There’s an area in Sable that is a shipyard/graveyard of old ships. As I waited to complete a quest that needed some time to pass, I decided to venture into that area one last time, before completing the game; I realized that this vast, open space filled with dead ships can be connected to the actual game. While the narrative differs for that area, to me there is a connection between these old, derelict ships from a bygone era now lying broken; an ambition that came to fruition, yet still wasn’t good enough to avoid this fate. As I start thinking about my end-of-the-year lists and where each game should be, Sable is the only one that can easily be included in the positive and negative list of the year. When Sable keeps a steady frame-rate, allows itself to build its world and characters, allows the player to explore that world without too many frustrations and with as much freedom as they can handle, it is exactly the game I thought I was going to get and that got me so excited, I had to wait this late in the year to play because I wanted to have as many hours as I wanted with it. It is easily a big disappointment as well; every 30 minutes something new would break or another piece of the mask would come off and reveal an ambition barely (and rarely) held together behind the scenes. From frame rate issues that were severe enough to get me dizzy, near-constant collisions, and physics issues where the world would stop existing as a place of wonder and cultures and be replaced by numbers and textures. In a game about enjoying the journey and not rushing to the destination, the best moments came when I arrived at those goals, I put for myself; when I could watch the world, listen to the sounds and the music, and make other goals just by wondering “what’s that over there?”. Those were the only moments where the game could reliably handle its scale and ambitions, and I experienced what the devs intended and those moments were exceptional; however, that is the highlight reel and not the entire experience.
In the game, players take control of Sable of the Ibexii tribe moments before her Gliding begins; in this world, every young adult will leave their familiar surroundings and go on a journey across the world to discover their purpose or indulge in the freedom to do anything and be anything they want, before deciding which mask to wear (a social showing of one’s calling in life). Sable is young and excited, yet sad, to begin this journey; she can discover the world beyond her nomadic tribe and partake in an important event, which will surely change her, but that also means leaving her family (particularly her grandmother) behind and maybe returning as someone who will not wish to stay with the tribe anymore. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the experience; the player is excited to start their journey in this world and Sable is sad about leaving her known life behind. Over our journey together, the two contradicting feelings begin to merge; as we both learn more about the world and the people, melancholia sips into the initial excitement, yet acceptance and wanting to see more sips into Sable. The player understands Sable’s concerns because the player has already been/will be going/is undertaking their own Gliding; it’s a very simple metaphor, but the way it is represented and allowed to grow on the player is brilliant, and after a few tutorial missions, the player is let loose on the world.
Sable is a simple game in terms of mechanics; Sable can jump, glide, and climb; she has her own bike to move around the world; she has a compass that can also add markers to the world for navigation and future exploration. There is only one “critical” mission and that is to earn any mask, which is done by collecting 3 badges from the same category; for example, complete enough machinist quests and they will reward you with machinist badges and once you collect three of them, you can go and cast your mask and finish the game should you wish to do so. Doing that, for me, was never an option; just by looking and listening to the world of Sable, I knew I wanted to journey across the world and explore anything that caught my eye. It is a truly spectacular audiovisual experience; with an art style that pays homage to Jean Giraud and music by Japanese Breakfast, simply existing in this world is enough to justify the price. Climbing a mountain to watch the sunset, where the world turns to greyish purple, looking at the horizon to see carcasses of old-beings and ponder how they perished, is something I rarely do in video games and Sable should get praise for digging that urge out of me. This freedom and thirst for exploration are at the heart of Sable. The quests are always attempting to exploit that urge; whether it’s a mystery about who stole the energy source of a town or finding ancient rings to drive through, the mysteries the game brings forth are interesting and demand that you explore locations in the world to learn more. They are also fairly well-written, attempting to convey the melancholy of the world and their history, while also always having that shiny ray of hope this world seems to have. It’s a shame that the world, despite all its wonders, has not figured out how to maintain a steady frame rate.
Sable is the worst technical state of a game I have seen this year; I’m not a professional reviewer, so I did not play all the other broken messes of the year, but I have played this one. I struggle to remember a single playthrough where the game ran acceptably for more than 20 minutes. It’s always either frame rate drops, visual or audio bugs like ludicrous pop-in and audio cues triggering at the wrong moment, physics so bad I was often worried that missions would become impossible to complete (it never happened thankfully). Some of that is purely technical and could be fixed (I’m not a developer and don’t know how likely or how possible it is), but others are gameplay-related and don’t feel like they could be fixed. Sable not gripping to walls as she should; bike parts an inch from the ground, often causing collisions with the soil; physics objects like catapults, clipping through the environment, and the player making some quests only completable through sheer luck. The list feels endless and a lot of these affect the experience; I stopped looking at walls and possible resting spots, because I knew that the edge of the top exceeding the wall would make that climb impossible; I stopped being excited for the climb to a cartographer (usually a puzzle-like structure), I only did them because I wanted that sunset scene I referred to, a while back.
It became a war of attrition; I wanted the experience I knew was there, but to get to it I had to deal with all the failings. Puzzles became annoying, because even if they are clearly not meant to be challenging, just a form of interaction for the player to experience the world and story through, they became challenging because of how the game reacted to me; the finicky controls meant that platforms without much space were a hazard since Sable could complete her climb mid-air and fall to the beginning or not grip to them or the camera could get stuck somewhere silly. In a game about making the journey as diverse, meaningful, fun, and personal as possible without really caring about the destination, the worst thing that could happen is to make the destination the most interesting aspect of the experience and the journey the most frustrating. As I’ve said in the beginning, if I take just the highlight reel Sable is an incredible game; watch the whole thing though and it’s a flawed and often broken piece of software that never lets you forget that you’re playing a game. Only in those sunsets was I able to forget that and truly experience Sable at its best.
So, I ended up looking at a few guides to finish up with some quests I had left, made the decision of which mask to put on, and completed the game in around 16 hours. As I look back on that time, I doubt the technical state would be what springs to mind, and for that reason, I do recommend Sable even to console players (if they have the patience and are willing to put up with the game’s state). Even the next-gen Xbox version was poor and littered throughout with issues and bugs, however, I remember the sunsets, the mysteries, the world, and the stories, more than the frustration and the issues; that’s not to dismiss them as unimportant, but it is to reiterate that the excellent does outweigh the poor.