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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (477)

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Mighty Switch Force! Co... 2.5/5
Aegis of Earth: Protono... 3/5
Torchlight III 2.5/5
Cyberpunk 2077 3.5/5
Mario + Rabbids: Sparks... 4.5/5
Eiyuden Chronicle: Risi... 3/5
Psychonauts 2 4.5/5
Castle in the Clouds DX 4/5
Ocean's Heart 4/5
Just Die Already 2/5
Sable 2.5/5
Midnight Castle Succubus 4.5/5
Tower and Sword of Succ... 4/5
Thronebreaker: The Witc... 3/5
Battletoads (2020) 1.5/5
Door Kickers: Action Sq... 4.5/5
Biomutant 4/5
Dragon Quest Builders 2 4.5/5
Journey to the Savage P... 4.5/5
Wasteland 3 4.5/5
Daemon X Machina 3.5/5
Earthlock 2.5/5
Override: Mech City Bra... 3/5
SolSeraph 3/5
ActRaiser 4.5/5

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Sable   PC (Steam) 

Coming of Age Was Never So Dull    2.5/5 stars

“Sable” is the inaugural effort by a two-man Indie development team known as Shedworks, operating out of… a garden shed in North London, England, with Swedish Indie-tier publisher, Raw Fury, handling the logistics. I first caught wind of “Sable” during E3 of 2018, where I was immediately seized by its striking visual style, but ultimately expressed cautious optimism rather than full-blown hype about the game. After numerous delays, “Sable” was finally released on PC and Xbox in 2021, with a PlayStation port coming a mere year later. Of course, the truly damning thing about “Sable” and its reputation is the fact that the Epic Games Store gave away free copies to literally anyone who wanted it during their Winter Holiday Gift Extravaganza. And if we’ve learned anything over the past few years of Epic Store giveaways, it’s that they never give away anything good unless it’s also really old.

Presentation
“Sable” essentially lives and dies on its presentation alone, with its striking visual stylings as its main draw. Inspired by a French artist who operated under the name ‘Moebius’ and Japan’s Studio Ghibli, “Sable” is presented in a cell-shaded, almost wire-frame art style, with thick, black outlines and a rather limited color palette. The result is a game world that looks amazing in screen captures, but ultimately doesn’t do so well once it’s in motion. Part of the problem with the game’s visuals in motion is that, for some inexplicable reason, Shedworks decided to animate characters in a very choppy, low-frame method that doesn’t align with the game’s other smooth environmental animations. While plumes of smoke, clouds of sand, and the rays of the world’s sun all dance smoothly across the environment, the titular Sable and the people she meets throughout the game all move like stiff, jerky puppets, which is incredibly jarring and unpleasant. The other part of the game’s visual issues most likely stems from the fact that Shedworks used the Unity Engine to build the game, and, as we’ve seen over and over throughout recent history, experienced dev studios are able to beat Unity into submission, whereas inexperienced startup studios typically see their projects succumb to Unity’s quirks… and “Sable” is no exception.

The audio in “Sable” is a bit of a mixed bag, but ultimately leans more toward the positive end of the scale. The game isn’t voiced, unfortunately, with characters instead ‘speaking’ in text boxes accompanied by a unique gurgling noise for each individual or archetype, similar to the way ‘Dragon Quest’ has traditionally handled things. The soundtrack, though, is decidedly eclectic, with a mix of strange, alien ambience, solo piano, and the occasional guitar tune that wouldn’t be out of place in a ‘Borderlands’ title. The mix works well, though, giving us an appropriate backdrop for the game’s alien world.

Technical issues, however, have proven to be “Sable’s” downfall in the Presentation category. While the game does feature standard usability features, such as Xinput support and the ability to save anywhere, the performance is generally quite terrible, and there’s simply no getting around it. Strangely enough, the game’s v-sync option is hidden in an unintuitive place – and is absolutely essential to prevent PlayStation 3 levels of screen tearing. Overall performance is just awful with frequent and jarring stuttering and frame-rate dips that even affect the audio. Then there are the strange glitches, ranging from bits of the environment flickering when viewed from the ‘wrong’ angle to Sable’s sand bike getting stuck as she visibly disappears from the seat, to game assets flat-out failing to load, requiring the player to quit to the title screen and load their save to force the assets to refresh. Perhaps most damning of all, though, is the fact that Shedworks has talked about how ‘hand crafted’ “Sable’s” world is, yet there are numerous instances of world geometry that’s just sloppily put together, such as pieces of architecture that visibly clip through other pieces where they shouldn’t, and numerous occasions of rocks and bushes floating several feet off the ground.

Story
“Sable” is a ‘coming of age story’ revolving around the titular character, Sable, a young girl of the Ibexii Tribe. The game opens with Sable visiting a shrine near her village’s seasonal encampment as she prepares to embark upon The Gliding, an experience each young adult must undertake to ‘see the world’ and ‘choose which mask they will wear.’

Masks are a very important part of the culture of Sable’s world, which is called Midden, as they both allow everyone to be identified by their job at a glance, and further filter-out Midden’s omnipresent desert sand. Yes, Midden is a Desert World, and Shedworks has admitted to being inspired by similar Desert Worlds in ‘Star Wars.’

