Fable: The Journey makes you feel magical, when the Kinect controls work
Fable: The Journey
The goal of Microsoft’s Kinect has been to break down the barriers between the individual playing a video game and the game itself. Fable: The Journey might be the closest a game has come to achieving that goal, and its core game play is satisfying. The structure of the experience hampers it though; you can feel The Journey straining against boundaries, wanting to be something great and grand.
Some of these boundaries come from the fact that Kinect isn’t designed to recognize the subtleties of human movement, forcing players to adopt grossly exaggerated flailing as a means of control, even though the shooting gallery nature of encounters demands precision. Other boundaries lie with the world itself. Much of the game tasks you with driving a horse and carriage along treacherous paths, but these are almost always extremely linear, with only a handful of spare feet to either side of your horse at a given time.
Then there’s the horse, which continues Peter Molyneux’s legacy of animal companions designed to evoke empathy. The problem is that main character Gabriel seems a little too fond of his horse, and since this is the first Fable where you control an established character, it feels like the game is screaming at you, “YOU CARE ABOUT THIS HORSE! YOU LOVE THIS HORSE! LOOK INTO HER EYES AND SEE YOUR FUTURE! LOVE HER!”
It’s a weird feeling.
The hero Albion needs
Gabriel’s journey begins with a ill-timed nap. Gabriel is part of a nomadic tribe and he struggles desperately to catch up to after nodding off at the reins. He doesn’t succeed of course; a bridge collapses, blocking his progress. On his long trip around the mountains of Albion, he meets Theresa, a seer and staple of the Fable franchise. She’s been around to guide heroes and shape destinies since the first game.
Theresa is being pursued by a dark, evil presence, and Gabriel’s horse becomes badly injured in the ensuing chase. Gabriel drives the carriage to a long-forgotten cave, where Theresa more or less tricks the boy into taking up the hero’s call. There are gauntlets that have powerful magic within them, she explains. Magic that can heal the horse, but at a cost.
Of course, it isn’t until after Gabriel heals his horse that Theresa explains the teensy tiny detail that Gabriel has just become the destined hero of Albion, which means he’ll probably have to sacrifice himself for the good of the world. Look, I understand loving your animal, but realizing you’ve been duped into fighting Satan – and will probably die doing so – all to spare your furry friend has to sting. It’s a pretty uneven trade. That’s why Gabriel’s reaction of stomping around, screaming “Get them off! Get them off!” once he realizes the deal he’s made is probably the most sense he makes throughout the game.
Gabriel and Theresa’s actions, while somewhat formulaic, feel grounded in the Fable universe. The previous games’ features of character customization, side-quests, and moral choices are all gone, but this still feels like Fable, and in some ways the game’s rhythm improves the storytelling of the more free-form games in the series.
The open world of previous Fable games meant that the plot developed at an irregular pace, pausing and resuming as you saw fit. The Journey keeps things moving forward by mixing up segments of plot, magical combat, and carriage driving. These are all well-paced, keeping things from becoming too monotonous or tiresome before you get to switch back from one game play style to another, or are allowed to take a break.
Lightning bolt! Lightning bolt!
The Journey is operating at a disadvantage in the a crowded holiday season. Those turned off by previous Fable games won’t want to give it a chance, and fans of the series may be not like the radical change in design. It’s a complex game aimed at the hardcore crowd, who have typically found Kinect’s precision lacking. Microsoft’s motion controller can’t seem to properly engage players in anything but dancing, and I don’t get the sense there’s a lot of crossover with the Dance Central and Fable crowds.
Here’s the thing though: None of those outweigh the extreme glee and sense of power you get while shooting lightning bolts from your hands. I started off performing the action to cast a bolt spell exactly as the in-game diagram portrayed: stiff and straight, bringing my dominant hand up to my shoulder and thrusting forward. The non-dominant hand is assigned to a spell that manipulates objects by pushing them, pulling them, or flinging them in the air. It too is cast by bringing hand to shoulder, and then thrusting forward.
As the game progressed though I was grabbing bugs, hobbes (the game’s small goblins), and other fairytale creatures and disposing of them with glee. The combat may be on rails and reminiscent of arcade light gun games, but that doesn’t make it boring or non-challenging. In one section, as Gabriel ran across a thin bridge, it became swarmed by giant bugs. The bolt spell would have worked fine, but what if… I thrust my left hand forward, locking onto a bug with a magical tether. I flung my arm across my body, up and away, and the bug flew, tumbling off the bridge into the abyss.
In another section, hobbes would throw rocks at me safe behind cover. A direct attack wasn’t possible, so I cast a bolt upward, holding my arm out as it traveled, and then brought it crashing onto my enemies with a downward swipe. But my favorite move of all was to grab an enemy with my left hand, fling them straight up, and blast them out of the sky. Pull! As the game progresses your gauntlets will become more powerful and allow you to cast more spells, and certain enemies will require different strategies. Skeletons for example might carry shields, meaning you have to pull the shields out of their hands before you can do damage. It feels right. There’s just something about lifting an enemy into the air, then blasting them with a spell from your palm.
Fable: The Journey doesn’t always provide effective motion controls. The game demands accuracy, but Kinect sometimes seemed to place my bolts significantly off-target. It helps to relax instead of trying to perform the action perfectly. These issues can take you out of the game, but it feels great when everything works. The Kinect simply can’t provide a consistent experience yet, and that’s frustrating. There is one final gripe though.
When driving the carriage, you wave both arms up and down to crack the reins to increase speed, push one arm forward as you pull the other back to turn, pull back with both to slow down, or raise both to immediately stop. Cracking the reins and the motion to slow down made sense, but turning didn’t, because the technique used was both inaccurate and illogical. You don’t need to push an arm forward to give the reins enough slack for the horse to turn in real life. If you do, the reins are too tight. As for illogical, pulling straight back is fine, but it’s a beginner technique. The horse in The Journey seems to be pretty advanced, so she should know how to neck rein, which is how I rode for 10-odd years of my life.
Magic gauntlets that transform me into the savior of the world? Yeah, I buy that. Evil shadow from beyond dimensions wants to kill us all? Sure, why not. But I couldn’t buy that my horse didn’t know neck reining. You only need to gently tug to the side to get well-trained horses to turn, and yanking the reins up above your head stresses them. I get that development was constrained by what motions the Kinect could pick up, and this could sound like a lawyer complaining about Law and Order not being accurate, but it bothered me.
I can forgive the horse controls though because, minor hiccups aside, Fable: The Journey is one of the smoothest Kinect experiences so far.
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