‘Fable: The Journey’ Review- Keep Beating That Horse

I won’t wax on about how the promises of one Peter Molyneux never quite live up to reality, nor will I harangue skeptics about the potential of Kinect. Like many other Kinect titles, Fable: The Journey relies a bit too much on a few gimmicky motions to feign a sense of gameplay while the machine furrows its brow in a vein attempt to figure out what this hu-man is trying to do. Truthfully, Journey isn’t a terrible game per se; it’s just kinda… there… as a show piece of several game-like mechanics cobbled together to form an interactive product. That said, I enjoyed what worked (when it worked) and when it wouldn’t… well I didn’t have a controller to throw in anger.

Fable: The Journey puts you behind the reins of a horse named Saren (no not that one, ME fans) and into the boots of Gabriel on a ’journey’ to back home after having been separated from their caravan. Pretty soon you’re fleeing for your life from an immensely destructive darkness reminiscent of The Nothing from The Neverending Story and discovering that you’re the chosen kid to wield a pair of magical gauntlets to beat back said darkness. You’ll meet a variety of fellow travelers along your journey, some will even bum a ride for a while and might need a little help form time to time. The story is all pretty light-hearted and humorous with a light touch of drama and each new character you meet gives another reason to stay invested.

Gameplay consists of two main parts- horse and cart and magic-slinging shooting rounds kinda like a fantasy-based arcade gun game. There are also a few sprinklings of “on wheels” combat as well as sequence ending activity hubs centered around a camp which have a number of interactive activities, like feeding or healing your horse and pumping water and opening chests. There’s also a light smattering of RPG elements to upgrade your horse and magical powers to aide you on your voyage home.

In the cart, you’ll use both hands to hold onto the horse reins employing short, quick snaps of your arms to gain speed. There are essentially three speeds- trotting, galloping, and sprinting. Trotting is useful to help avoid some of the trickier obstacles and avoiding damage while traveling over rough terrain. Sprinting is more active as you need to keep swinging your forearms up and down to maintain speed while watching Saren’s stamina bar. It’s not as tiring as you’d think but the game frequently messages that you can rest your arms while the horse walks or trots doing a good part of the work for you. If you’re in a gallop you can slow back down to trot by pulling both arms towards your chest. Thrust both arms up to fully stop.

Steering is the real tricky part. It’s simple enough- pull left arm to go left and vice versa. However, the turn radius is slow at first and then suddenly banks sharply in which ever direction. I found this annoying during basic travel and down right frustrating during the few chase sequences. There’s not much nuance between turning as you struggle to  figure out how to nudge the horse and cart to avoid fallen trees, rocks, etc. I found myself wildly flailing to avoid near collisions only to end up a path right into another obstacle.

There are different orbs on the path that help guide you and, while not necessary to pick up, they will provide extra experience and other bonuses. There are two main types, blue and green, whereby blue ones can only be nabbed while walking and green ones by galloping. There are also red orbs that fill Saren’s stamina bar so can keep sprinting. Though you cannot deviate from the main path, you can take short break at optional rest stops to heal Saren, talk to recurring side NPCs, or engage short side-quests for more EXP.

On foot the game goes into a shooting gallery featuring a number of beast and bosses with simple puzzles occasionally thrown in. You have a few magic spells activated by either hand. The left has a catch all grab move to fling or stun baddies for a follow-up attack. It’s also used to move puzzle pieces. Your right hand is mostly offensive with a basic bolt that can upgraded in a few spells, such as a fireball. Attacking enemies are prompted by a big red X which can block or counter by raising your left arm across your chest.

The first time you get into a battle, you’ll soon learn that slinging magic bolts anywhere near an enemy is frustrating. Dodgy tracking couple with no aiming reticule leads to more misses than hits. A lot of this is mitigated with simple AI that lines up to get blasted in the face. Just be careful with spamming attacks as your magic can quickly drain leaving you vulnerable until it recharges. The real enemy is the Kinect’s seemingly unwillingness to acknowledge where you’re aiming. Without an onscreen prompt of any kind, you’re bolts and fireballs fly every which way. I would estimate missing about 30 percent of the time. Thankfully, there is a slight auto-assist and you can perform and “after touch” by flicking your hand that puts a little English on projectiles.

Graphically, Journey retains the cartoon-y look of the series. Characters are very animated and lively while just seeming real enough to be believable in their fantasy world. Small details such as your horse whinnying while tugged at the reins and Hobbes grimacing after hit by magic bring the world alive. The only nit picking I would have stem from the Kinect as your virtual arms and hands look a bit wonky onscreen. Otherwise, the animations are pretty fluid and the art design has an overall charming storybook look.

It’s also well acted and I was impressed with quality of work from the VAs. One of the early characters met and consistent traveling companion, Theresa, maintains a serious demeanor voiced in a heavy, mournful tone. She plays well enough against Gabriel’s light-hearted sarcasm and uncertain who me? attitude, which sometimes seems a bit too whiny.

In the end I find that Kinect devs still treat the device and software as proof of concept rather than a game; always saying, “Hey, look what you can do here!” without scratching too much into the gameplay that’s more than just a neat thing you can do. If you’re looking for another answer for owning a Kinect, I can’t say this is at the top of the pile but at least Fable: The Journey has a nice presentation and charming story that’s more often than not let down by hit or miss combat and somewhat disenchanting horse cart driving.

[Copy of Fable: The Journey provided for review]

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