No post this week (21/09/2014) due to a combination of real life + Wasteland 2 being very, very dense. Sorry!
The game cannon opens up at the end of this week with a flurry of meaty Kickstarter/Early Access games all releasing in the same two-week period. I haven’t been playing that much in the calm before the storm, but I also don’t want to leave the blog fallow for a week after not bothering with it for all of August, so here’s a shorter-than-usual Thoughts about the time-capsule oddity that is Fable Anniversary.
I’ve mentioned a couple of times on here that I have something of a soft spot for the Fable series despite its almost perfect mediocrity. Even taking that into account, though, I really have to wonder who this remake is aimed at.
Fable Anniversary is an HD remake of the very first Fable which is (whoa) very nearly a decade old at this point. Unlike a lot of HD remakes which pop on Steam — which usually just do a pass over some 2D assets to sharpen them and add support for modern widescreen resolutions — Fable Anniversary has actually had some semi-serious development oomph put behind it: it features an almost total overhaul of the 3D art assets and lighting effects in order to update the graphics to something that is, if not quite this-gen, at least paddling around in the deep end of the last one. And redoing 3D art for a whole game? That’s not a little deal, and not something I can dismiss quite as easily as some of the other HD rereleases previously encountered on this blog. I respect that Lionhead actually put some effort in here, even if I do suspect that the real motivation behind it was likely a little more mercenary than just redoing Fable because they liked the original game so much1.
It’s that very effort that hamstrings Fable Anniversary as a game, though. You see, while the visual overhaul is certainly comprehensive and touches peripherally-related areas like modernising the UI and controls, it’s pretty much the only thing that’s been changed. This is fair enough as far as the music and sound goes, since that doesn’t need changing (and in fact if they’d messed with the fantastic score for the game I likely would have taken a train to Guildford to blast Jeremy Soule soundtracks at the Lionhead offices all day), but the key mistake Anniversary makes is that it fails to recognise that animation is just as much a part of how a game looks as the actual graphics. Redoing the animation would have been just as big a deal as redoing the art, but in a game as old as Fable you really cannot do one without doing the other. It’s to do with the occasionally weird things the human brain perceives as being “normal”; in this case it’s that while 2005-era animation looks fine when paired with 2005-era graphics, animation has arguably advanced even more than 3D art has in the last decade and 2011-era graphics paired with 2005-era animation merely accentuates just how dated the whole thing really is. The animations are either comically exaggerated – because they were designed to convey expressions for much cruder character models — or else almost shockingly primitive. It’s like seeing a CGI effect in a summer blockbuster animated in stop-motion; it may look nice but there’s no getting away from the fact that the whole thing feels anachronistic as hell.
And so I think the HD update paradoxically hurts Fable more than it helps it.. It’s ironic, but the lower-effort approach of the various 2D remakes we’ve seen is actually the better one, since it preserves the original game as a complete package rather than replacing parts of it piecemeal and having it feel like a Frankenstein’s monster of a game. I don’t begrudge Fable Anniversary for trying, since somebody had to in order to prove it didn’t work. Unfortunately, it really, really doesn’t work, to the point where I probably would have been happier playing the original PC release since my brain would have more easily accepted the animations in their native environment.
After the HD graphics turn out to be such a bust, what’s left is pretty much a straight clone of that first PC release of Fable, including the Lost Chapters content released after the first edition of the Xbox version of the game. And the thing with Fable is that even if you have a weird liking for the series, as I do, “classic” is not a word I would ever have used to describe the first game. “Average”, yes. “Solid”, maybe. “Enjoyable”? Yes, enough for me to have fond memories of it – but that was back in 2005, a year which featured the similarly uneven Jade Empire as the big RPG releases and little else2. Even when compared against just its two sequels, Fable Anniversary shows its age; there’s a lot of half-formed and not-quite-there ideas in it that Lionhead got far closer to the mark on with Fable 2. I still like the combat and experience system — where hitting enemies successively without being hit in return raises an experience multiplier that is applied to all experience you earn during the fight — but I think that’s pretty much the only part of the first Fable that wasn’t done better later on in the series. Its only other strength is derived from another game’s weakness: Anniversary does seem like a much deeper RPG system compared to Fable 3, since the trend of ruthlessly streamlining console RPGs until they were deemed simple enough to appeal to the lowest common denominator hadn’t quite kicked in yet in 2005.
Apart from that and the music there’s really little else to recommend Fable as it was quite shockingly mediocre even for the time, which is why I struggle to understand who the potential audience for this remake is. People with nostalgic memories of the first game? It worked in my case, but that was only because the usual September game-o-geddon has been delayed this year and I needed to play something. New gamers who missed it the first time around? They’d shake their heads and move on, and I think they’d be fully justified in doing so. As things stand the only people who would really get something out of the experience are the hardcore Fable fanatics, and the fact that I sort of sighed in disbelief while writing that sentence should probably tell you just how few of them I think there are. Certainly not enough to justify the existence of Fable Anniversary, a completely unnecessary remake which only succeeds in bringing its own flaws into greater relief.