Did you ever go to school with a kid that was way too into horses? Like, waaaaaay too into horses? I'm talking about the kind of kid who has horse posters on the wall, a horse lunchbox and a horse backpack. Because Fable: The Journey feels like a game made by and for that kid. Throw in janky, motion-controlled combat, and you get the most horrifyingly confusing entry in the series to date.
Going into Lionhead Studio's latest Xbox 360 exclusive, Kinect-only installment of the Fable series, I guess I was naively expecting a Fable game. What I was not expecting was a stagecoach simulator that makes me self-inflict a repetitive stress injury half the time. Perhaps I should have known better.
I would not be exaggerating if I said that fifty percent of the gameplay is focused around your horse. For half of the game you're driving a stagecoach between pre-determined paths by holding motion-controlled reins. During the more placid parts of the journey, you're not actively doing anything: You can put your hands down when the horse is going in the right direction, occasionally making course corrections to pick up experience orbs. When the road gets rough, the experience becomes a podracing game; using the Kinect to steer your carriage away from obstacles on the road.
You can also stop to magically heal your horse, feed him apples, brush the dirt off of him and make sure he's got water. Side note: Have I mentioned this game has a lot of horse gameplay in it?
The plot goes something like this: You're a charming, cockney raggamuffin named Gabriel who dreams of being an adventurer with his best friend, (a horse named) Seren. You're brushing your horse one day when your friend comes over and tells you to stop talking to your horse and start driving your carriage in the caravan. You end up falling asleep at the reins (of your horse), and are separated from your group. Lightning strikes the only functioning bridge to the city you have to get to, and you're then forced to drive (your horse) through the nastiest part of the Fable universe.
While there, you pick up Theresa the Seer and narrowly escape a creeping, unknown evil known as the Devourer. Upon escaping, you find out that your horse has been fatally wounded by the evil entity, and that the only hope of saving your horse is a pair of magical gauntlets that may or may not turn you into a hero. You then have to drive your poisoned, dying horse who's still carrying two people and a 3000 pound house to a mystical cave of secrets where you are given the ability to shoot lightning bolts out of one hand and Force-push creatures and objects. It is at that point that you are told that you are humanity's last hope.
From then on the game falls into a very basic pattern: You drive your carriage down a predetermined road, stopping occasionally to fight bad guys, explore temples, take care of your horse & fight optional road-side missions. There is no real exploration or sense of choice, aside from the ability to steer your horse or to lean from side to side during combat.
If the combat in the game worked liked it was supposed to, there might be something to it. The problem is it doesn't: No matter where I played it or how many times I calibrated it, the Kinect struggled to accurately register what I was doing more than half the time. This is infuriating enough when you're trying to kill monsters, but you'll really start to pull your hair out when the game throws simple puzzles at you and it takes you fifteen tries just to flip a simple wall-switch.
I think the most puzzling thing about the game is how very un-Fable the basic premise of it feels. What has always defined Fable as a series is choice: Choice between good and evil, marriage partners, play-style, etc. Fable: The Journey is the polar opposite: A motion controlled, on-rails hybrid of Time Crisis and the Desert Bus segment from Penn & Teller's Smoke and Mirrors. It feels like a mini-game Peter Molyneux thought of and scrapped, except given a budget.
That this game fails is not entirely Lionhead Studio's fault. As far as big budget, Kinect-only games go, it's a better narrative experience than Steel Battalion or Star Wars: Kinect ever could be, and when the combat does work, it feels good. The problem is that the very idea of making a hardcore Kinect game is flawed. The Kinect is an interface that works best when used sparingly and forgivingly in short bursts; in non-intrusive party games like Dance Central and as an accompaniment to other games like Skyrim. Asking the player to play a full game using exhausting motion controls does not make for a fun experience and even if the game controlled accurately and the Kinect worked like it was supposed to, it still wouldn't.