After years in production, Peter Molyneux's piece, Fable II, is finally upon us on the Xbox 360. Following a similar mold from its 2004 predecessor, Fable II introduces new features and improves upon what the former game built, but in the end, it feels overly artificial and irrelevant.
Five hundred years after the events of Fable, Albion - the fantasy world that both games take place - has gone through radical changes. These resulted from the dissolution of the Heroes' Guild, after the Heroes became increasingly self important and less worried about the well being of the world. The world now has forgotten about the heroic exploits from the past, concentrating on evolving without the dependence of powerful beings. Fable II opens up its story showing two sibling street urchins living in the town of Bowerstone, and the quest for one of them to re-instate the importance of heroes and most importantly, of course, saving the world from a maniacal entity bent on reshaping it to fit its needs.
Fable II is totted to be a game of choices, and these are presented as soon as the start button is pressed in the title screen, with the choice of playing a girl or a boy. Regardless of the gender of the main character, they will always end up having an older sister, who basically acts as a tutorial into the moral choice system embedded into the game. Early on, as a kid living in the streets, the main nameless character, referred to only as Little Sparrow, comes across situations that have heavy consequences in Bowerstone's future, in the form of simple quests. For instance, one of these missions will be given by a warehouse owner who wants the hero to clear out his shop of beetles. Upon entering, another proposition is made, to destroy the merchant's supply, thus helping the local muscle mob. Depending on the choice made, evil or good points will be attributed to the hero fresh out of diapers. Depending on this overall behaviour in the starting phase, the town can turn into a profitable and luxurious location to visit, or a wore infested red-light hell hole in the coming years.
As the main character grows up, more decisions come into place, working as a balancing act as to whether he or she will be a kind spirited person or an evil soul. The problem lies in how artificial these decisions feel, and how the many towns' populations can be manipulated to either love or hate as many times as wished. An angelic hero can quickly become satanic by raising the rent on owned real state and killing innocents, while an evil character will donate to church and gift townspeople in order to gain their trust and revert their cause. This mechanic waters down all the significance the choices made after starting the game, even to the point of offering a gender change potion, reverting even the simplest decision's significance. Not that choosing a gender will make much of a difference other than visually. Like in the first Fable, the main character can get married, but this time, also have kids. The decision to get married comes as easily as the change of people's opinion mentioned above. Become more and more heroic, use expensive clothes, and quickly enough, most of the villagers found will be in love, regardless of the main character's gender. While being a modern and applause-worthy notion without any sexual discrimination, it also adds to the already mentioned watered down consequences of decisions. Add to this formula the fact that sexual relations using or avoiding protection is skimmed to a chance of contracting transmitted diseases if non marital or an instant child for unprotected intercourse while married. Kids come into play rather quickly after marriage, and a family becomes yet another stop in between quests, where they can be turned to like or hate with a simple jump into bed, flowers and a toy. Failure to maintain a happy household can result in a divorce, or even spouse suicide, losing both the partner and kids to social services.
Combat in Fable II also helps in maintaining this shallow artificial feeling, dependant only on the face buttons of the Xbox 360 game pad. X acts as the melee button, while Y controls ranged attacks from guns and crossbows and B is for magic, each with their own skill tree for skill point allocation.. In the beginning, as attributes aren't really evolved, fights can be described as button mashing contests, since basic actions like defend, parrying and dodging only come in later strength skill tree levels. As enemies get defeated, experience point orbs in four separate colors can be collected and used into the tree main development trees - yellow for Skill, blue for Strength, red for Will and green for general use. Will acts as another word for magic attacks, which revolve around archetypes, like the fireball Inferno attack and Raise Dead, which, if not obvious, calls for the dead souls of enemies to fight side by side with the hero - with each class having five upgrade slots. Skill mainly revolves around ranged attack improvement, with some melee influence. Strength focuses on health point value, stamina and armor improvement. As more skills are presented, combat can become more challenging, but it doesn't escape the tiring mold of random encounters that are summed up into the same developed strategy that will quickly be discovered within the first few bouts with bandits. Add to the list the fact that most magic types aren't very useful, with very few combat worthy of the valuable experience points orbs.
Enemy types aren't very varied either, which doesn't help in the feeling of repetition. Normal humans can come in the shape of roadside bandits or soldiers, while monsters can be Hobbes, a sort of gnome and goblin mix, trolls, huge tree-like beings, banshees, who act like mini bosses and hollow men, reanimated corpses who fight exactly like reanimated corpses, slowly and weakly. The overall combat challenge lies in enemy numbers that can easily crowd around the hero and chip away health points into their demise. Or not. Maybe demise isn't the correct word to be used to describe death in Fable II. Instead of biting the dust and grabbing lilies, the main hero loses experience points that were not picked up and gain scars every time they are knocked out, coming back into the fight a few moments after comically lumping onto the ground. These scars do a bit to effect the hero's visuals and attractiveness, but nothing a few pieces of expensive clothing can't fix. In the end, the artificial feeling found throughout the game is mostly based on the fact that death doesn't matter much, so far as to not even make much of a difference, throwing the challenge out the window.
