Monday 26 September 2022

Video Game Fables Review (Steam)

Review by Thomas G.J. Sharpe

Video Game Fables is a one-man love-letter to the feeling of RPGs. The whole sensory experience of playing RPGs, more specifically, but through a thoroughly active mind. Fun and accessible, but oddly deep in its own way, Fables makes sense if you know its references, but also if you don’t.

The game had me in the, admittedly, overlong, and over explain-y opening where Aru, the protagonist princess, turns her flat character model and gets through the bars of a prison cell she has been trapped in. Matt Sharp has a great eye for the deadpan, solid dialogue, and comic timing. The plot is essentially an elongated satire of RPGs but performs a bit like Undertale but without the lachrymosity. A motley crew of heroes go on an adventure populated by twisted stereotypes, who seem deeply underwhelming to the disaffected Princess Aru. The set up is at once familiar, yet at once sent up in all the right ways. Side characters are overblown, villains limp and cliché. There is an open-world, Pokémon feel crushed into Zelda presented in a thousand different ways.

Random encounters with mobs are announced with a Final Fantasy swirl, and a novel timeline system for combat adds a visual spin on the familiar. Skyboxes jar with horizons, unshaded assets, and dizzying patterns sort of supercharge the gameplay loops that otherwise might feel too familiar. Purchasing equipment, monitoring stats, and upgrading characters is all present, but dusted with this ever-present charm. There is that feeling of knowing what the developer feels. A bit like they’re nudging you going, “you know that thing in these games where…” or just revelling in some of the dumb things we all know and love. I saw an even dumber cactus than Cactuar. Or did I just imagine it?

Further, the gameplay is as itchy and restless as the soundtrack. Occasionally a rail shooter, sometimes a platformer, sometimes a sort of flying game? Sure, I rather despise platforming, and this was no exception, but it was gone fast and gave me something else to mess about with. A box of toys or hanging out with a young child that ends up making your day. This is that feeling that Fables manages to evoke. There’s no Squall whining about being talked about in the third person here. Or no orphans from Candlekeep making everyone a bit sad. While there’s place for those stories and characters in gaming of course, it’s nice to see a title be joyous.

The central premise of a video game world devoid of adventure, soaked in knowingness, is bang on the money. I couldn’t help but think of a conceptual dual in No Players Online, which was set in an abandoned first-person shooter. They’re both critically weird games and celebrate the feeling that these virtual places have. Fables pulled me back to some of the best times I’ve had on my Gameboy playing Pokémon Red, and getting angry at Mario 64, and even my more recent addictions like Darkest Dungeon.

In-amongst all the whizzing and whirring, shifting and swapping that Fables does, there are weaknesses. Some sections of play feel better than others, and there’s the odd frustrating segment. It is to its overall effect that the kudos must go. A real holistic game with all the right feels in all the right places.

Overall 8/10

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