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In its best moments, Sable is almost too beautiful. Its Mœbius-inspired visuals, as seen at just the right angle, as the sun breaks over a sand dune and a breeze whips up the dust, are breathtaking. Its ambient music chimes and pulses gently, always appropriately complementing the scene. The deliberately staccato animation of its humanoid characters, including protagonist Sable, gives the game a feeling of playing through a sci-fi comic book from the 1960s. Climb to a particular vantage point and drink in the sumptuous vista, and you'll feel a rush evocative of the surges of emotion that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild could summon, back in 2017.
And it's not just the mood of Sable that connects it to GAMINGbible's greatest game of all time. Some of the quest structure is very similar, both in specific terms (there's a "follow this direction" quest that is incredibly familiar) and a more general sense of going about your business at your own pace, and ticking things off in your own order. That, and the mystery that this world is wrapped in is very much in the vein of the Hyrule of BOTW - there are decaying and explorable spaceships strewn around the landscape, and huge sculptures adorning spectacular bridges, both relics of a largely unspecified past. There's a cultural and technological clash at play in this planet's history; and how much of that you dig into prior to ending your adventure is largely up to you. There's lore, but you're going to have to literally unlock it.
Watch the latest trailer for Sable, exploring the world of Midden, below...
Sable's open world begins, much like BOTW did, with a tutorial area where you get to grips with the basics. These include scaling tall structures and gliding down from them using a special stone that encases you in a protective bubble (not that fall damage is a thing here, at all); piecing together your own hover bike (and naming her); and running about undertaking errands for a range of NPCs. Most of the people you meet in Sable are a delight to converse with, and the writing in the game (penned by Meg Jayanth, known for her work on 80 Days and Sunless Sea) really shines, even though it's restricted to text only. There's terrific tenderness in certain exchanges, palpable joy in others, and even the NPCs who don't want to make much time for you manage to express enough personality in grunts and shrugs to have the cast of other open-world games looking entirely two-dimensional. There's so much love and optimism and care in the script, it's superbly refreshing stuff. The game is also combat-free, testing you with puzzles but no real danger, which makes for a pleasant change.
From that opening area, the game truly expands its horizons. Sable mounts her bike to set off for her 'gliding', a rite-of-passage ritual that all young people undertake on the game's world of Midden. There's a moment where the cliffs part and the real adventure begins that's comparable with stepping out onto Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time, or riding down to Mexico in Red Dead Redemption; and it's a moment made all the more memorable by the music of Japanese Breakfast, who contributes a number of songs to this game. The most immediately familiar will be 'Glider', which soundtracked the game's reveal trailer of E3 2018.
However, this is also a moment where, playing on Xbox One X, Sable comes violently unstuck. The performance on a One X is consistently irregular, to the extent where in my playthrough I had to quit and reload several times to perform actions as simple as getting on my bike again, or picking up a piece of glowing 'fruit', or speaking to a quest-essential NPC who'd disappeared from the game completely. When riding out into the great unknown, Japanese Breakfast in my headphones, the game slowed to a frame-rate crawl and the music stuttered and glitched, buzzing where it should have been blissful. Set piece, punctured.
And there are many other parts of the map where gliding past on your vehicle sees the screen become a mess of stop-start confusion, such as approaching the city of Eccria, maze-like home to the legend of a Batman-like vigilante; and skirting around the periphery of a vast petrified forest in the south-western wastes. I have heard (but not seen) that performance on PC is far better, but that Xbox Series X is similarly poor. Compounding this disappointment further is Sable's bike, which while elegant and graceful in pre-release trailers, Star Wars speeder-like, actually bounces around incredibly haphazardly in practice - and that's the case on both PC and console. It's simply not fun to ride over long distances, and once enough fast travel locations are unlocked it's unlikely you'll use it for anything more than a short hop.