Before undertaking The Gliding, Sable must complete two minor tasks: First, she must obtain a Gliding Stone, which possesses strange powers that protect the bearer from harm, allowing them to quite literally ‘glide’ in a bubble of energy. Second, she must retrieve the components needed to build a sand bike, a semi-sentient machine that will accompany her through The Gliding and allow her to traverse the desert wastes much more quickly than on foot.

Once Sable sets out on The Gliding, she leaves her village behind and must make her own way in the world to ‘figure out who she is.’ This involves pushing the player out of the tutorial zone into the open world map with only the most vague guidance to seek out a person who lives at one of the world’s Stations, where the people of Midden gather to trade, converse, and recharge their sand bikes. In practice, though, the player is encouraged to take Sable to any visible landmarks that look even remotely different from the sandy wastes.

Ultimately, “Sable’s” lore and world-building is nothing new, creative, or original. Even before leaving the tutorial region, I had a pretty good idea about that the world’s ‘deal’ was, with the wreckage of giant spaceships scattered around. There are a few minor novelties, such as the bizarre, pink worms with floppy, black dog earn known as ‘Chums’ that can be found all over the place and transform into eggs when approached, but ultimately, “Sable” doesn’t really have much story to tell, and what it does, it does poorly.

Character dialog is overly long and verbose, with Sable herself interjecting her own thoughts on nearly every paragraph of text. Then there’s the uncomfortable usage of pronouns, leading one to wonder if there’s some underlying agenda, or if the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun when a man or woman is standing right in front of us, instead of as an abstract singular, is some sort of normalized stupidity.

Ultimately, Sable’s goal of choosing a mask for herself opens up the tantalizing possibility of multiple endings. However, in spite of the fact that there are numerous option in how Sable will spend her adult life, the game’s ending is always the same, with only a minor textual difference between each of the final mask choices. Even more damning, though, is that, the closing theme song abruptly cuts off, mid-phrase after the credits, which leads me to believe that there were plans to make more robust endings for each of Sable’s possible choices, but that it just didn’t pan-out.

Strangely enough, I’ve seen people on the game’s Steam forum talking about how they’ve spent hundreds of hours exploring the world of Midden with Sable… but I just can’t see how that’s possible. I thoroughly explored the world, did all the quests (except for the recently-added Sand Fishing quest, because the minigame sucks), and ended up with a 15 hour experience. Even more damning, if I hadn’t been thorough, I could have cut my losses and gone to the end-game after only 8 hours. While both of those times are mindbogglingly brisk for a Sandbox game, they also feel a bit too long, as I was bored with “Sable’s” weak storytelling and gameplay almost immediately.

Gameplay
“Sable” is an open-world, exploration-based Sandbox. There is no proliferation of waypoints or points of interest. Instead, the player must ascend to high ground, then scan around the horizon for anything interesting, before applying their own custom points of interest, then investigating the marked areas at will. Each of the game’s 6 distinct regions does, however, include a Cartographer’s Balloon, where a member of the Cartographer’s Guild will sell Sable a map of the region for a reasonable sum. However, even with a map in hand, points of interest don’t actually appear until the player takes Sable to the location in question, while the maps themselves do provide some vague guidance into where there might be something worth looking at, which might otherwise be obscured by world geography.

“Sable” is also one of those Artsy Indie games that loves to push its mold-breaking agenda with what it does not include. In “Sable’s” case, that’s combat. And danger in general. There is no attack button, no weapons, and, indeed, no enemies in “Sable,” and even falling from a great height isn’t a threat, since Sable also doesn’t have a health meter.

So, if the game is about exploration and actively NOT killing things or being threatened, what is it about? Puzzles: Specifically, samey, simplistic mechanical puzzles. These puzzles are so basic and bland that, not only will they never prove frustrating, they can’t even make the player feel clever – even if it’s an illusory feeling – as they’re about as interesting as the dementia tests my grandparents took in the ‘90s to be approved for life insurance. You’d literally have to have a broken brain not to be able to figure these out!

What does the player get for solving the world’s banal puzzles? Oftentimes a customizable sand bike part or a piece of clothing to customize Sable’s personal style, but frequently just a little bit of in-game money (called Cuts) or a bit of uninteresting lore about the game’s uninteresting world.

When not exploring the empty desert and working her way through the derelict carcasses of spaceships, Sable will spend her time doing favors for a variety of people amongst the game world’s tiny population. These people are mostly members of the game’s various Guilds, and doing things for them will award Sable with a Badge from the Guild. Collecting three of the same Guild Badges allows Sable to trade them for that Guild’s Mask, which she can potentially choose for her lifelong career at the end of the game. However, almost none of these masks include any kind of interesting effects, which makes collecting them all seem pointless, outside of experiencing all of the game’s endings. However, as mentioned in the Story section, that’s hardly worthwhile.

Overall
From an audiovisual standpoint, “Sable” is one of the more unique and interesting games we’ve seen in recent years, unsurprisingly from an Indie outfit. Unfortunately, between the overbearing technical issues; the bland, lifeless worldbuilding and verbose, yet empty writing; and the mindnumbing gameplay, "Sable" is ultimately a dud. I can’t even say that it’s a particularly bad game, as it’s simply too boring and milquetoast even for that.

Presentation: 3.5/5
Story: 2.5/5
Gameplay: 2/5
Overall (not an average): 2.5/5

 

 


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