Sable is poignant but ultimately aimless

Sable is poignant but ultimately aimless

Hello. I’m Benjamin Wagner, this is my blog and today I ponder my questionable life choices.

Sable is like sliced bread. Not the standard thin, white Warburton’s loaf but more like a toastie farmhouse or one with a tiger crust. A little bit better than your standard, plain wheat-derived food product but under the fancy interior, really isn’t that much to shout about. I am a big lover of bread. I have consumed many types and enjoy each for what they bring. The standard loaf is perfect for convenience and price. The thicker cuts are perfect for toast and eggs on the weekend. Sometimes I treat myself to some sliced sourdough or even a panini to use with pesto or smoked salmon. But even I, a lover of loaves am resigned to the fact that it is still just bread. It is not likely to be a meal you remember for very long. And that is my problem with Sable. Sable, whilst certainly having areas in which it shines strongly, is a mostly forgettable experience that burns bright and fades fast. Sit with me as I try and explain this whilst I attempt to review Sable.

Synopsis

In a land consumed by the never-ending sands, the Ibexxi Tribe make their home. One of the tribespeoples, Sable, has reached the age where she undergoes a ceremony known as ‘The Gliding’. Stupid name aside, The Gliding is a rite of passage for young tribespeople to undertake. A journey of self-discovery and wonder in which they learn about the world they have been kept from and the future they wish to undertake. By the time The Gliding finishes, Sable will come to a choice about how she wants to spend her future by choosing a mask to wear. On her journey, Sable will encounter many different professions and earn badges for tasks relating to them; possibly being granted different masks along the way for her to make her choice. Her career future is in the hands of the player.

And that’s the long and short of it. The story is very light here and truly is what you make of it. The game isn’t trying to weave a delectable tale or gripping drama but instead allows you time to look inwards whilst you explore a vast open landscape. Whilst many games I end up playing are story-heavy, I feel games are best taken on their terms. Basically, evaluate what is in front of you and not what the game isn’t. And as an exploratory title, Sable has some good, some bad and some forgettable. Let’s dig into the meat.

The Good

The joy of exploration is very much on show in Sable. For those of you out there who still dream of being dumped in a large environment by yourself, with nothing but a compass to find your way out, this game is probably for you. The compass mechanic here is actually pretty nice; with the game not using the typical open-world map markers and instead making it an optional guiding mark in the compass; allowing the player a clean UI to clutter up when they wish. Sable explores this world to find herself and, at its basest level, the exploring is good. You can climb the rock faces and jump from platform to platform to reach terrifying heights. You can even glide (where the gliding derived its name, one presumes) across gaps. There is no penalty to mistakes either. No health bar and no combat. Consider that just 2 weeks ago, I was applauding The Gunk for such a step, Sable is undoubtedly a brave game. Any media that shuns the norm in place of something a little off-kilter is worthy of praise. In The Gunk, the gunk mechanic was akin to combat whereas Sable moves even further away by shedding itself of it entirely. This game is just about jumping, running and exploring. Oh. And riding a hoverbike.

Yes. You get your own hoverbike and it looks damn cool. It is called Simoon and, despite the stupid name, it controls like a dream. Whilst the speed doesn’t match anything you can reach in Wipeout or F-Zero, traversing the bumpy desert with the depravity and force of a horny badger is exhilarating and makes getting across this vast, desert landscape much more accessible and enjoyable than the sections you are almost forced to go on foot are. The creators of this title seemingly wished to create a world that would be rewarding to explore and whilst I don’t think they entirely succeeded, when you begin the game and step out for the first time, the impression is pretty damn positive.

And I haven’t finished yet. We move on to the game’s biggest selling point. Them graphics.

Sable looks like Picasso’s wet dream; an odd mix of lines and colours that springs out of the screen and is truly visually striking. For a layman, a non-video game liker, stepping into this interactive jungle-gym is made more interesting by the unique take that the character and world designers have taken here. I am not an artiste but I would be surprised if anybody out there could glance at a screenshot of Sable and call it anything less than stunning. The setting itself, a desert, transitions to this art design nicely but it is in the small litters of technological remnants in which this design peaks. The mechanical monoliths (spaceships really) that have been consumed by the sands around the world are an excellent breather from the infinitely consuming sandy surroundings. The contrast is much appreciated and adds variety to the same old sands. The lore implications that these mechanical marvels provide are also interesting, if not as fleshed out as they could be.

