Fable II is the final draft of a thesis Peter Molyneux has been writing for most of his career. Famous (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) for his grandiose promises and pre-release hype-stoking pronouncements, Molyneux can hardly be accused of taking the easy road as a game designer. After all, this is a man who built his reputation creating “God games” that simulate the management of peoples and worlds from the perspective of an omniscient, all-powerful deity. Given such an orientation, it’s easy to forgive Molyneux for occasionally overreaching. Thinking small is hardly conducive to success in the design domain Molyneux inhabits.
Fable II isn’t a God game, but it is no less ambitious on its own terms than any of Molyneux’s previous efforts. It is an epic game in scope, chock-full of adventure, sexual escapades, and political intrigue. If you are drawn into all it has to offer — including its rich social interactions, job system, and quirky but germane side-quests — Fable II will have you exploring, evolving your hero, and generally messing around in Albion for dozens of hours. It is, perhaps, the most seductive game world ever created.
Fable II is a brilliant game that proves failure can sometimes be the best teacher. Molyneux’s own reflections on the original Fable are telling in this regard:
We first looked at our capabilities and worked out what our strengths and weaknesses were. One of the weaknesses was writing, so we hired scripters, stagers, scriptwriters, screenwriters from Hollywood, and we acted out the entirety of the game and story — this was all before we had any tech. We let them rewrite and improvise it, all in order to get it right…It was a real learning process for us.
Fable II gets many things right, but none more valuable than the creation of a world with believable, eccentric, individualized characters who speak and behave like people who belong in this world and inhabit it with delightful zest and energy. This is a game with genuine personality, delivered by professional performers of a caliber rarely found in video games.
We often call games “stylish” because of their distinctive visuals or offbeat approach, but Fable II‘s charismatic personality permeates the entire gameplay experience. From its storybook narrator (voiced by the inimitable Zoe Wanamaker) to its lush anachronistic blend of medieval, renaissance, and 18th-century environments, the game weaves together its disparate locations, characters, and stories more effectively than any game I have ever played. You may not find every moment of the main storyline compelling — and the hero’s journey contains its share of RPG chestnuts — but it is all executed and delivered so thrillingly well that you won’t mind the occasional moments of déjà vu.
Few NPCs are rendered more convincingly or with more texture and nuance than Sister Hannah, also known as “Hammer”, the Hero of Strength. Her journey in Fable II, you will discover, is no less interesting than your own. I will avoid spoilers that might diminish your experience, but trust me when I say that the game’s depiction and presentation of Hammer comes as close to a 3-dimensional realization of a video game character as any you are likely to find. Her role as a chatty sidekick is a clever illusion, for she plays a much more important role than you may initially expect. If you are among the fortunate gamers who have played Planescape: Torment, you may find some rather interesting parallels between Hammer and Morte, the floating skull who accompanies the Nameless One through his journey in that game.
Speaking of sidekicks, Fable II makes use of a loyal canine sidekick who helps your hero fight and locate treasures. While the dog functions as a somewhat manipulative empathy device, he can be useful, even if the game forgets about him for most of its middle section. His prominence rises later in the game, and despite my awareness of the game’s emotional machinations, my attachment to this loyal companion did have its intended impact on me. In some ways he is little more than a treasure-sniffing device; but if you invest your attention and affection on him (and the game provides a system for praising and nurturing the dog over time), he is likely to work his way under your skin. When he warmly greets you at a pivotal moment in the story, having not seen you for a very long time, only a hard heart could prevent you from experiencing at least a small bit of love for this dutiful creature.
Fable II fails to live up to its own aspirations only occasionally, but these occasions do detract from the role-playing experience offered by the game. Given Fable II‘s focus on relationships and interactions, the emotive system employed by the game is clunky and detached from the smooth integration of the game’s other elements. I can interact with other characters in a variety of rude, humorous, flirtatious, or sociable ways, but my primary means of doing so is a canned set of repetitive expressions mapped to an unwieldy menu wheel. Standing in the center of a town blowing kisses and showing off my trophies via an endless series of timed button presses will invariably raise my prestige and renown among the swooning townspeople gathered around me. Given Fable II‘s extraordinarily well-executed character designs and non-judgmental attitudes about homosexuality, same-sex marriage, prostitution, and casual sex, it is unfortunate that its emotive system conveys so little subtlety and feels so simple-minded. Nevertheless, relative to the overarching achievement that Fable II represents, this is a fairly negligible complaint.
Fable II presents a fanciful, refreshingly offbeat, and thrilling world to inhabit and explore. Its organic melange of rewarding gameplay, memorable characters, meaningful choices, and solid storytelling are among the best I’ve seen in any RPG. Molyneux and company have delivered an extraordinary game against which all future narrative video games will be measured. For once, it would seem, the hype was justified.