Perhaps the most noteworthy adding to Fable II is the hero's dog. Introduced in the first few minutes of the game, the dog acts a lot like the animal avatar in Molyneux god simulation game Black & White. Depending on which side of the karma wheel the hero rests, so does the dog. A good mutt is petted and loved by townsfolk, while the opposite is yet another means of executing evil deeds, in the most varied of ways. The hero's four legged friend also plays a small part in combat, attacking knocked down enemies in a finishing move. However, the most important function of the dog, by far, is for the discovery of buried treasure. As an upgradeable skill, along with combat, the dog's ability to sniff out treasures is one of the main additions that sets Fable II apart from its predecessor, in which the hero was a lone acting influence in the world. Not only is it influential to keep your dog happy and healthy, it is also important to teach him new tricks in the form of books that can be bought, won or found. These tricks act as a companion to the host of expressions the hero can use to impress, entertain, scare, seduce or hurt the people of Albion with. As an example, as the hero launches powerful flatulence, the dog hides his nose with his paws. Also to be noted is the fact that expressions depend on a time based meter, and if missed, can have opposite effects that those intended. These expressions also effect the tip toe scale of the love and hate relationship between the main hero and the world's population.
The "map system" incorporated in Fable II keeps track of how many collectibles are found, as well as real state owned and personality shifts. Sadly, there is a reason to keep the words in quotes, since this feature ignores the basic function of maps - showing locations and helping out. Finding stores in towns and special locations is needlessly overcomplicated, and frustrating due to this. The only clue to help locate objectives is a glowing trail that points a particular path to be followed, and even this feature is a bit half baked, since sometimes the trail insists in changing its mind mid way, or simply not appearing at all, at crucial times. This feature can be tweaked in the options in order to feature a stronger or lighter appearance, or make it inactive all together.
It helps that Fable II's colorful visuals look a lot like the original's, and is also one of its drawbacks. Environments feel mostly well textured, but also present a lot of square edges thanks to low polygon use. The fact that slowdown and pop in occur often, along with visual glitches like floating characters and crazy physics don't help shake the feeling that perhaps Fable II would have benefited from more time in the oven. Characters look simple, and are too often repeated in the same screens, which happen ever more normally with enemy creatures. Visual defects aside, the impressive side of Fable II's looks is the lighting. Watching the sun set really makes one wonder why this attention was not shared with the rest of the visual presentation. Environments also hardly ever vary from the lush forest, dirty port or scary swamp postcards. The variety of costumes to wear and weapons to
wield is also disappointing - depending on which side of the personality meter the main character will lie, there won't be much of a choice regarding clothing. There is however the possibility of mixing pieces of sets and gender specific clothes, with the choice of turning the hero into a cross dresser-like character. The clothing is strongly influenced my 19th century French and English culture, and many of the upper class non playable characters look ripped straight out of a Marie Antoniette novel. The options for character customization are similar to the original game's, with different hair styles, tattoos, and the already mentioned clothing and weaponry. Food choices also affect how the hero looks, with a chubby belly line waiting for cheese loving do gooders to obtain.
The musical score is very well composed - strongly based on fantasy films, especially on Danny Elfman's pieces for movies like Harry Potter, Fable II's music is enjoyable. Although sharing a lot of the score with the previous game, it does its job well providing the setting. The voice work is also worthy of mention, with many lines of distinct dialogue and humor, in the tongue and cheek humor typical of British comedy. The humor in Fable II is one of its high marks, providing a mix of mature content and toilet jokes that makes the Mature rating received well understood.
Variety can be seen as a lacking feature in Fable II. Quests outside the main storyline are few and far between, and hardly take long to complete. The main story isn't very extensive either, taking a few days of not so dedicated playing to complete. There are a few collectibles to be found in the form of fifty silver keys, used to open special treasure chests, and fifty gargoyles that can be destroyed in order to gain access to special items. The demon doors from Fable make a return, with new tastes and requirements in order to let passage. The gargoyles are the main highlight of the post storyline re-playability of Fable II - not only are they hard to find, but are also part of the comedic value, since they audibly curse and make fun of the hero as they get close, helping as a cue to keep keen eyes open.
All in all, Fable II is a mildly enjoyable fantasy game, that unfortunately ends up feeling incredibly artificial. The promises of it having consequences for decisions made are but that, promises, with very few cases of staying repercussions, few and far between. It ends up being a game that has the potential lying just finger lengths away from grasp, but ultimately falling flat on its nose. There are very few reasons to keep coming back for more after the story is over, other than the great comedic writing and achievement hunting - for those interested.