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Fable: The Journey review: Beautiful to look at, frustrating to play

Lionhead's adventure plods and frustrates in equal measure

Fable: The Journey's biggest trick doesn't lie in motion-controlled horse riding, or ambidextrous spell-flinging combat against Hobbes and Hollowmen, or first-person dodging of two-storey Ice Trolls, or even in the blessed ability to play Kinect while sitting down. It's in making the land of Albion seem absolutely massive.

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It's good to get back to basics. Across three games, yours was an accelerating power drawn from muskets, melee weapons and crowd-clearing forces of ice and fire straight from your fingertips. By the end of 2010's Fable III, the land of Albion had lost its menace and mystery. Molyneux's intention was always a world to get lost in rather than knock the stuffing out of, and The Journey honours that original premise.

You play Gabriel, a teenage nomad regarded as a slacker by the rest of his caravan, with whom he ekes out a simple living off the land. No ancient bloodlines here. "Ay up, Gabriel, pick up the pace," says his riding mate. "You need to stop reading about those silly Fables." As in most works of fantasy, everyone is northern.

Controlling your horse proves to be quite dull...

After cupping a hand around your mouth and calling reliable steed Seren over, then giving her glossy coat a quick brush, it's off you go. Gripping a pair of imaginary reigns, an upwards flick starts a trot and another a short speed boost. Thrusting an arm forward turns, while holding both above your head slows down. Truth be told it's actually quite dull, and not even evading the odd fallen tree or collecting experience orbs enlivens it.

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ARE WE THERE YET?

What it does do is demonstrate the scale and beauty of the world. Farmers lazily pick wheat in villages powered by slow-churning watermills, familiar landmarks like Bowerstone smoke on the horizon, and jagged mountains line your periphery. Slow movement combined with a first-person view is a trick to artificially lengthen longevity whilst making the world seem disproportionately massive (let's not forget, The Journey is wholly linear), but it's a trick that works.

Unreal Engine 3, used by Lionhead for the first time, demonstrates its class in moonlit woods, haunted forts and perilous clifftop trails. Everything feels rooted and weighty. Seren really plants her hooves in dirt instead of floating a few inches above it, and performance-captured actors make animated characters of previous entries look like manipulated dolls. These are the best visuals in the franchise's history.

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Sadly, this is the extent of The Journey's charms. After 15 minutes of constant clopping, and stopping for chinwags with roadside merchants and gypsies, you'll meet mainstay mage of the last three games Theresa, reassuringly voiced by the returning Zoe Wanamaker. Wounded by black formless evil The Corruption, Gabriel sets his sights on Tattered Spire to save her.

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