I can’t imagine that even the most ardent Fable fans among you have this date on your calendar, or want to celebrate it.
Oct. 26, 2020, marks the 10th birthday of Fable III, and as is pretty much universally agreed, the death of the franchise.
Sure enough, it would take six more years, two more spin-offs, and a cancelled MMO before the developers, Lionhead Studios, would shut its doors. But Fable III was near universally a joke to fans, and seemingly stopped Microsoft from treating the franchise seriously ever again.
But as we know now, this year also marked the revival of Fable. A short teaser confirmed that the series will be back, and for the first time, not in the hands of original creators, or the infamous Peter Molyneux. So, with another main entry on the way, does that make Fable III any less guilty, or was it ever to blame at all?
And perhaps—bear with me here—there might even be something the next game could learn from its awkward older sibling.
And So, Our Story Begins
Fable has a unique place in gaming history. It’s a series that many gamers have jumped into at least once, but doesn't get brought up all too much.
Fable II in particular managed to shift 3.5 million copies as of 2010, and the first Fable has since had a re-release and a remaster. The memories of kicking chickens as the Hero of Oakvale, travelling with your dog as the Hero of Bower Lake, and of course, getting married to nine NPCs and having them all meet are such universal experiences, that it should be up there with being in a Halo lobby with your mates.
But they aren't. They're a fond memories that a lot of us have, but not one that comes back often. So what happened?
Fable III was released just two years after Fable II, but even in that shorter development cycle, it changed a whole lot from its predecessors.
The story takes place 50 years after the previous title, and you are the youngest child of the last game's protagonist. Your big brother Logan has a penchant for killing people for seemingly no reason, so you decide to set off on a revolution to overthrow him.
Now that is pretty different from the tales of revenge in the first two, which seems to have made some players not bother engage with the world of Fable III and its brilliantly written characters at all. But we’ll touch on that later—because the other aspects of the game are fairly poor, so upon revisiting, I can’t blame anyone who couldn’t power through.
The combat was simplified further, leaning more into the action side of an action-RPG. No more extensive menus for levelling up, just a linear path you can follow to gradually make your attacks a bit stronger.
There was also, for some reason, very little loot. The only items you regularly collected were weapons and clothing, so that removed a whole lot of variety with the side quests.
Some other decisions in the game are just baffling. For some reason, the menu from Fable II was replaced by a physical room you had to enter if you wanted to change a weapon or spell. And even then, there isn’t a whole lot of point changing over. Weapons have barely any variety, and spells are simply split between those that do damage and those that stun, so different elements don’t matter unlike in most RPGs. The story may be good, but the combat makes it hard to be motivated to see it through.
The cherry on top is the rushed last act of the game, in which you take the throne from your tyrannical older brother, and then have one in-game year to prepare Albion for the apocalypse. Preparation boils down purely to having enough cash, so getting a “good ending” depends on whether or not you’re prepared to spend a day on the lute minigame to earn some gold. Not exactly much of a climax.
Even Peter Molyneux, who has been no stranger to praising his work, admitted the game wasn’t great and needed another year of development.
The Diamonds in the Rough
But was it really all that bad? No, it really wasn’t.
As I was walking through Bowerstone Market, the stunning Bower Lake, or any of the other beautiful locations, I couldn’t help but notice the charm. The characters are great and instantly endearing, from wisecracking Ben Finn, father figure Walter, or even the delightfully villainous Reaver.
The main quests are well written, too, and mostly well paced. You start out leaving the castle to escape your brother, discovering your hero powers, and slowly gaining your allies' trust. Stand-out moments include venturing off to the distant land of Aurora, where the lighthearted game pulls off a dark twist with the reveal that the apocalypse is coming, and you explore the area that has already suffered through it.
But the stupid-fun side quests don’t feel out of place either, like helping an arguing couple divorce each other without losing their money, or stealing someone's underwear for a stalker. The main issue is that there’s not enough of both of these things. Large areas can still only have a couple of side quests each, and the main story just sort of…ends. With an absolute whimper too. But as Molyneux said, this could be fixed with more time.
