways: rest, use magic, or eat food.  But before you make like an NFL offensive lineman at an all-you-can-eat buffet, you need to pause and consider carefully what you're about to shove down your hero's gullet.  In Fable II you hero not only sits on an alignment spectrum that ranges from good to evil (based on your actions) but also on a purity spectrum that ranges from pure to corrupt (based on what you consume).  Every item of food and drink that you find in Albion has a purity and fatness rating, and depending on your hero's diet you can vary between one extreme of fit and healthy and the other of gluttonous and obese, regardless of your good/evil alignment.   This is certainly an intriguing concept, but it's a fairly complicated issue to think about artificially modeling a person's diet/health.  Perhaps understandably, but unfortunately Fable II's developers threw out nuance and complexity.  The demarcation between what is good for your hero and what is bad could easily have been drawn by a strict vegan.  Things like water, fruits, vegetables, and tofu are pure, while basically everything else from meats, fish, pies, cheeses, and alcoholic beverages are all corrupting.  In addition to making it rather difficult for players to remain pure, especially when you happen to be carrying an scrumptious Hollow Man Meat Pie in the middle of a quest and are out of healing potions and low on health, this whole system has been arbitrarily over-simplified.  We all know that a high protein diet is beneficial when attempting to increase your muscle mass, so wouldn't it help your hero become a hobbe-bashing do-gooder by eating meat?  Certainly lean meats exist, but in the world of Fable II not even fish is good for you.  For that matter the idea of "all fat is bad" is just plain wrong.  There are things called essential fats that we have to consume in our diets to stay alive.  Furthermore this whole system is flawed because it doesn't take into account physical exercise.  Your hero is basically walking or running to get anywhere that he goes, and most of the time he's engaging in fierce combat either at his destination or en route (and many times both).  Yet none of that physical activity factors into how fit your hero is.  For that matter, it is completely irrelevant how fat your hero is.  Being fat is not detrimental to your performance in matters of love or war, so what's the big deal?  The developers of Fable II certainly get an "A" for effort in this aspect of the game's design, but a "C" for their execution.  I think the lesson here is do it well, or don't do it at all.


Being a Bad Ass Isn't Fun with Nothing Interesting to Kill

Combat in Fable II has been streamlined to the extreme to largely successful results.  There are three elements to combat: melee weapons, ranged weapons, and magic.  These have been assigned to three buttons on the controller (X, Y, and B, respectively).  Melee weapons include faster one-handed armaments such as broadswords, rapiers, katanas, and cleavers, and slower, two-handed weapons including axes, hammers, and maces.  Fable II is set 500 years after the first game, so gunpowder has been discovered and introduced into warfare.  As such ranged weapons include variations of pistols and rifles in addition to the more standard crossbows.  While many RPGs have taken to including "mana" as a kind of magical currency used to cast spells, Fable II has done away with this convention.  There is no "cost" to using magic.  You can cast as many spells as you want as many times as you want.  As you become more powerful throughout the game, you will have access to more potent attacks, yet the design of the single-button scheme has taken this into account.  You can press and hold X to charge up a powerful flourish melee attack, press and hold Y to zoom in on an enemy for a more accurate ranged attack, and hold B to charge up more devastating magical spells.  You are free to mix up your attacks on enemies with combinations of these three combat elements.  Indeed you are encouraged to do this and rewarded with increased experience.  So what's the problem?

It isn't so much in the design and mechanics of the combat system.  There are a few issues with switching between the different attack styles, especially when multiple enemies are on screen, but that isn't overly detrimental.  The real disappointment here is in what you get to unleash all this martial might upon.  A great combat system, cool weapons, etc. are nothing without a compelling menagerie of foes to test them against.  In Fable II there is the occasional troll, banshee, or balverine (their version of a werewolf), but these are few and far between.  The three most commonly encountered enemies while traipsing around Albion are beetles, humans, and hobbes (a sort of goblin).  You quickly tire of fighting the same enemies over and over again, and even the rare troll becomes uninteresting when you realize it's the same gimmick in slightly different packaging.  Albion feels like it should be teeming with wildlife and monsters waiting to kill (or be killed), yet this distinct lack of diversity is one of the bigger disappointments of the game.  Fable II may be an RPG, but it still centers on combat, and with the care given to the design of the combat system more thought should have been given to what players would employ that system against.