Publishers Raw Fury and developers Shedworks have indicated they're aware of issues and will release patches to bring Sable's reality more in line with its fantastic potential, and I look forward to seeing the game when its moments of incredible magic are properly matched by performance that keeps the player in the experience, without snapping them back to the title screen or sending their bike into a dizzying spin. Some of the issues are forgivable, as we're talking about a very small studio here who've been working on this labour of love for several years now (and you can see the love that's gone into it, all over the screen). But as a reviewer, you can only comment on what's in front of you - and if you're planning on playing Sable on an Xbox, I really recommend you check for those patches before parting with your money. This is a game that deserves to be played - but right now, in its most dramatic bouts of breaking apart, it becomes borderline unplayable.
When you're not being distracted by bugs - the not-a-feature ones, that is, rather than the large beetles you'll sometimes collect (or, one time, squash the poop out of... really) - Sable entrances, completely. Its story is slight: venture forth, explore, come back when you've seen enough. (Well, more specifically, when you've collected three of any one occupation's badges, and decided that's the future for you.) How long you spend darting between dunes and heaving yourself up sheer cliffs and spacecraft alike is up to you - if you went the right way, at every turn, and went straight for three of the same badges more by luck than by design, I guess you could finish up in a handful of hours. (I'm a natural wanderer in these kinds of games, always distracted by what's just over that hill, so I didn't check out 'til much later.)
But just as speedrunners can beat BOTW inside half an hour, that's not how most people play the game. And you shouldn't rush Sable, as it's way more about the journey than the destination, and the people and places you can experience on the way. The charismatic machinists and the wanderlusting guards, the deactivated crystal harvesting robots and the gigantic skeletons of whatever the hell used to live here, the kids playing hide and seek and the friendly creatures lurking in elaborate dens. Initially unreachable areas will open up if you're willing to put in the effort, as there are a number of Chum Eggs around Midden which, if returned to their queen, will reward Sable with increased stamina - essential for accessing those higher-up places. Upgrades are also available for your bike, to make it slightly faster and whatnot, and you can swap its colour schemes; and Sable can wear an array of outfits and masks, each with detailed notes on their purpose in this world. I collected several masks, but the one that made my Sable look like a freaky superhero bug was the definite stylistic winner.
It's easy, then, to lose a few hours in a single session just to exploring, to placing a waypoint on your map - a map that never becomes overly cluttered with major locations - and simply heading over, for the sole purpose of seeing what might be there. You can use a kind of telescopic locator to assess the landscape before you and drop a marker, or do so from the map screen. Get yourself an actual map from one of the cartographers in Midden (for a price - the climb to reach their moored balloon is not enough) and the landscape becomes slightly detailed, rather than just a blank space; but even then, this isn't like BOTW's carefully contoured and highly detailed model, where you could easily spy three trees in a row and find a Korok Seed. Sable is a lot more about taking chances, following a hunch, and you may just get a fantastic reward. Equally, you might ride into an ugly haze that strips the world of its colour and renders the environment near unreadable. You roll the dice, you accept the consequences.
And you will certainly be taking your chances if you start this one ahead of some substantial patching - on console, at least. Personally, the performance never fully put me off continuing, off chasing the next favour for a new friend, as there's just something about this world, these characters, that Shedworks has created that kept me pressing on: through the restarts, the glitches and the gloom, the frame rate catastrophes and the wild physics. I quickly came to really enjoy just being in Midden, riding with Sable, and developing relationships across this surreal expanse of fascinating emptiness. Perhaps it's the writing, or those aforementioned best moments, or more likely some potent combination of factors, but Sable is special. I can feel it, still, hours after putting the pad down; the sensation of riding a geyser to a mountain peak, the crack of the crystal pillar under my avatar's feet. That golden sunrise breathing warmth back into this world. At the risk of repeating myself, it absolutely deserves to be played - just maybe not right now, and not quite like this.
Pros: beautiful world, charming characters, exceptional writing, just being in the game is a treat... whenever it's not trying to pull itself apart
Cons: the console performance at the time of review is abysmal (fix that, and put two more points on the score below), some players might find the lack of 'go here, do this' direction off-putting, environment is hard to read in some locations and at certain times of day
For fans of: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Shadow of the Colossus, Journey, finding friends in unlikely places
Sable is released for PC, Xbox One and Series X/S consoles on September 23, 2021. Game tested on Xbox One X, with code provided by the publisher. Find a guide to GAMINGbible's scores here.
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