If anything, the main reason for a remake would be the unique and gorgeous setting. It was easy to miss back in 2010, given the immense disappointment in the gameplay, but Fable III does absolutely ooze charm. The Victorian setting is oddly beautiful and incredibly varied.
For example, I love how the eco-warrior marsh full of hippies has a pipe leading to the big polluting Bowerstone Industrial. How the houses go from adorable spacious cottages early on, but when you get to the city, they become thin, tall houses, cramming the streets along with the factories. The steampunk-esque environment design really tells a story about how workers have begun to be viewed in the 50 years since Fable II.
Little nuances like this decorate the world. In Fable II, Bower Lake homed the poorest, such as the traveller camp you start in. Now those travellers are gentrified out, all to make room for Reaver’s mansion, who wants to drain the lake for resources. Further still, any areas that do look straight out of the previous game are in sorry state, such as Brightwall, which contains a library opened by the Hero of Fable II, but now lays empty as the new society doesn’t see the use in such generosity.
It’s little changes like this that you see less of in the jump from the original Fable to the second. The only real advancement from the first to the second was the downfall of the Heroes Guild. Other than that, it all looks very similar.
However, if there’s anything worth salvaging here, it’s the characters. Not only do we get some brilliant voice work from the likes of Michael Fassbender (King Logan) and Simon Pegg (Ben Finn), but they’re just so goddamn charming. Walter’s role of a father figure throughout the entire game is written so well that you will get attached to the old man, but even Reaver’s absolute amoral dark humor is a show stealer. These are characters that had the unlucky fortune of appearing in this game. If Playground Games decide to give the entry another look, we should be able to really interact with the cast—relationships, conversations, personal quests. All that good stuff. They have the personality to carry it.
Fixing That Part of the Game
If you’ve got this far as someone who ditched Fable III back in 2010, firstly I’m impressed, but also, I know what you must be thinking: What about the final act? What about that part of the game, where you’re the one the throne?
When you eventually overthrow your brother and become monarch, it’s revealed that you have to prepare Albion for the “Darkness” that will attack the land in a year. You need to do this by raising money, but those who helped you in the revolution keep coming to the castle to ask you to keep the promises you made. One will come by frequently, asking for significant amounts of money to open up schools for children, or to renovate the orphanage. Others swing by to ask for the extra protection you promised.
The message is good: Logan didn't mean to be a tyrant. But how much money you can be bothered to build up shouldn’t be the way to communicate this. So how could Playground Games go about changing this in a remake?
Dragon Age: Origins has a section in the game called the Landsmeet, where similarly you have to try and overthrow a tyrant, then stop the end of the world. The Landsmeet is where you convince everyone you’re up for the job, and your success here is determined by decisions you made and your relationship with characters.
There’s no reason why Fable III couldn’t be the same. Maybe the more personal quests you do for someone, the less resources they’ll need later on. Maybe if you made decisions they don’t like, they leave your side and you need even more resources yourself. It could even be similar to the suicide mission from Mass Effect 2, where outcomes can differ based on your relationship with your allies.
Not only is anything better than what was in the final game, it’s just a concept with a lot of potential, which could really elevate the series to the ranks of other decision-based RPGs that have now left Fable behind.
Microsoft, Be Brave
Should you revisit Fable III for its birthday? Yes, you should. The fighting might get repetitive after a while, but that wonderfully British Monty Python humor is still intact.
But Microsoft, if you’re reading this, what should you do? Well, for starters, put it on Steam, because I’m dying to play it on PC.
And while you're at it, give this story of monarchy, revolution, and crude humor another chance. Pump it full of actual RPG elements, overhaul the endgame, and let us rule Albion with justice.
Looking at the trailer to the latest Fable, it’s a far cry from the polluted streets and the royalty of Fable III. And after such a tragic end to the franchise, I know it will be tempting to tread familiar territory. But let's be honest, RPGs have moved on since we were making the good guy/bad guy decisions in Fable.
Go for a game that has the opportunity for some nuance. Go for a remake of Fable III.