Fable II – Staff Review

I’d like to start this review with a caveat. Normally, I don’t review sequels unless I have played the previous game. This time, however, I’m reviewing Fable II as someone who never played Fable. Though I won’t be able to tell what’s an improvement or a step down from the first game, I’ll be able to present the perspective of someone who is new to the series.

Fable II is the follow-up to Peter Molyneux’s first “be the hero you want to be” Xbox RPG. This sequel was supposed to be larger and more flexible, and it had the addition of a canine companion. As you progress through the game’s short story, your actions determine your appearance, the way NPCs react to you, and the way the world is. It’s the biggest and most complex aspect of the game and also its chief selling point.

There are plenty of sidequests that offer you moral choices, and each choice awards you points toward becoming good or evil. Certain actions, like what you eat and drink, also affect a separate scale of purity and corruption. You can communicate with NPCs by using various expressions: dancing, playing the lute, belching, showing off trophies, growling, slapping, and so on. No one likes being slapped, a belch will entertain some people but disgust others, and actions like dancing and playing the lute will win everyone’s affection. You can also influence people with gifts and good deeds, or you can just kill them and make them hate you.

Evil in pigtails.
Evil in pigtails.

Another aspect of this system is that your appearance will change. Good characters get halos and glowing complexions, while bad characters get demon horns and bulging veins. Losing a fight means you earn some wicked scars, and using lots of magic gives your skin glowing blue markings. Eating too much meat and drinking too much alcohol will make you fat, while sticking to veggies and potions keeps you trim. Even the skills you learn change your appearance. Will enhances your magical glow, strength bulks you up,and skill makes you taller. Unfortunately, investing in strength makes you look like a hideous wrestler on steroids. Even your dog can change; as you turn evil, your dog’s fur will turn black and his eyes will turn red.

Add to this the fact that there are lots of different pieces of clothing and armor to wear, plus dyes to change the color of any article of clothing or your hair, and you get a system that has a tremendous amount of possibilities in character style and creativity. Lionhead has even compiled images of many different Fable II characters as a testament to the possibilities.

However, as most “moral choice” games go, it ends up being the same dichotomy: be good or be bad. There’s no gray in-between area, no third or fourth option that creates ambiguity, though the final choice of the game does manage that somewhat and supposedly you can be good and corrupt or evil and pure. It’s not too hard to reach one extreme or the other in the game. All NPCs are ridiculously simple-minded and they can be swayed one way or another with a little work. You can behave erratically all you like, and it only shifts the numbers around.

The illiterate of Albion have no excuse for not knowing where the Cow and Corset is.
The illiterate of Albion have no excuse for not knowing where the Cow and Corset is.

Don’t get me wrong though; the system is quite impressive. NPCs will actually give appropriate reactions to shifts in behavior. If you are kind to someone then suddenly give them the finger, they’ll grumble disgustedly about how they were “just starting to like you.” If you buy their house and jack up the rent, they’ll complain to you in the street about it. Appeal to the masses, and people will crowd around you, even to the point of getting in your way as you move through town. Strike fear into their hearts, and they’ll actually run away from you screaming when you stroll into town.

So while the character morphing and reputation systems are rather well-designed, the character still exists in a fairly rigid and limited world. The skills, for example, don’t allow for true diversity; though there’s a good variety of magic available, you’re still left with just slashing, shooting, and casting spells. It’s possible to create a few interesting fighting styles — for example, I focused on improving my shooting skills and used magic that put distance between the enemy and myself — but it isn’t nearly as rich as the customization of the character’s appearance.

One of the much-hyped features is the dog. He makes himself useful by sniffing out treasure and doing a little fighting, but aside from his cute expressions, he’s not much more than the dog in Secret of Evermore. I adored having him by my side, of course, but he’s more windowdressing than functionality.

Another drawback is that it doesn’t take long to get from start to finish, assuming you aren’t sidetracked by flirting shamelessly with the opposite (or same) sex or robbing every house you pass. The story is very straightforward, though it has plenty of color. The characters are decently written and there are some good monologues and banter mixed in. It tries to be serious, but you can’t really take it seriously. Maybe you aren’t supposed to, after all. There are a few somewhat epic moments, but nothing spectacular, and the final boss is a disappointment.

Juicy bloodspray doesn't make up for the lack of a good skill tree.
Juicy bloodspray doesn’t make up for the lack of a good skill tree.

Clearly, the story isn’t the time-filler; your hours are meant to be eaten up by sidequests, plundering treasure, taking odd jobs (which are mostly mind-numbing repetitive mini-games, by the way), adjusting the economy, having sex, getting married, having kids, and goofing off. In fact, it’s really easy to just goof off in Fable II and never really accomplish much aside from getting drunk with half of Bowerstone’s residents and making them laugh themselves sick at your silly sock puppet show.

All this takes place in a really detailed world. It’s hard to describe how much detail the game has. It’s in everything: sun-drenched fields of flowers, grimy pubs, dank caves, luxurious homes. There are lots of nice touches, such as the dog pointing at treasure in a classic bird dog stance. The game’s music is rather subtle and nicely fills the background as appropriate. There’s folksy music in the gypsy camp, pretentious pseudo-aristocratic music in Bowerstone, and softly ominous battle music that becomes louder as the situation becomes more dangerous. Voice acting is really good as well; it doesn’t sound forced or unnatural. Some of the spoken lines from townspeople get a bit repetitious at times, but you’ll still get to hear a lot of different lines depending on their perception of you and current events.

Unfortunately, Fable II has some annoying glitches, such as the tendency to get stuck targeting an NPC. Weapons can get stuck sometimes as well, and at one point my rifle was suddenly and randomly unequipped. During my second playthrough, a boss at the end of one area never appeared. I was able to walk right over its spawn point and pass into the next area. The simple act of dyeing your hair sometimes makes the game briefly freeze and act as if it’s going to crash. These are all bugs I encountered while playing a patched version of the game; supposedly there were several game-crashing bugs pre-patch.

Then there’s the botched multiplayer system. It uses a fixed camera for both players to keep them on the screen together, which makes navigation difficult, especially since you’re used to having control of the camera for the rest of the game. There’s a “teleport” button to bring the second player to the first’s side, but it makes the screen jerk. Abuse of this feature is disorienting and irritating. The second player has to play a ready-made henchman. You can’t use your unique character, which is a huge disappointment. It also resets the second character’s spell hotkeys. There’s really nothing for you two to do together, like special quests or hidden bosses, and the game is easy enough that you don’t need help to get through it. It’s good for transferring some money and gear to a friend’s new character however, and it’s fun to do expressions together at townspeople.

Fable II is an irreverent, bawdy, and self-depricating entertainment system with some aspects of a game built in. If you’re looking for a deep story or complex battle mechanics, you won’t find them here. If you’re looking to have a fun and easy role-playing experience, you’ll enjoy creating a character and thinking up ways to express yourself, be it by getting smashed in the pub and entertaining the locals with your belching skills or luring unsuspecting victims into dark allies with your flirtatious ways before killing them in cold blood. It’s not as flexible as promised, but it will keep you entertained for a while.

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