Version tested: Xbox 360
Fairy tales may be primarily about getting married and shoving elderly eccentrics into ovens, but more often than not, there's a thread of revolutionary spirit running through them as well. Along with the enchanted footwear and talking mirrors, there's a corrupt king who requires overthrowing, or a cruel and mysterious grip on the land that needs to be broken. It makes sense, then, that alongside the high adventure and tumbledown castles of Fable II, in amongst the midnight intrigue and haunted swamps, there's a similar spark of revolution at work. But this is regime-change at its most fundamental, and Lionhead's fascination with the world of choices and consequences has lead it to topple some of gaming's most accepted idols. Fable II explores what happens when a game does away with most forms of punishment, and does nothing but reward its players from start to finish. The results are astonishing.
It's worth stepping away from the tried and tested Pavlovian mechanics that games have inherited from the coin-crunching arcades to consider what Lionhead is proposing. Almost every game ever made has reinforced its rules with penalties: if you fight and lose, you're killed; if you go off and explore, you get lost; if you're spotted when you're meant to be hiding, you're deported back to the start. It's a strategy that undoubtedly works - many of gaming's finer moments are often interlinked with its harshest challenges - but there's also no escaping the fact that when it all goes wrong you're often treated like a lab monkey undergoing a rather cruel experiment: you may really want that banana, but the chances are you're going to get a lot of electric shocks first.
Fable II, to continue this somewhat tenuous analogy, would rather shower you with bananas as often as it possibly can. The biggest surprise is that the game's inherent generosity never feels gratuitous, even when it's overturning many games' most fundamental design principles. Fable II's glowing breadcrumb trail leads you ever onwards to your next objective, but even though you can't get lost it still allows for deep exploration. It also makes you consider why so many games force you to traipse around in circles or click on every NPC you meet to access the next mission. Similarly, the game's death-free combat makes you wonder why you've been settling for mere survival all these years when you can spend your time working towards mastery instead. These ideas were originally introduced to Fable II so that it would be more accessible to non-gamers, and while that's undoubtedly been achieved, it hasn't excluded the more experienced player either.
Written down, this sounds like sacrilege. That breadcrumb trail is hardly new, after all, calling to mind the neon arrows of Perfect Dark Zero or even the first level of Halo, but Albion is actually an admirably intuitive place to get around - at any moment, you can switch off the glowing path and discover that there are more than enough signposts, way-markers, and other subtle environmental details to tell you where you're going. In fact, the game's controversial pathfinding system really comes into its own when you realise you can ignore it as much as you want, and what was initially patronising becomes empowering. Why not follow your dog for half an hour - he's there to lead you off the beaten path, after all - and head into the wilderness to discover the game's wealth of secret chests and side-quests? Buy a house, get married, have children, kill them all and smash the place up: whatever you choose to explore, the path will be quietly waiting behind you when you go back to the narrative, pointing the way to your next objective as it whimsically zigzags across paving stones, mossy roads, swampland and farmers' meadows.
And when you do follow it, you'll find yourself in the middle of a game that manages to offer you all the good bits of adventuring and few of the bad. Following Fable II's path of least resistance leads you through an expertly paced trail of combat and quests, spectacle and challenge, with no roadblocks in between. You never find yourself having to tease out the next chunk of story.
Fable II's approach to combat is equally idiosyncratic. While the one-button fighting has garnered the most headlines, it's the game's reluctance to punish you for failure that really marks it out: if you're downed in battle, it's not back to the last checkpoint. Instead you lose a few experience points, before surging heroically back to life, health-bar refilled, with barely a pause in the action. You expect this kind of treatment in LEGO Star Wars, but aren't role-players supposed to grind?
Besides allowing inexperienced players to muddle through any situation, this allows the designers to string together truly mammoth battles. Yet far from rendering the combat toothless by taking out the penalty of restarts, the game provides another, deeper challenge - get through the fights looking as good as you can. While you can one-button your way through if you wish, the real pleasures lie in mixing it up - maximising the experience orbs received by pulling off acrobatic flourish moves and timed attacks, switching between area strikes and targeted magic, softening an enemy up with your sword before finishing them off up close with your rifle.
The swashbuckling animation and on-the-fly environmental details, along with your gradually expanding arsenal of moves, elevate Fable II's combat so much that it's the game's strongest point. Impacts are meaty, and enemies are varied in both strategy and appearance: massive trolls burst from the earth and bandits drop down from the trees, while hollow, skeletal men lumber towards you en masse before shattering under gunfire in a dry explosion of bones. The arrangements of enemies call for different strategies, and getting the most out of a fight still requires more traditional videogame attributes like skill and dexterity (in other words, I struggled).
Combat's not the only strong point, however: Lionhead's story is pleasantly mysterious, and its characters, quests and settings are all infused with an unmistakably British humour - more Adam and Joe than Monty Python, pleasingly. The sheer scope of the game is an achievement in itself, gliding from a knockabout Dickensian childhood through a grim middle age, and on to a conclusion which all hangs on some particularly tricky choices. Along the way, the narrative manages to cram in pirates, ghosts, and a familiar Fable variation on werewolves, a sure sign that the developers have your best interests at heart.
And Lionhead has largely delivered on its promises along the way: your dog, although essentially a mechanic for tempting you to explore, is a masterpiece - lovable, convincing, and almost entirely self-sufficient. Equally, the previous game's morality system has undergone a subtle rebalancing: it's still a largely binary affair, but your choice of oppositions tend to be more surprising this time around. As often as the game makes you choose between standard good and bad deeds, it makes you think about subtler deviations - how much incidental brutishness you allow yourself in the name of a justifiable cause, for example, or how much embarrassment you'll opt to create for no real reason. And Fable II also understands what few other similarly inclined videogames have: morality has no kick unless the game can actually make you want something quite desperately. In the course of Fable II, you'll be offered some genuine delights, alongside the promise of a few brutal sacrifices, and they're all choices that carry a convincing price for your world.
There are problems, of course, but they tend to be minor annoyances. Context-sensitive prompts can be a little too sensitive to context, requiring a spot of shuffling back and forth to activate, and dialogue often takes a millisecond too long to load, resulting in a few stilted and unnatural conversations. There's a fair amount of backtracking, too, although fast travel is easily available, and an empty stretch of road is often a chance to enjoy another brief dust-up anyway. And despite the ambition of the game, I encountered precisely two bugs along the way: at one point I found myself trapped in a room I'd just looted when a hat-stand fell across the doorway and I had to fast-travel out, and on another occasion, a prostitute I was talking to got herself wedged in the wall of a townhouse, only to emerge out of the front door a few moments later looking faintly confused by the whole experience.
But these are quibbles compared to the grand scope. It took me two solid days of playing to scramble to the end of the narrative, and during that time, and due to a handful of particularly nasty choices - I had murdered innocents, I had laughed at a few funerals, I had Kicked a Chicken a Good Distance - I had somehow transformed from a nubile cutie in gypsy rags into Oliver Hardy's zombified older sister, bloated and saggy, my rotting skin covered in scars from inept battling, and the remains of my hairdo splattered unappealingly over my sweaty forehead. I had become distinctly unlovable, and yet the game was still willing to show me a good time.
Fable II's generous and forgiving template isn't one that many games choose to follow, but it proves convincingly that if you're clever enough, you can create a consistent challenge without resorting to mindless punishment, and you can craft a sharply told story that still has room for the player to express themselves within. Inclusive and often thought-provoking, this is a daring portrait of a game-world with all the failure cut out, and it's hard not to love a game that loves you so much in return. Fable II will charm you, thrill you, and leave you very, very happy.
10 / 10