Fable: The Journey
(Microsoft Game Studios)
US: 9 Oct 2012
The main menu encapsulates the experience of playing Fable: The Journey. There are several options that can be selected using the Kinect’s voice recognition, and this is a wonderful alternative to the usual cumbersome menu navigation in any Kinect game. But for some reason, the voice commands aren’t available for all the options. I can jump into the World Map, Collectibles menu, or Options menu using my voice, but to go back I have to wave my arms in the air, trying to get the fidgety cursor to hover over a button. There’s no logic or consistency to the navigation, if the game can recognize a word as complex as “Collectible,” why can’t it recognize “Go Back” as well?
When the Kinect works, Fable: The Journey feels rather magical. When the Kinect doesn’t work, the game is literally unplayable.
The story revolves around Gabriel, a lanky bookworm who gets separated from the rest of his caravan when a bridge collapses. He has to go around the river, which takes him on the titular journey. He soon runs across Fable veteran Theresa, who ropes him into battling a gathering evil.
The story feels very slight at first. Your point of view is extremely limited, you never stray very far from the main road, and there are only five characters of importance in the entire game. On paper, this sounds like a woefully small scale adventure for a Fable game, but the farther that you travel, the greater the stakes become. You see the destruction caused by the gathering evil, and the nearly empty world actually works to the story’s benefit. When you ride through a vacant industrial city, you realize that the future of the world really is at stake here. Despite its humble beginnings, this is every bit the grand adventure that other Fable games have been.
Your journey is spent on the road and in on-rail combat arenas. While on the road, you have to hold your hands in front of your like you’re holding the reins of a horse. Pulling back with one hand will turn your cart in that direction.
It’s not clear if these sections of game are supposed to be relaxing or exciting. The game suggests that you put your hands down if you want and let your horse Seren ride on her own. She doesn’t need to be controlled constantly; if she runs into a wall, she’ll just automatically turn to stay on track. The world is so beautiful that you’ll want to admire it rather than steer, but you can’t actually look around. You’re stuck staring at a horse’s butt while all the wonderful art around you goes unappreciated. Then there are the constant obstacles in your path that Seren will run into if you leave her on her own, so you actually do need to steer the cart despite the game’s suggestion. At least the controls are so simple that they’re almost guaranteed to work.
Seren is meant to be a beloved companion, like your dog was in Fable 2, but the control limitations of the Kinect make your every interaction excessively mechanical and stilted. You only pet her, brush her, feed her, etc. once per rest stop, and only if she’s hurt or dirty. Otherwise the option simply isn’t available. The Kinect forces you to treat your horse like a tool, an engine. All your attention is mechanical, not emotional, and since this relationship is supposed to be the emotional cornerstone of the game, it’s hard to get invested in the pending end of the world.
Combat is mostly frustrating with a rare moment of brilliance. The on-rails structure isn’t the problem. That term is unfairly maligned. It can be used well or it can be used poorly, and Fable: The Journey uses it well. The problem is the Kinect itself.
There’s no reticule on the screen, you just stick your hand forward in the direction of an enemy, and the Kinect should shoot a lightning bolt in that direction. When everything works, it’s great. You can block and attack at the same time, and you can wipe out powerful enemies in seconds with spell combos. When every gesture is recognized, your arms should never stop moving. You feel like a badass wizard, and for a moment, The Journey makes good on the ultimate promise of the Kinect.
Then you’ll reach a puzzle that requires you to hit two switches in quick succession and everything falls apart. You’ll thrust your arm forward again and again, and every time the spell will veer off in a different direction. Aim up and it goes right, aim left and it goes right, aim right and it goes down. This is infuriating during the puzzle sequences, but makes the game unplayable during combat, which is made doubly frustrating since combat is meant to be easy. You can block every attack and enemies take turns coming at you; the wind up for their attacks are so long you have plenty of time to retaliate first. But this forgiving combat doesn’t matter when the controls themselves are the problem. There are many times when your attacks don’t attack, your blocks don’t block, and the game just doesn’t work.
Recalibrating the Kinect helps at times, but even then the hardware seems to recognize my movement one minute then goes blind the next minute. The controls are most effective when you detach yourself from the action experience and remember to move like your being watched by a camera.
This is a trend in Fable: The Journey. The more detached you are from the experience, the better the game becomes. Riding on the road becomes relaxing when you stop caring about your horse getting hurt, and combat becomes acceptable when you stop caring about consistency. Fable games are known for their charm and wit, but much of that is lost here amidst your aimless flailing.