Fable_3_Cover.jpg[“The Blue Key” is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch exclusive column from Connor Cleary. In this column he examines the good and the bad in Lionhead's newest installment in the Fable series.]

Shakespeare wrote “... Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds” so, I must love the Fable series. Despite Lionhead's many missteps, despite Peter Molyneux's irritating habit of promising more than he can deliver, and despite so many of my friends repeatedly insisting that the games (especially II and III) are horrible, I can't help myself.

These games are too fun and too full of character, I can't not love them. Don't misunderstand though, I'm not saying that Fable III is a phenomenal game, but it's not horrible either. Even though I was extremely disappointed with Lionhead this time around, I still couldn't stop playing.

Basically there's good news and bad news, unfortunately more bad than good. There are quite a few elements missing from Fable III that were such strong signifiers of the brand that I never would have imagined they were on the chopping block. For me, it boils down to this: Previously, the gamer's imagined internal narrative was greatly enhanced by the nearly unlimited control over the character's (inter)actions, but in III much of this narrative control is lost.

The Fable franchise was built on the premise of giving the player more control over what kind of character they wanted to be. Fable III takes a large step away from this philosophy, removing many actions that were freely available previously, and replaces them with limited, repetitive, and context-sensitive options.

The prime example is the altered gesture system. Instead of having free reign over a wide array of gesture options as in previous games – and instead of being able to communicate with an entire crowd with a single gesture – you can now only interact with a single NPC at a time, and only through randomly-chosen categorical gesture options.

These fall under “Good/Nice,” “Evil/Threatening” or “Rude/Silly,” and the game picks a random gesture from each category. You end up watching the same animations and associated sound bytes so many times that you may end up muting your TV every time you initiate an interaction – that's what I ended up doing anyway.

One of the more satisfying aspects of Fable was – and still is – the ability to become filthy, stinking rich by mid- or end-game, and one of my personal favorite things to do with that excess of wealth was to give gifts to random people. Someone complimented my stylish hat? They get a big teddy bear. I got drunk and smashed up the bar? My apologies Barkeep, a big fat jewel should handily cover the expenses.

Alas, no longer. You can't give gifts to people for no reason in Fable III, you can only give someone a gift if they ask for it – someone you're courting may ask for flowers or jewelry, for example. By the end of my game, I could have filled a warehouse with the amount of unused gifts I had lying around.

I fondly remember the many times the original Fable had a room full of people laughing hysterically. We would often get wasted in town and generally cause a ruckus – you know, because we could. Breaking into someone's house to give them some chocolate, then paying off the guard just before belching in his face – that sort of absurdity is what Fable is famous for.

Now, you can't use food or drink items unless you are injured, and that includes alcohol. That's right: You cannot get drunk unless you're in the middle of a fight, which is a rather inconvenient time to do so. Alternatively, you cannot eat all the blueberry pies in Albion until you are a corpulent mess just because you feel like it – or because a Demon Door wants to challenge popular notions of beauty.

One of the most unbelievable – and unexpected – changes is how your morality is manifested physically on your character, or rather, how it is not. In both previous games if you become evil you got to sport big gnarly horns, your skin grew pale and gross, your hair turned black, and you went bald – you generally looked like a pretty bad dude, which is probably what you were going for.

On the other hand, if you became a goody-two-shoes heroic type, you started to glow with a golden light and looked pretty dashing and radiant and healthy, and eventually you got your very own angelic halo. In III there are very few visually apparent changes that take place due to your morality. Where's my halo? (Eventually you do get a pair of wings that appear only when you charge flourish attacks, and the appearance of the wings reflects your morality, but that doesn’t happen until very, very late in the game.)

I know there are people who were irritated by the horns and/or halo in the other games, but in my opinion it was a core element of the Fable universe, and I am sad to see it go.

Time for some good news... and some more bad news. The new, simplified combat system is extremely fun. Flourish attacks are better than ever, and using one sometimes activates a bullet-time style mini-cinematic, and there are so many different flourish animations that you never get tired of watching them.

Unfortunately these mini-cinematics sometimes break your concentration, and make you lose track of where you are in relation to your enemies, but the majority of the time this is forgivable. Spell gauntlets provide less magic options than in previous systems, but spell weaving (combining two spells into a hybrid) make for some fun and interesting mechanics, like my personal favorite, the flaming tornado.

The bad news? As unbelievable as it sounds, you don't have a health bar. That is my only real gripe with the new combat system. To indicate when you are slightly low on health, you suddenly have the option of using food/drink or a health potion; to indicate that you are very low on health, a small red glow appears around your in-combat hot-key menu.

But that glow is quite subtle, and the change of intensity between “Pretty Hurt” and “About to Die” is not extremely apparent. So the problem is, the moment when you most need easy access to your health status, is precisely the most dangerous moment to check – like when you are in a particularly hairy battle. And speaking of interrupting battles...

Fable III is the most recent example of Lionhead Studio's attempt to do away with menus as much as possible. This is an admirable goal, albeit rather idealistic; creating an uninterrupted interaction with the game-world is a good idea in theory. In practice however, it is more annoying than endearing. In Fable III you have a set of rooms called “The Sanctuary,” tended by your loyal butler Jasper – excellently-voiced by John Cleese. These room are essentially three-dimensional menus. For example, you can walk into your Armory and look through all of your weapons on display in the hands of mannequins.

The problem arises when you have to interact with your equipment or clothing or the world map, then guess what: You end up looking at a menu anyway. Combine this with the short-but-noticeable load times when you enter and exit The Sanctuary, or when you enter one of the adjacent rooms, and it starts to feel like a waste of time.

Instead of replacing menus altogether, Fable III merely adds an arguably unnecessary buffer between you and the menu. Ironically, The Sanctuary ends up doing the opposite of what it was supposed to do: It ends up feels like more of an interruption of your game experience than a traditional menu system.

Finally, some purely good news: Albion is better than ever. Watching Albion's consistent evolution through the series has been very satisfying. The beautiful, fantastical world of the original has slowly evolved into a gorgeous steam-punk/fantasy hybrid. When we are introduced to the all-new Bowerstone Industrial in the opening cinematic, it is a thing of beauty.

And somehow through Albion's many changes, it still feels very much like a consistent place with a style all its own. This feeling is aided greatly by the occasional eureka-moment of recognizing landmarks from previous games: the ruins of the Gypsy Camp, the Spire looming ominously on the horizon over the ocean, Bowerstone Clock Tower, and various others.

Many of the side-quests are the usual “Go there. Deliver/kill this. Come back here. Profit!” But there are many quests that will have you grinning the whole way through. (By the way, be sure to find the wizards in Bowerstone Market and play their game.) Humorous situations, witty lines, clever premises and an abundance of character are things we've come to expect from Fable, and luckily III's side-quests doesn't disappoint on this.

As for the main quest, I lost a lot of interest in the game as soon as I took the crown. Peter Molyneux called this “the half-way point” in an interview with GameSpot, but it felt more like the two minute warning. And even as the King of Albion, the game still fails to give you the feeling of presence that the previous two games achieved.

Know ahead of time that it's a fairly short game, which shouldn't be a big surprise, but you can also double the play-time by playing both a good and an evil character and have two fairly different experiences. Since the weapons available in each hero's world are randomized, you will also have access to an entirely different arsenal on your next play-through.

As usual for the series, Fable III is quirky and fun, isn't terribly difficult, and can be really rewarding at times. So despite the letdowns, it's quite the pleasant experience.