Unsurprisingly, Microsoft’s motion-sensing Kinect peripheral hasn’t really caught on with gaming’s hardcore crowd. The related blame mainly falls upon the computing giant and its third-party supporters, as noteworthy exclusives targeting core gamers have been few and far between. However, the lukewarm reception is also related to the movement tracking issues that have plagued the device, resulting in control problems and frustrating occurrences. Those are things that do not sit well within the button-preferring crowd, and for good reason. Casual audiences, on the other hand, are a different story. As such, it’s no wonder that studios have kept to developing child, family and party friendly experiences for Microsoft’s high-tech detector.
While what’s mentioned above is true, it doesn’t mean that Microsoft has abandoned its hopes of getting seasoned users into motion gaming. Lionhead Studios’ recently released Kinect exclusive, Fable: The Journey, is a perfect example of that, as the developer did its best to transform a core action role-playing experience into an on-rails shooter of magical proportions. What was surely an interesting, yet daunting task, can now be analyzed in order to determine whether it was a success, or not.
Set in the colourful world of Albion, Fable: The Journey centres upon a young cart driver named Gabriel, who has been tasked with maintaining his convoy’s rear position. Unfortunately, a bridge collapse ends up separating the unsuspecting hero and his aging horse Seren from the rest of the group, forcing them to take an alternate route. It’s that detour that ends up changing the young man’s life forever, as a chance encounter with a seer in peril transforms him from a lackadaisical chap to a magic wielding hero.
Containing references to Fable II‘s campaign, this spin-off’s storyline continues the series’ good versus evil trend by asking players to stop the resurgence of an ultimate evil force. It’s typical fantasy fare in the vein of David versus Goliath, though the tale is told with enough colour and whimsy to set it apart from those that came before it. Although all of the characters that Gabriel meets throughout his adventure are interesting, what truly shines is his relationship with his best friend, Seren. Those two really steal the show, thanks to an emotional bond that pet owners will easily relate to.
The titular journey isn’t an easy one, as enemies lurk throughout all of the areas that the travellers visit. Combat isn’t the only form of gameplay found within Fable: The Journey, however, as it only comprises about half of the interactive content. Apart from the occasional cutscene, the rest of the experience is made up of cart driving segments, wherein players must use their arms to steer. While I enjoyed those parts, it did seem as if the developers used them as a crutch. That’s because there was next to nothing to a lot of them, except some dialogue and some steering. If it wasn’t for the coloured experience orbs that littered each roadway, things would have been quite bland. Thankfully, those speed related pick-ups kept things relatively interesting throughout, forcing Seren to speed up or slow down in order to absorb them and earn upgrades.
Most of the time, I was able to steer the cart without issue. Sure, there was quite a bit of floating to be found within the mechanics, but they generally worked well. That is, when I remembered to keep my arms relatively low. There were quite a few occasions where I was asked to lower mine, as my commands were not registering due to their height. It’s strange that the development team made the registration zone so restrictive, but they did. Then again, it’s not like the movements are difficult to get down – all you need to do is make a whip cracking motion to speed up, pull back to slow down and use different arm lengths to turn. For example, a right turn requires a fully extended left arm and a partially extended right one.
Unfortunately, there were times where the driving became more frustrating than it should’ve been. During those occasions, it seemed as if the controls crapped out, which is something that also happened during a few combat segments. Although Kinect isn’t known for having perfect movement detection, the problems I experienced definitely shouldn’t have occurred. At least, not to that degree. There were actually three or four moments where I had to get up, step outside of the sensor’s detection window, and then sit back down again, in order to re-calibrate it. Doing that worked, because it was almost as if the sensor had lost track of me, even though I hadn’t moved my chair.
When it came to the cart-based and on-foot combat, things were just as iffy. Gabriel’s magic gauntlets – which allow him to learn and use several different spells against enemies – utilized push, pull, swipe and fling motions, but never felt cohesive. Getting shots to hit targets was regularly difficult, resulting in a lot of missed projectiles and a ton of wasted mana. Calibrating the aiming mechanics didn’t fix things, so I stuck with what I had and made the best of it. Thankfully, I rarely died, and was able to hit and kill over a thousand enemies, despite the mentioned problem. I just wish that things would have worked better, and feel that more time in the proverbial oven could have led to a far less frustrating, and much more enjoyable game.
The control issues are a huge deal, because on-rail experiences require quite a bit of precision – something that Fable: The Journey lacks. It’s a shame, because there’s a surprisingly impressive game underneath the ho-hum gesture inputs and, although I was able to look past the imprecision, it will turn a lot of people off. At least most of the spells – which are made up of elemental options like bolts and fireballs, as well as light magic and a grab/pull tether – have aftertouch options, allowing players to break single shots into pieces, which rain down upon nearby enemies. When that fails, blocking, countering and bouncing projectiles back at foes usually does the job – at least, when it comes to those with special abilities. Things become a bit more challenging when you come across enemies that have shields and pieces of armor that need to be pulled off.
From start to finish, the core campaign took approximately eight to ten hours to finish. It was formulaic and somewhat repetitive, with easy-to-find collectibles located at marked stoppage areas, but I actually cared for the characters. That’s something which is rare in video games, and it allowed me to enjoy brushing, healing and pulling arrows out of Seren, whose health does not regenerate like her owner’s does. When you consider that the noted length is an average game’s runtime, it helps to show that Lionhead didn’t skimp with this spin-off release. That’s especially true when you factor in the additional Arcade Mode, which eliminates Gabriel’s regenerating health and adds in timers, points, multipliers, kill streaks and leaderboards. Of course, its twelve stages are only comprised of the campaign’s combat sequences and boss fights.
Going in, I didn’t expect a lot from Fable: The Journey. Those low expectations were exceeded, however, and I came away with a bit of an affinity for the title, despite its problematic controls. Sure, it’s somewhat repetitive, looks a bit dated and lacks polish, but it’s a pretty good first effort, not to mention one of the best Kinect games I’ve played.
This review is based on a copy of the Xbox 360 game that we were provided with.