Video game developer Peter Molyneux has become something of a punchline in recent years. His name is synonymous with grand ambitions and spectacular promises for games that end up falling short of expectations set by the hype train. One need only look to the chaos surrounding Godus to realize Molyneux deserves some of it. However, it’s not like the problem of an unstoppable hype meeting an immovable launch date is unique to Molyneux. He didn’t become a household name by failing and failing only.
There are, in fact, good Peter Molyneux games. These are games that, especially in retrospect, show a lot of vision, careful thinking, and intuition regarding what gamers really want — even if they don’t know it yet.
One game, in particular, had huge ambitions, bold ideas, and a massively successful launch while weathering some deep divisions among its fanbase.
Let’s talk about Fable II.
Fable II was released by Molyneux's Lionshead Studios in 2008 as a sequel to the popular RPG Fable. The series itself was already controversial.
Molyneux told tall tales of a dynamic world that changed and grew around the player, famously saying things like an acorn that fell off a tree would grow into an oak as your player’s life progressed. They didn’t. And although Fable was a lovely RPG in its own right, it was clouded by the specter of broken promises. This specter naturally carried over into discussion of its sequel.
Lionshead surely felt the pressure but largely ignored it. Developers made some bold decisions in the development process for this highly anticipated sequel, many of which broke with what RPG fans expected.
For starters, they set the game 500 years into its future. Typically sequels move forward a generation or two, usually with some preamble about “the effects of [insert last game climax here].” Fable II instead sailed way past that to go all-in on its world-building.
What a world it was.
Players found themselves in the nascent days of Albion’s industrial revolution, allowing for a colonial vibe complete with muskets. The story is typical fantasy fare: You’re a hero of fate who was betrayed by an evil lord as a child and set out on a quest for vengeance. How you get there, though, is what makes the game so special.
Mini-maps were all the rage in the era, but Fable II removed them in favor of a “breadcrumb” system that left small twinkling dots on the ground that led to your next objective. It may seem a subtle difference but the effect was huge, allowing players to actually engage with the environment actively instead of keeping one eye locked on their HUD.
You also don’t die. You just get knocked out, lose some XP, and come back for more. There is no reloading to a checkpoint or losing progress, another big departure for the era.
Combat is mapped to two buttons, one for melee and one for ranged, but you perform different attacks based on your position and can earn extra XP orbs by performing flourishing attacks when you time things right. These orbs come in four colors and allow you to unlock different spells and attributes as the game progresses, a nice reward for moving beyond mere button mashing.
You also get a dog in Fable II!
This stalwart companion is capable of chomping on baddies or digging up treasure. You can expect to grow ridiculously attached to your dog, so much so that a key late-game plot point is centered on how far you’re willing to go for your furry friend. The game does retain its reputation system, so your choice here can be in line with whether or not you’re playing as a beacon of hope and justice or a dastardly rogue who cares only about himself.
These changes were largely celebrated in the reviews, but many RPG fans found them a bitter pill to swallow especially after so much hype. Fable II is a very different game than you’d expect, especially in that era, but in hindsight, many of those decisions prevent the game from feeling dated. Was it ahead of its time? There’s only one way to find out ...
Fable II is available now on Xbox Game Pass.