Sable Review: Gorgeously Barren
Sable is a game about self-discovery, acting as an interactive pilgrimage aiming to depict a very literal sense of growth for its protagonist. It's all done without the normal “coming of age” trappings players may be used to, and developer Shedworks’ use of open-world exploration and a minimalistic design philosophy is something to be admired.
Unfortunately, as a whole, Sable isn’t as grand of an experiment as it could have been, buckling under the weight of fetch quests and a desolate, if beautiful, world.
Sable Review: Gorgeously Barren
Sable follows the story of a young girl (named Sable) living in the sand-covered land of Midden. We first see her sitting inside of a temple, seemingly contemplating her station within her tribe. She's on the verge of starting The Gliding, a right of passage in which children become nomadic Gliders, leaving their homes to explore the world alone. She's a little wary of the process.
Sable’s fears are mostly assuaged by her elders, though, something shown through text since her face is hidden behind a mask, a customary garment that illustrates one’s path in life. The elders explain how leaving her family to experience the world will shape her into who she's supposed to be, ultimately culminating in the discovery of her permanent adult mask.
What follows is a brief tutorial covering the basics of play, like how to scale surfaces and glide across the sand on a hoverbike, before Sable is free to leave the nest. Where she goes from this point is up to the player; an elder provides details on an initial place of interest but there aren’t any forced story-based beacons to follow. The entire world is more or less accessible from the start of Sable’s journey.
This free-form gameplay is an intriguing aspect because players have all of the agency. There are systems in place to help guide things along, of course, where Sable learns about the different groups of people on Midden, the world's various masks, and how they reflect the core principles of a given group. But while there are those narrative nudges here and there thematically tailoring an experience, Sable doesn’t delineate a set path.
What this means is that everyone’s journey through Midden will presumably be different. There won’t be any shared water cooler moments here. Things are more personal. What matters to you while playing through Sable will dictate how Sable approaches everything. You could travel the entirety of Midden, interacting with everyone you see. Or you could end the game “early" once you've fulfilled the base goal of Sable's journey, and potentially be fully satisfied with how things played out.
This open-ended gameplay offers a way to really connect with Sable in multiple areas, with this notion of self-discovery by way of developing personal values potentially resonating with just about anyone. Unfortunately, the steps it takes to create such a connection are marred by repetitive tasks and a mostly barren world.
Gliding around on Sable’s bike was entertaining at first. I enjoyed meeting people and helping them solve various problems; I even liked learning about Midden’s different cultures and how they tie into how each group views the others.
After a few hours or so, my enjoyment started to wane. It became clear that most of the tasks Sable is given are just different variations of the same fetch quests. Go here, grab this item, come back. Rinse and repeat.
There are a few notable tasks, such as one that involves hunting down the culprit responsible for stealing a town’s power core, rendering the inhabitants helpless against merchant price gouging. But most of my time was spent collecting odds and ends alongside reward badges that eventually unlocked different masks.
I was collecting things to collect things.
To be fair, the masks that Sable collects are integral to her development; they provide more options once you reach the end of your journey. It's just that tedium sets in fast.
This is compounded by how barren Sable’s world is. Midden is ripe for exploration in theory. There are ruins of a past civilization, derelict ships that act as mini-dungeons, and large temples partially covered by sand. Navigating these places provides a bit of fun, and the puzzles are environmental in nature, requiring you to balance Sable’s stamina as she climbs onto structures or uses her Glide Stone to float over broken terrain.
These areas don't offer much, though. Most of the quests send you to places far away from a given NPC. Along the way, you'll see countless sand dunes and weird structures, but none of them have anything worth mentioning. A few scraps of metal to sell, some coins to trade with, cosmetic items, or an occasional bit of lore. Nothing substantial.
There aren’t any enemies (or dangers whatsoever) to contend with and usually, the lore found in these areas just points you to another structure farther away.
The frequent trips around Sable’s map, somewhat negated by a convenient fast travel system, are made worse by the presence of annoying bugs. Some are known by the developer, like performance issues/stuttering and some mild UI problems. Others, like missing quest items that require a restart, are more problematic. The game even crashed a few times while I was trying to solve a puzzle or while I was en route to a location.
That said, I kept gliding around in part due to the amazing views. Sable is full of pastel colors and strong line work that’s reminiscent of classic hand-drawn animated films like Fire and Ice (1983). The way the color palette shifts in accordance with the sun’s rays, allowing for vibrant tones during the day and muted hues that offset the night’s sky, you can tell a lot went into Sable’s gorgeous aesthetics.
Sable Review – The Bottom Line
- A worthwhile premise
- Free, open-world exploration
- Wonderful Visuals
- Dull, repetitive side-quests
- Barren world
- Somewhat buggy experience
Sable’s premise is novel, if not entirely new. Its minimalistic gameplay, at times, helps sell a more personable experience. Regrettably, the minimalism cuts both ways as Sable’s barren world betrays the game’s emphasis on exploration.
Everyone’s mileage will vary. The amount of time spent in the desert before reaching the end is up to the player. And if all of the ruins and bits of lore are any indication, there is potentially more to see and do. I just wasn’t compelled to prolong Sable’s pilgrimage after roughly seven hours of play, awesome visuals notwithstanding.
The repetitive quests, large stretches of nothingness, and the occasional bug kept me from diving back in once the credits rolled.
[Note: Raw Fury provided the copy of Sable used for this review.]