Sable Review

It’s difficult to ignore Shedwork’s new game, Sable, due to its one-of-a-kind art style. I’m pretty sure the art style and overall aesthetic of the game have never been seen before in the gaming medium and it’s no surprise that Raw Fury decided to publish it. The thin, imperfect lines and mesmerizing colors of the vast sand-covered world is the first thing most players will take notice of in the game. In many ways, the environment is the star of the show, and the player is encouraged to explore the game as they like; however after playing through the game I believe that the best part of the game isn’t the physical world that was built by the developers, but the story and interactions you have with the cast of characters inhabiting the land and the understanding you gain of the world and yourself from those interactions.

The game is named after Sable, the titular character that you play as. She has come to the point in her life where she must undertake the Gliding – a coming of age journey that is a cornerstone of her society. It’s basically a time for you to discover the world and discover yourself, seeing new sights, meeting people, and trying new things. When someone reaches the end of their Gliding they must decide what mask they want to wear, essentially choosing their future career/life path. This whole experience is encapsulated perfectly in Sable. Before starting your journey, your small nomadic tribe gives you a few tools to help you along your way. They tell you where to find the ability to float, and they help you build your first hoverbike. They also inform you that you can do whatever you want, that there are many paths you can take, and that you can explore the world and those paths at your own leisure. Of course, they explain all of this much more eloquently, and the writing as a whole in Sable is phenomenal.

You’ll be spending half the game riding your hoverbike around. Luckily the developers just released a patch that smoothed out the experience somewhat. The hoverbike was very bumpy before the patch, any small mound or object would cause you to careen off your path. There was also a glitch that resulted in the hoverbike becoming stuck in the ground, but the patch seems to have cleaned up a lot of that. There are three parts that make up a bike and you can buy new parts from merchants across the game world. Each part will affect the speed, acceleration, and handling of the bike. There are a fair amount of parts and sets, but almost all of them have very similar stats – basically very slow. This is unfortunate because it takes a long time to ride your bike across the sandy landscape, and puttering along gets kind of boring. As soon as you can afford it I recommend buying one, two, or all three of the speed bike parts, it makes traveling the world much more enjoyable.

Speaking of enjoyment, I initially took the recommendation I was given to just explore the land. The game world is very large and it is split up into multiple sections. Each section has its own design elements and this variety is great in keeping things fresh, but overall the world is very sparse. There isn’t much to do, and the novelty of each new area wears off quickly. The other main thing you will be doing is climbing. Sable is an excellent climber, she can climb almost any surface; however, she has a stamina meter that depletes as she climbs (or runs) which limits the height that you are able to climb in one go. After leaving my village I traveled around a bit, looking for interesting places and climbing anything that looked like it might have a reward at the top. There are A LOT of things you can climb; unfortunately, there aren’t many rewards. The main collectible you will find are these adorable floating tube-like creatures called Chums, which give you a chum egg for finding them. There is also the occasional treasure chest, but they are usually only found in, on, or around architectural structures (which does make sense). The chum eggs do have a helpful purpose – return them to the Chum queen to increase your stamina – but overall the reward for exploring the world on your own feels lackluster. Once you know what you are looking for the game becomes more enjoyable, as you won’t feel like you’re just wandering around aimlessly, wasting your time and not finding anything of note. You can buy maps from the cartographer of each region, their balloon ship is usually visible from a distance and most require a good deal of climbing to reach. The map is very useful, you can usually pinpoint the important locations and you can also use it to fast travel, which is a HUGE time saver.

After exploring on my own for a bit and not really finding anything all that interesting I decided to start working on the quests in my log. This is where the gameplay truly shines. The quests as a whole do a great job leading you around the game world. A lot of them are fetch quests, but don’t let that dissuade you, most of them are pretty interesting. One person tasks you with collecting some slicer beetle poop, and in most cases the way you have to acquire each item is unique. In the case of the poop, I had to toss some food onto the ground, and then wait for the beetle to eat the food which in turn caused his back to glow red, meaning that I could then jump onto its back thus forcing the poop to pop out! That might sound like the best quest, but my favorite fetch quest involved me quickly collecting lightning rocks that temporarily appeared on these floating obelisks after being struck by lightning. There are a few other types of quests as well, such as an investigation into who stole the main city’s power cell. A lot of these quests take place in the largest city in the game Eccria. This location was one of my favorite places in the game, the architecture and design of it had me exploring every nook and cranny. The interactions I had with the characters in the game were just as if not more interesting as the beautiful landscape. There is a great deal of charm and humor woven into the dialogue and I thoroughly enjoyed that aspect of the game. The developers also did a great job of building up backstories and lore for the world they created.

One of the goals in the game is to collect badges, most of which you get for completing relevant quests, although a few types (cartographer, merchant) can be purchased. Once you have three of one type you can go to a mask maker and they will perform a little ceremony to create that type of mask for Sable. There are a few other ceremonious, almost cinematic interactions that Sable has during the game, and I think this reinforces the fact that the designers have an eye for detail and beauty.

