Rating: 5 (out of 10)
Reviewed on: Xbox 360
A year and a half ago games legend Peter Molyneux greeted this reporter with an expletive-laced tirade at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles.
The Lionhead Studios founder was agitated by how critics had received a demo of his upcoming game, a Kinect version of the company’s successful Fable fantasy role-playing series. Mr. Molyneux had showed off the project – a game where players would cast magical spells through hand gestures – at Microsoft’s press conference the day before, only to have reporters write that “it’s on rails.”
A game that is “on rails” is one that doesn’t allow the player to control his or her own movement. Instead, it pulls the player along a predetermined route, which is what the demo appeared to do.
As a medium that prides itself on interactivity and player agency, suggesting that a game is “on rails” is akin to accusing someone of sleeping with their cousin – it’s a serious charge that can tar a reputation permanently. Mr. Molyneux was understandably upset.
“It’s not on [expletive deleted] rails!” he shouted at my colleague and I. To further emphasize his point, he had written the same words in magic marker on the wall behind him. There was a ton of movement that wasn’t shown in the demo, he explained. Be patient, he urged, it’ll be there in the final game.
Fast forward now to the release of Fable: The Journey and Mr. Molyneux’s words are amazingly funny because of how untrue they turned out to be. The game couldn’t be any more “on rails,” it may as well be called Fable: The Ride, since the player has no control whatsoever over where their character gets to go. In fact, there’s a sequence in the game where you sit in a mine cart as it winds its way through a monster-filled cave. It’s literally on [expletive deleted] rails!
At a preview event a few weeks ago, a developer from Lionhead explained why free movement – which was originally going to be in the game – was ultimately removed. “It just wasn’t fun,” he said. Mr. Molyneaux, for his part, announced earlier this year that he was leaving Lionhead to pursue other interests, leaving us to wonder if internal conflict over movement and being “on rails” – an insurmountable problem presented by Kinect’s limitations – was really at the core of his departure.
Despite all of that, there is good news about Fable: The Journey – it may very well be the best Kinect game yet. The bad news is, it’s still a Kinect game.
Just like previous entries in the Fable canon, The Journey is set in Albion, a Tolkien-esque world where everyone is British and chickens are an endless source of whimsy. Players control Gabriel, a young carriage driver who comes into the possession of a magical set of gauntlets and the quintessential fantasy quest of defeating an evil power.
Along for the ride is Gabriel’s horse Seren. Much of the game is devoted to the weird love affair between the two – you’ll spend a lot of time waving your hands around to clean Seren and pull arrows out of him. All of Gabriel’s motivations, meanwhile, seem driven by concern for his horse. Forget the bromance, this may be the entertainment world’s first ever horsemance.
It’s clear from the outset that Lionhead has poured considerable resources into the game. The graphics are great, the voice-acting is believable and often humourous and the score propels the game along almost as well as its rails do. It wouldn’t be a surprise if this was the biggest-budget Kinect game yet – it certainly looks like it.
Beyond that, The Journey rotates between two types of action. The first has you drive your horse and carriage by whipping your hands forward and steering, while the second has you dismounting to fight beasties with your spells.
The horse-driving bits are actually the more enjoyable of the two modes, since all you have to do is control your speed, keep your carriage on the road and collect glowing orbs that can be spent on upgrades.
Things get messy when the battles start. Gabriel is armed with two spells – the left gauntlet can grab and throw things while the right shoots mystical bolts of energy. In both cases, the accuracy is hard if not impossible to get a handle on. One fight against a group of flying creatures had me literally screaming [expletive deleteds] at the Kinect and begging to get back on the carriage.
The accuracy gets even worse when the two play modes are combined. There are several sequences where you have to shoot your magic bolts while the carriage is in motion. It’s one thing to continually miss when you have time to react; it’s another when urgency is added. One particular part, where you have to blow up mines on the road as you quickly gallop toward them, nearly had me weeping tears of frustration.
This is perhaps as good a spot as any to stop and admit that, as someone who has been playing games their whole life and is quite happy with a controller in their hands, I will probably never like Kinect games. Virtually nothing about any I’ve played yet seems better than what can be accomplished with that handheld device, the main exception being dance games.
So, knowing these games aren’t aimed at players like me, I summoned a higher, more objective power to give Fable: The Journey a try: the wife. She plays video games only casually and often has trouble mastering the thumbstick-button control schemes of most regular games. She’s Kinect’s real target demographic and therefore perhaps a more neutral judge of such things.
By and large, she enjoyed the game. I quizzed her afterward and she said it gave her a nice workout – you don’t have to stand, but you will use your arms a lot – and it was cute. She did complain, however, about the lack of accuracy and the repetitive nature of the action.
It’s worth noting that she’s also a big fan of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise, a favourite among Kinect-hating core gamers. I asked her if Fable: The Journey was anywhere near as good. Her response, I think, tells the whole story: “Oh no, those games are awesome.”