Also stunning is the soundtrack. Well. It’s good. I wouldn’t listen to it for fun but it isn’t J-pop or Country music so that probably says more about me. Whilst exploring this low-fi feeling world of lines and pastel, the ambient sounds mixed with some interesting BGM from the band Japanese Breakfast (a good name) create a zen-like experience that feels like it fits like a purple driving glove on the hand of Sable’s inner pursuit of meaning. This game is all about finding yourself in the world and the musical accompaniment to this is as calming as it should be.

One more thing I loved about Sable was the interaction with other people. The residents of the world are far from interesting but the thing that did impress me was the way that the inner musings of Sable were written. Always with a few options but often with a melancholic undertone, I felt as if I knew Sable. As if I were connected to her. As if I could empathise with her. I don’t feel like she changes much throughout this long and unique gliding but maybe she didn’t have to. The lack of direction that the story provides you creates a poignant and unique setting for a game. As if they have represented the inner struggles of a young person trying to choose what mask to wear (profession to pursue) as a trek through the jungle. The ending of Sable is very much the start line for Sable (the character). She now has to leave the freedom of her gliding behind for the mundanity and unrelenting dullness of ordinary life. The safety net of the gliding is gone and you are set on a path that is difficult to leave from. And this leaves you with an odd feeling. Not unpleasant but… thoughtful. Ponderous, even. You wonder if you have made the right choice. You wonder if there is a right choice. And, if you’re me, you berate yourself for your life choices, staring at the wall and questioning everything you’ve ever done. Sable makes you think about the world a little. And for that, I have nothing but praise.

Unfortunately, there are other aspects of Sable which I have a lot besides praise to muse about. Buckle up.

The Bad

Those graphics are pretty aren’t they? However, much like sought-after model Katie Price, a pretty face means nothing if the practicality of dealing with it is a pain in the arse and they get old fast. Much like the high maintenance female, traversing the environments in Sable can become a chore much faster than you expect due to a small cluster of reasons; one of which being the art design itself. Sure, in screenshots it is a beautiful picture but in motion, it just doesn’t provide that same level of awe. I can excuse the lower framerate of animation for the character of Sable as that is clearly an artistic choice. I don’t like the choice but it isn’t game-breaking. What can be is the environment design and how it blends into a sort-of colourless, genderless, emotionless blob which makes finding your feet difficult to do. Some of the large desert structures can be difficult to traverse due to their height and the limited stamina you are given and this challenge is taken from fair but difficult to difficult and infuriating. Finding yourself falling off of a structure you’ve been climbing for ten minutes because the camera decided to freak out and the environment loses all of its colour around you is not fun. I doubt this is intended and I’m willing to call it a bug but it doesn’t excuse the annoyance I felt each time this occurred.

And the above frustration is amplified by the lack of distinction between non-climbable and climbable surfaces. It is frustrating to be within a couple of jumps of the building you are attempting to reach before finding out that for some reason, you are unable to climb this specific rock. I don’t get this. I don’t get it all. In a game that prides itself on granting the player free reign to do as they wish, this seems like an unnecessary and at often times tedious limitation on what the player can do. These situations often led me to just walking off somewhere else and abandon my adventures in this area.

Thankfully, I didn’t get too many glitches and bugs during my playthrough. And whilst the camera glitching and the colour changing was incredibly inconvenient, I can’t hate it that much because of it. Remember, it is an indie game and I will try and bear that in mind a little. Just because there is precious little bad, however, doesn’t mean the rest is good.

The Forgettable

I understand that this game does not really have a need for an overarching narrative; with your only goal being to explore the world and return to your tribe with your career choice at the end. Everything else is up to the player. Many of you might relish the opportunity to do as they please but I, seemingly, prefer a little more structure. Breath of the Wild is quite open-ended in how it can be tackled but the heavier narrative and a little more guidance from in-game NPC’s made the experience exponentially better for me. With large open-world games, just dropping a player in with limited tutorials and little guidance is just a little too daunting for me. The first 20 minutes really weren’t that enjoyable, as I attempted to find some do-dads throughout the endlessly yellow and orange desert. Maybe instead of an over-arching narrative, each location could have a special quest to undertake. One region does have that, a mystery case where you are tasked with locating a thief. And whilst the conclusion to this quest is disappointing, I can’t fault the ambition of the designers here and each region would benefit from this ambition. Most areas have a small town or settlement somewhere in them. However, most of these have the same types of building in similar locations and the characters that live there have no more personality than that fish you just ate for dinner. The people there seemingly don’t have lives and just sit around waiting for somebody on their Gliding to pass by and deliver some bugs or collect some flowers for them. Many open-world games are excused for these dull side activities but in a game with no real main goal to pursue, these side quests left me bummed out more than anything.