One of the bullet points for Sable is that it is a non-violent experience. I think they took it a step too far by not really having any action moments in the game at all. There are a fair amount of puzzles, some of which are pretty interesting, as well as some exciting climbing/platforming sections, but I think they completely missed an opportunity to add something extra to the game. As I glided around the sandy expanse I couldn’t help but think how cool it would be if I had to outrun a giant sandworm or a sandstorm. At the very least they could have included some racing quests. Shedworks is a small team so I suppose I’ll give them a pass, on the whole they created what they set out to make and the gameplay is what was promised.

I’ve already mentioned how the art style stands out. Everything is illustrated with thin, imperfect, almost wobbly lines, and the colors are illustrious… during the day. The game features a day/night cycle and during the night all the colors disappear. I’ve seen some people and journalists comment on how this makes you appreciate the vibrant daytime colors even more, but I just think it’s another missed opportunity. Why would you want your game to not look great all the time? In real life, I think dawn and dusk are usually the most visually interesting times of day, but in Sable they are almost as bland as night time. I’ve compared the art style used in a lot of the games I’ve reviewed to what I’ve seen in comic books and graphic novels, so I can’t help but do it again here (I’ve had a few comic book phases through my life). The art style most closely resembles the work of the late, great Jean Giraud, better known as Moebius, who is responsible for some of the most graphically stunning and original work in the comics medium. Do yourself a favor and check out the perennial sci-fi epic The Incal (or if you want something a little more conventional you could look up his Silver Surfer run). The saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery rings true here and I’m somewhat surprised that more artists and designers haven’t tried to emulate his work.

One of the biggest missed opportunities I can think of for Sable is the omission of any type of photo mode. This game is beautiful and I think Shedworks have done their game a disservice by not including one here. The in-game camera following the character can be a little wonky at times, clipping through walls, and it stays pretty close to the protagonist at all times. I took some decent pictures with the built-in Xbox capture camera, but I think having a pause screen photo mode where you could move the camera around freely would have been a fantastic idea. It would essentially create extra publicity for the game, I know people would post their exquisite shots all over the internet. 

I thought the sound design in Sable was pretty unique. I loved the hum of the hoverbike and the other sounds it made as I drove it around. There are a lot of other little sounds that Sable makes while climbing and jumping that fit in well with the gameplay and game world. The entire soundtrack was composed by the indie band Japanese Breakfast. I was worried that there wouldn’t be enough diversity in the tracks, and in a way this was true, but everything I heard fit the game well. I always think it’s kind of odd when there’s a lyrical song in a game I’m playing, but the best auditory moment in the game had to be when Sable leaves her home area for the first time and ventures into the next section on her hoverbike and a song with lyrics kicks in, it fits so well with the moment giving it an almost magical feel, but I didn’t come across any other moments like that in the game, where the music took the whole experience to the next level.

In my time with the game, roughly twenty hours, I experienced a large number of bugs and glitches. I know the developers are a small team, but there are a lot of issues. The game struggles to run in the more asset-heavy areas, especially in and around Eccria, along with this one section that has a lot, and I mean A LOT, of dead trees. I also encountered a bug a dozen or so times where I was unable to interact with anything, including my hoverbike. This was very frustrating because in many cases I needed to talk to a person right in front of me, but it wouldn’t let me, or the item I needed for a quest was on the ground next to me, but I couldn’t pick it up. Luckily a save and an exit to the main menu and subsequent reload fixed the problem, but it happened way too often, and a few times I had to dashboard quit the game and relaunch the game to fix the problem.

Conclusion

Sable is one of the latest games to get a day one release on Xbox’s Game Pass service so it’s almost impossible to not give it a recommendation for anyone with a subscription, but on the whole, I was somewhat let down. The game has some of the most visually stunning graphics I’ve seen, but the gameplay gets repetitive. Exploring the desolate expanse on your own terms is not as fun as it sounds; however, a compelling series of quests and wonderful writing throughout are just enough to keep you hooked and justify the price of admission if you’re already a Game Pass subscriber.

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This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.
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Good
  • Unique and beautiful art style
  • Great writing, and interesting quests
  • Bike and clothing customization options are pretty sweet
Bad
  • Rewards for exploring most areas feel lackluster
  • Climbing and riding the hoverbike gets somewhat boring
  • Annoying bugs and framerate issues (on Xbox one)
7.3
Good
Gameplay - 6
Graphics - 8.8
Audio - 7.4
Longevity - 7
Written by
I started my gaming odyssey playing 8-bit console and arcade games. My first Xbox was the 360 and I immediately fell in love with achievement hunting and the overall ecosystem. That love was cemented with my purchase of an Xbox One. I play a bit of everything, but I usually end up playing fast paced games that remind me of my days spent in dark, smoky arcades spending quarter after quarter, telling myself "one more try!". Gamertag: Morbid237.

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