Fable 3 doesn’t put its best foot forwards in the beginning. The first few hours are difficult to get through because the unintuitive interface is problematic from the start. The world itself is quite appealing, but that’s something that has to sink in over time. Impatient players just might quit before getting to the good parts.
The problem with the interface is that there are no menus in the traditional sense. Every action that you’d normally take in a 2-D menu, you now take in the world itself. When you sell items at a shop, your inventory appears on pedestals, and you have to run up to whichever item you want to sell. Hitting the start button doesn’t pause the game, instead it takes you to the Sanctuary, which acts as a kind of home base during your adventure. From here, you can run up to an options menu on the wall to save or a table in the middle of the room to view the map. Hallways branch out into a dressing room, an armory, a treasury, and a multiplayer hub. At no point, do you ever leave the third-person perspective to zoom into a 2-D menu, everything takes place in the physical world.
Such a menu system (or lack thereof) is certainly ambitious, and Lionhead deserves praise for trying new ways of keeping players immersed in the game. However, removing menus completely does not make for more immersive gameplay because every action you do take takes longer than normal. Changing weapons requires you to go to the Sanctuary, run to the armory, run to the weapon that you want, and then grab it. All the physical space that you have to pass through makes the whole process take longer than if you were just flicking through menus using a control stick and buttons.
Another frustration is that the in game map is useless. Not only is it a hassle to get to, but it fails as a map. Your position isn’t displayed on it, so it’s nearly impossible to tell where you are. It doesn’t even accurately reflect the area that you’re in, trying to explore will get you hopelessly lost. It’s also pointless, since a glowing breadcrumb trail guides you throughout the game from one quest destination to another.
Despite all that, once the world opens up, once you start taking on various side quests and meeting the wonderful cast of characters, once you get to experience the whimsy of Fable 3, you’ll want to see more. When accepting a quest, you can hold A to accept it immediately, but you’ll want to wait for the “quest giver” to tell his or her story. These people are interesting and quirky and give the world a personality worth savoring.
It’s too bad then that many of the quests, like the main game, are so linear. You’re rarely offered a choice in how things play out. It’s always go here, get this, kill them, come back, complete quest. Yet the world itself is still so addictive, and you’ll want to play around in it. You’ll want to become a real estate magnate, get married, have kids, and buy a house. Creating a life for yourself in the world of Fable 3 is far more fun than the main story.
The story revolves around you starting a revolution to usurp your tyrannical brother. The first part of the game plays like a standard adventure as you go around collecting allies, but then you become king, and once again the annoyances begin to stack up. As king, you’re faced with a series of choices that are so blatantly good or evil it’s absurd. But at this point in the game, Lionhead doesn’t seem interested in exploring the typical good/evil duality present in most RPGs. Every good choice revolves around money. You have a limited amount of cash in the coffers, so you have to choose between helpful social services. Will you prioritize education or the environment? In this way, Lionhead seems more interested in making you consider the unintended consequences of a “good” political decision, rather than just the predictable consequences of a moral choice. After all, you can’t do everything, can you?
Actually you can, which makes this latter part of the game another ambitious idea that’s executed poorly. Rather than give you many choices at once and force you to balance the budget accordingly, you’re faced with a series of linear choices, and you never know what’s coming next. It feels less like you’re choosing one social service over another and more like you’re being tricked into choosing one over another. If you don’t have enough money to build a school, you’re still given a choice to build one, but it’s not a real choice because the game won’t actually let you build the school if you’re a single coin short. It’s also easy to break this system—just don’t go to the throne room to make a royal decree. Go wander the world looking for gnomes, silver coins, and other collectibles, or just leave the game running overnight while your real estate empire slowly earns you enough money to do anything you want. As interesting as this premise is, it ultimately fails to provide a meaningful political simulation.
Fable 3 is the quintessential mixed bag. It offers players a fascinating world but makes exploration difficult thanks to an unintuitive map. It offers fun and funny quests but no real choice in how they’re resolved. It offers an interesting story premise but fails to follow up on that premise in a satisfying way. Every pro comes with a con, and every con comes with a pro. Playing Fable 3 ultimately becomes a test of how much you can put up with. You’ll eventually get used to the confusing and time consuming interface, but certain design inconsistencies will always be there to annoy you (like sometimes “up” on the D-pad is a shortcut to the map, sometimes it’s not). It’s a testament to Albion’s appeal that I wanted to save the country and its people while constantly fighting against the interface. Fable 3 is still a fun game despite itself.