And do you know why? Because most side-activities have a connection to your eventual goal. The career choice. To unlock a career choice, you need a mask in that field. To get a mask, you must collect 3 of the same type of badge and give them to a mask maker who will make you a mask in a creepy, creepy way. The problem is that these masks don’t feel rewarding to collect as you are not getting them by doing tasks relevant to the profession. Instead of exploring and mapping out the area for a Cartographers badge, you instead just buy it from a mapmaker. Instead of performing dances and songs for the masses for your Entertainer’s badges, you are just given them for collecting some flowers and other meaningless trinkets. Granted, some masks are a little different; with the Shade mask and the Chum mask being two standouts because you get them in unique ways. The Shade in particular has you completing probably the most involved and interesting side content in the game and provides an interesting payoff, but this is more of the exception than the rule. Why is that?

Because most of the NPC’s personalities are as paper-thin as my self-esteem. Sure, Sable’s tribe people are interesting and you can see the love they hold for their kin. However, the other tribes… don’t? They just act as signposts and quest givers but give no real character to their region. One or two do stand out; the man who grants you the Shade mask, the Chum queen (a large eel-like creature whose eggs you will collect throughout the journey) and the travelling guard Elizabet do have a little bit more about them but this is just three amongst a field of mediocrity. I just want more. The basic exploration is fine but everything feels meaningless when the world you’re exploring feels lifeless. And bland. Even the pretty world can’t make the game feel more alive than it does. Actually, I think the never-ending sands make the game feel a little blander, in spite of the artstyle. Whilst some regions attempt to look a little more unique than their brethren, this is usually just through some high cliffs or a little bit more water or foliage; the base background being the same old desert design and after 8 or so hours here, I found myself more and more bored of this setting. In small bursts, sure. As a wallpaper for your laptop, definitely. As a large, traversable open world? Not so great, I’m afraid. The world blends into a homogenous, forgettable lump.

All of this comes together to create the feeling of pointlessness. Futility. As if this world was designed to simply waste your time. To act as a conduit for your journey. I feel that Sable creates a unique journey that allows you to explore a world but more so explore your own psyche. The joy that I did derive from Sable was from the life experiences I could relate to her journey and it made me think about the choices I had screwed up and the ones I didn’t choose to make. And this personal connection is what brings me to the Crux of the Matter.

The Crux of the Matter

I found Sable to be an okay, if not forgettable experience. A bland stew with little hits of garlic flavour now and again to keep you eating. However, this game is a more personal experience than many triple A titles will provide. Because of this, those who connect with this game will feel so much stronger about it than your typical Legend of Assassins Skyrim title. This game can tell a more personal, low-key message in a way that doesn’t need to connect to the masses. Sable is a personal story that really won’t be for everybody. Sable is the sort of game that one man will rave about and another will simply skim over. And unfortunately, this one has gone over my head a bit. I liked some stuff but most of it was just okay. I do appreciate the uniqueness of this title however and I would recommend you to try it out. It’s on GamePass so it is essentially free and it can’t hurt to give it a go. It might end up being as important to you as Lake was to me. And on that note:

Sable: 6.8/10- A beautiful indie game that lacks direction and trips over itself numerous times… But I can’t bring myself to hate it.

An odd one to review here. I wrote about 1000 words of notes when playing the game but found it difficult to really elaborate on what was brought to the table. I could have gone mask to mask and explained the intricacies of my journey but I didn’t feel that was necessary. It is a game that feels natural to experience but it difficult to explain to others. Honestly, I’m just happy that this review is shorter than most of my recent efforts. Oh, and bear in mind I didn’t 100% this game. I collected 5 masks and felt as if my time with the game was done. If you were to collect all 15 or so masks, you could easily spend 20 hours or more exploring the deserted world of Sable. For me, however…

I’ve been Benjamin Wagner, and I endorse this message.

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