With Fable Legends releasing later this year, I thought it the right time to look back over the Fable series and discuss how Lionhead Studios could better its flagship RPG franchise. The series is one which seems to have all of the right ingredients, such as addictive gameplay, topnotch customisation as well as some really neat voice acting, but sadly - in terms of quality - I feel that it's fair to say that Fable, as an IP, has always fallen short on its expectations especially when compared to its rivals. We live in a gaming world where RPGs are still dominant. Just look at the success of last year's Dragon Age: Inquisition, which has since been heralded as one of the best and most beautiful games that crosses generations. So why has the Fable series failed to top the same plinth throughout its life?
Whilst this basic plot outline sounds like a great starting point to flesh out into a deeper, grander, more complex story, it actually - strangely - never stretches too far from it. The protagonist, a nameless boy later known to the world as the Hero of Oakvale (the town where he was born), is mostly a mute who can interact with the rest of the world's inhabitants through either combat or 'expressions' (Press 'X' to show a romantic interest in an NPC, for example), but other than that his reactions during cutscenes are either blank-faced or unpredictably forced (such as crying like a baby when something goes wrong). It's simplistic and child-like, even when it was carried over into Fable II in 2008. Lionhead finally did away with it in Fable III almost completely, giving the main character(s) a full voice and personality. But back in the first Fable game, the main character was intentionally designed this way so that the player, whomever that may be, can plant their personality onto him throughout their playthrough, which sounds good in theory and is helped along with what was (at least at the time) an amazing amount of fun customisation options, such as the choice to change any part of the protagonist's attire, from their gloves to their torso to their legs and footwear, with the added bonus of being able to change their hairstyle and add tattoos to their body. You could literally mould the Hero of Oakvale, and all subsequent heroes in the sequels, to your almost exact tastes.
It's interesting to note that Fable released only a year after BioWare's Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which also granted the player detailed access to designing their protagonist's wardrobe and armory. This aspect has always been more of a strength of the Fable series and is something its developers should have always kept in the later games, even the spin-offs from the main trilogy, instead of convincing themselves that Fable - through its customisation options, 'expressions' and the option to become a husband to an NPC and father to that NPC's child - had revolutionised the RPG genre, when the truth is that it didn't.
But instead, all Lionhead did was give Fable a visual makeover. All of the glitches, loading times, ugly character models and annoying bugs were carried over with it. Unfortunately, all Fable Anniversary proved was that the success of the original was due to it being a product of its time, and how terribly it has aged in the years since. You can see our review on it here. Whereas other Microsoft IP's have succeeded with their special event releases (such as Halo Anniversary back in 2011, as well as the previously mentioned Metal Gear Solid remake), Fable Anniversary fell remarkably flat. That's not to say that the entire Fable series was a letdown. But I'd argue that every installment with the exception of Fable II had an aura of disappointment about it. Fable II wasn't exactly a far cry from the previous game, but it featured what is arguably the most expansive and rewarding incarnation of Albion (the in-game world) to date. Fable II, for what it was worth, didn't try to force gameplay revolution on the RPG genre. About the only unique addition, other than the customisation and the further development of the Expressions system, was that now the Hero had a pet dog accompanying them on their quest. This added something personal to Fable II which its predecessor, nor any sequel that came after, had. This gave the series an intimate touch, giving the player incentive to protect his/her canine companion (who could barely defend himself) from harm throughout their journey together.
Fable Legends however looks to be a Fable game in name only though, stepping away from any popular gameplay mechanic and completely doing away with what everyone actually loved about the series. They have taken out the in-depth customisation and replaced any personal touches with generic, pre-made fantasy characters. The game is also multiplayer-focused, with the exploratory gameplay of the original trilogy instead being replaced with broad maps within which players do co-op and battle other antagonistic players. Unfortunately, whilst the franchise had peaked in 2008, it seems that Microsoft and/or Lionhead have decided to milk the brand for everything it is worth, conforming instead to what is generally popular amongst most games (and therefore not at all unique) as opposed to working on a fully-fledged sequel.
No Thanks, Lionhead. Not This Time.
Until they rediscover that, I'll be steering clear.