Over ten years ago, famed game designer Peter Molyneux dreamt of an action-RPG that he unironically promised would be the ”best game ever.” Set in an original fantasy world filled with characters that dynamically reacted to your choices, and an epic tale that spanned the entire lifespan of your character, the game that was to become Fable had its sights set high. After a prolonged and troubled development cycle, Fable released in 2004 for the original Xbox, receiving an overall positive reception despite many of Molyneux’s promises never shining through. A decade, two sequels, and two spinoffs later, Fable has been released in the form of Fable Anniversary, featuring remastered visuals and controls, but otherwise the original game left completely intact. Although the legacy of Molyneux’s broken promises still disappoint, its lofty ambition allows many aspects of Fable Anniversary to hold up surprisingly well. Lingering issues, however, have only soured over time.
Set in the land of Albion, you play the life of a young hero, orphaned from his parents at childhood, only to be brought up and raised by the legendary Heroes Guild. After a tutorial that follows you into adulthood, you are then set off into the world to become a legendary Hero of your own, be it good or evil. Do enough good deeds and the people of Albion will love you. Enough bad deeds and they will fear and loathe you (you’ll even grow devil horns). Annoyingly, this system seems tailored towards the “good” end of the spectrum; if you grow evil enough the townsfolk will run away from you... including merchants who sell useful items. Furthermore, many of the main story quests give you “good” points by default upon completion, shifting the balance inherently towards being virtuous.
Like many early games that played with morality, it’s pretty simplistic, essentially boiling down to “save to cat” or “murder the cat’s entire family”, with no real grey area in between nor any incentive to stay neutral. Certain side-quests are locked off depending on where you lie on the spectrum, but other than one endgame choice, the journey throughout Fable’s world is the same regardless of your alignment.
There are also some basic simulation elements present, but like the morality it’s really all just surface level. You can buy a house, marry women, and even become the mayor of a town, but nothing ever comes of it. The game keeps track of how many times you’ve become intoxicated, how many times you’ve had sex, and so on, but without actual gameplay elements underlying them it all just comes off as rather juvenile. The playable character visibly ages throughout the years - an old man by the game’s end - but Albion and its citizens remain unchanged, making one wonder why this feature is even in the game.
Fable’s morality and simulation aspects are a dud, but the combat has better stood the test of time. It definitely shows its age, but it’s a mostly functional action-RPG that is much more engaging than the rest of Fable’s half-baked features. Between the various melee, ranged, and magical combat options at your disposal, playing through Fable leaves you feeling empowered in a way that few RPGs can compare to.
Fable’s combat picks up the slack where everything else falters, making for an engaging game that’s mostly fun to play... when it works. What truly bogs the game down are its numerous technical issues, many of which are carried over from the original 2004 release of the game. Numerous crashes, framerate drops, camera issues and wonky controls are all of the wrong things to be preserved in an HD remaster, yet here we are. Even when these weren’t plaguing my time with Fable Anniversary, excruciatingly long load times halted any sense of flow and pacing throughout the still relatively short quest.
It’s strange that these technical issues were not addressed at all for Fable Anniversary, as all of the changes appear to be strictly cosmetic. Like Microsoft’s other major first-party remaster, Halo Anniversary, the game’s art and graphics were completely redone, taking advantage of the Xbox 360’s more powerful hardware. While Fable Anniversary never quite ends up looking as polished as Fable II or III, it is much easier on the eyes, especially for those looking to get into the series for the first time.
Despite questionable design issues, Fable Anniversary manages to be a mostly fun game, with its sheer depth of ambition, though flawed, giving it a charm that many games lack. But the frustration created by the technical failings bafflingly left in the game make it hard to enjoy the things it does right. Only true Fable fans or those wishing to see the series' beginnings in a modern context should give Fable Anniversary a try. For everyone else, there's not a lot to recommend.
This review is based on a retail copy of Fable Anniversary for the X360, provided by the publisher.