Last night I pushed through to the credits for my first playthrough of Fable 3. I haven't done any of the side quest cleanup, and I'm not sure I'm going to. I also haven't gotten very far in a second, evil playthrough, but I probably will push that one further. I liked the game, but I feel that invites a lot of its own criticism.
Fable 3 seems to me like an okay sequel that might have possibly made a great expansion or DLC bundle. Much of Fable 3 feels no more than an abridged version of Fable 2 with a new epilogue and a slightly new skin. Unfortunately for Fable 3, every time that it invokes memories from Fable 2 it generally compares poorly.
What things are particularly new for Fable 3 seem odd, and have questionable merit in the grand scheme of the game. Having played many hours of the game, I'm still not sure what they really add to the series or to what Fable 2 accomplished.
Most obvious is the "Sanctuary" menu system. I know that it has gotten flack for various reasons. It feels to me like a system that was planned for Fable 2 but didn't make the cut. It certainly reminds me of what Fable 1 tried with its Guild Hall. From a technical perspective the Sanctuary was much better than Fable 1's Guild Hall: the Sanctuary is apparently always loaded in memory and load times are nearly absent.
I kind of liked the Sanctuary as an experiment and a place to visit or hang out. I don't feel like the game made a strong case for why it was necessary or worth the obviously large amount of time and effort that went into building it. It is a very cool tech demo, and decent, if not great effort, at internalizing the menus within the game fiction, but was it required?
Much less successful for me was the "Road to Rule". For whatever reason I felt the "metaphor as place" to be really silly and nearly fiction breaking. As a possible extension of one of the series' more insane characters it almost can be forgiven, if it didn't feel so disconnected from most of the rest of the game. Particularly given that the "book" metaphor in Fable 2 worked mostly just fine (and remains for dog training), I see the Road to Rule as an extravagant use of resources.
I liked the always accessible place to view snapshots in a character's history provided by its plinths. However, I think there is probably some better compromise between the Road to Rule and Fable 2's usage of snapshots in statues and in the finale.
Switching gears, as a sometimes steampunk enthusiast I wanted to love the aesthetic changes in Fable 3, but they seemed lackluster at best and invisible/non-existent at worse. I realize that only 50 years is supposed to have elapsed between Fables 2 and 3, but there still seems to have been better room for exploring the aesthetic change. Emblematic to me is the underground monorail with only one station. It makes for a gorgeous set piece, but it is missing at least one station, if not more.
Finally, but most verbosely, I generally make it known that I'm somewhat antagonistic towards Fantasy as a genre. I'm very picky about the series that I follow that are or contain Fantasy, particularly without a healthy dose of "Science". In particular, I think Fantasy going back in particular to Tolkien shows a lot of ugly seams of luddite thinking and couched racism in its literature. I praised Fable 2 for avoiding many of those traps, but Fable 3 had a couple of moments that worried me. I was not worried greatly enough to give up on the series altogether, yet, but enough that I will have more involved debating before any future purchases.
Spoilers below as I discuss some of the story of the game.
What I saw was a sort of unintentional racism. I'm hoping that it was unintentional, of course, and I'm not really in a position to judge, but I do think it should be brought up. Frankly, I felt that much of Aurora, a persian/middle-eastern pastiche on the Fable 3 map, seemed somewhat wrong to me. I'm not sure if any of the stereotypes it played upon were necessarily offensive (and I am sure that they have been used in games many times over before, even if they are offensive).
It isn't the place that most worried me, however. I was more worried by the lazy treatment of the Shadows in this game. After some good usage and examination of the Shadows in Fable 2, some of the lazy plotting for them in Fable 3 felt like they were bordering on some worrying questions of religion and race:
Because the Shadows are (spoiler) the big bad of this game, they are reserved mostly until the latter half of the game. Because of this, their big presence moment is that ever-present point in the story cycle where the player visits some far-off fantastical new place, and in this case it is on the way to Aurora that the player has a major Shadow encounter in this game. This is troublesome to me for several reasons, which I will return to.
There might have been an attempt here at showing sort of an "enlightenment" concept that the world was shrinking, the people of the world were shining lights into the world and pushing the Shadows further out into the edges. (Which would reasonably explain why they are so desperate and so forceful as an inciting event in this game.) However, I think that message isn't as well delivered as it might be.
What troubles me about this, is that the site of evil from which the Shadows operate in Fable 3 seems larger and more powerful than the others I've seen in previous games. While this makes sense from a story respect that you want the big bad to be the most powerful thing that you will see, it seems poorly placed.
Beyond the simple fact that the upgraded Shadow effects now feel ripped straight out of 2008's Prince of Persia, there's the worrying implication that the Shadows might be closer to their seat of power, their "home". I'm, again, hoping that this is not what was meant by Lionhead and an unfortunate oversight, but I'm having a hard time not referencing the many years of history and context of the real England and the real fertile crescent when examining these parts of Fable 3's storyline.
Regardless of whether the implication was an accident or not, it seems to me a very bad idea to have the source of much of the game's worst, most concentrated evil be based out of Aurora's Arabian analog to attack Albion's British analog in a psuedo-historic, albeit fantastical situation. I think there is too much historical, political, religious, and racist baggage attached to these things; it is a can of worms that seems better left unopened.
Having opened it--- intentionally or not--- the game doesn't seem to have anything real to say about it, other than using it for somewhat obvious, telegraphed and clichéd hero's journey goobledygook. It is just one more failure of the game to communicate any deeper message than silly vanilla morality. But it is just that sort of silly black and white morality of the series that mostly works in the previous games and that seems to so worringly place this one somewhere disturbingly in a real life shades of grey moral quandary.
It is easier to assume naivety or laziness on the part of Lionhead here, than any sort of racism or religious motivation. But the game brought up these worries to me and I am a History-averse white male American. This made the game a little bit less fun for me, and I consider myself on the sidelines for most of the issues this brings up... Again considering that is within earshot of the Tolkien-heritage Fantasy that much more routinely evokes this sort of outrage in me, I may be over-reacting somewhat, or at least keep a watchful eye for just this sort of thing and finding it because I am looking for it. Has anyone else been pondering about this?