Returning home after any amount of time away can be a strange, torturous experience. You’ll make the journey expecting everything to have warped beyond recognition. But you’ll arrive and be surprised to find that nothing has changed. Some of you will find great comfort in the familiarity of it all; the sights, the faces, and the places, you’ll welcome it with open arms. But the harsh reality is that we have a tendency to seal our past away into nostalgic time capsules, and when that capsule inevitably breaks you’ll realise that not only have you moved on, but the world has as well. Albion is the home of RPGs on Xbox, and as much as we relished the opportunity to return to the game that kickstarted the series, some memories are better left untouched.
The Fable franchise is important to Xbox. Across the last decade we’ve seen two sequels and two unforgettable spin-offs (if only we could forget The Journey) release, though no game in the series quite captured our attention like the original Fable. And now it’s back, touting an HD-upgrade, bringing it in line with its Xbox 360 successors. Fable Anniversary is a celebration of the past, and its loyalty to its legacy is both its strongest attribute and greatest flaw. While Anniversary retains the British charm, storybook sensibilities and engaging structure that Lionhead pioneered back in 2004, it also shines a spotlight on its most noticeable problems.
It’s taken the full strength of Lionhead to get Anniversary out of the door, and it looks beautiful because of it. Albion has never looked so good; it’s a genuine joy to explore all over again. From the quiet country life found in pre-raid Oakvale to the stone walls of Bargate Prison, there’s always a laugh to be found in the characters and entertaining side-quests that litter the world. The world building and character development aspects of Fable hold up surprisingly well, sadly, the same can’t be said for the core mechanics and systems.
Director Tim Timmins has spoken out publicly on how Lionhead took inspiration from the sterling work 343 Industries did on the re-release of Halo: Combat Evolved as it approached Anniversary. As a result, Fable Anniversary has been put together with genuine care and attention – it feels like a passion project more than a product from a gargantuan publisher. The problem is, Fable doesn’t stand the test of time nearly as well as Bungie’s seminal FPS has.
The argument could to be made that Halo: CE has never been surpassed – either by its subsequent sequels and prequels or even its console peers – and so its re-release felt like a revolution of sorts. Fable, on the other-hand, is part of a genre that has not only made great strides over the past decade, but is still continuing to evolve. The RPG is in a state of flux thanks in part to the arrival of the Xbox One; worlds continue to grow in size and stories in scope – it’s important to remember that once upon a time Fable was one of the most epic titles available on Xbox, it’s strange to see it come across as supremely pantomime at almost every turn.
It doesn’t help matters that Lionhead essentially quashed Fable’s faults in 2008’s Fable II. A great amount of time and effort was spent between 2004-2008 refining the original Fable’s intentions, streamlining the combat systems and improving essentially every part of the moment-to-moment gameplay. None of this has carried across to Anniversary, and as a result the combat is routinely frustrating. The control scheme from the later games has been introduced into Anniversary (purists can switch back to the original setup at any time) but it does little to solve Fable’s problems. While the game looks wonderful, the animations haven’t been updated accordingly either – introducing a weird disconnect between an action and the subsequent result. This isn’t helped by the frustrating lock-on system that is as erratic as ever. Switching between melee, ranged and magical combat is a slow, frustrating lesson in how far RPG games have come.
It’s easy to complain about Fable Anniversary, but it’s just as easy to forget about its impact a decade ago. So many of its mechanics feel lost in time, but that’s only because so many subsequent action-RPGs have iterated so heavily on Fable. Lionhead has delivered exactly what it set out to – a way for fans to easily revisit the original Fable and the Lost Chapters content without involuntarily vomiting at original Xbox graphics. In actuality, this is the best version of original Fable available. Lionhead made smart tweaks to the save system – yes, you can finally save just about anywhere – and the interface has been given a much needed overhaul.
Like we said, returning home can be torturous. The same can be said about returning to Albion. Some will find comfort in the familiarity of Fable Anniversary; it’s a nostalgia trip of the highest order. For the RPG fanatic, for those that fell in love with the Fable sequels, you’ll find nothing more than superficial enjoyment and frequent frustration. That’s not because Fable Anniversary is a bad game, it’s because the industry has had a decade to iterate on the ideas Lionhead established here. At the very least, it’s great to see the studio pouring so much love into Anniversary; re-discovering what made the franchise great to begin with from the inside out and hopefully taking the lessons with them into the upcoming Fable Legends.