I bloody hate fetch quests, which is one of the biggest compliments I can pay Sable. Because in Shedworks and Raw Fury’s stunning non-combative open-world exploration game, much of its glorious map surveying unfolds via a catalog of side-missions, wherein you’re regularly asked to visit far-flung locations, grab mysterious artifacts, and return them to whimsical people. And it’s brilliant. Why? Because Sable’s writing is sharp, its characters are endearing, and its world is just so, so beautiful.
I doubt I’m the first person to stress that last part to you, and I’m certain I won’t be the last. In fact, if you tuned in to Sable’s reveal at the PC Gaming Show at E3 2018, you’ll know this already. When we first clapped eyes on the two-person indie outfit’s debut creation, it wowed with its stunning cel-shaded visuals, and boundless, Simpsons opening credits-aping skies. Its colourful world just begged to be explored, but while originally pegged for release the following year, a couple of delays saw it slip into 2021, and, in turn, anticipation levels soared.
Much like the game’s timorous hero, though, Sable surpasses those expectations by a country mile, weaving a wonderful coming-of-age tale of self-discovery, and the benefits of pushing beyond your comfort zone.
Welcome to the world
In Sable, you fill the boots of the titular protagonist as they, a fledgling member of the Ibexi Clan, embark on a rite of passage named The Gliding. After completing a tutorial set inside the Ibexi Camp – which involves collecting parts for a customizable hoverbike you’ll build, and latterly name Simoon – you leave your hometown on your lonesome, and take off into the unknown in search of masks said to define your personality.
It’s at this point the scale of Sable’s sprawling playground comes into focus. Its rolling hills, towering cliff faces, knife-edge gullies, and abandoned futuristic structures all loom on the horizon, and suddenly everything and anything seems possible. It’s a poignant moment that echoes the likes of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Final Fantasy 7, and Fallout 3 – those jaw-dropping scenes wherein you first emerge from The Great Plateau, Midgar, or Vault 101 – and is underpinned by a gorgeous piano loop, and Royksopp-esque vocals that warm the heart.
Be it gliding over desert planes under the baking midday sun, zipping across grassy knolls under a starry indigo sky, or simply gazing at the stream of crimson that trails your hoverbike whenever it’s in motion – just existing in Sable’s world is a joy.
Kiss the badge
There’s more to Sable than just being, of course, pretty as that is. In your quest for maturity, and a fresh wardrobe of identity-delineating masks, you’ll happen upon stations and landmarks filled with quest-offering townsfolk. Some will pay you for a job well done in Cuts, the world’s currency, while others will offer specialist badges, such as Machinists, Climbers, and Guards. Collect three badges of the same discipline, and you’ll qualify for a mask pertaining to that trade. Take those badges to a Mask Caster and, voila, you’ll have yourself some new headwear – each of which is a totem of your experience out in the wild.
Acquiring badges is rarely straightforward either. On one expedition, I was sent to climb a sprawling vertical network of walkways and pitfalls out in the desert in order to dislodge a rock from a malfunctioning windmill. On another, I traveled to a colony of Lightning Farmers, scaled a mountain, and harvested lightning crystals for a Machinist in need a few miles down the road. After befriending a Guard named Ellisabet, I found myself solving puzzles atop a 600ft statue, and, when I finally made it back on even ground, I then embarked on a crime scene investigation, solving clues to uncover the culprit of a sabotaged city power supply. The latter involved market manipulation, character assassination, bribery, and, um, pomegranates.
Reach for the sky
Climbing and gliding are central to all of this. Almost every one of Sable’s dressed-up fetch quests involved me ascending the face of a building, a shipwreck, a transport hub, or a mountain range, all the while mindful of my diminishing stamina bar. Even the most humble backwater towns demand some degree of athleticism to access certain areas, all of which again ties into the game’s beautiful backdrop. You see, not only does Sable resemble a kid’s cartoon on an aesthetic level, it taps into an innate childhood desire to view the world around us from an elevated perspective – a process that might have inspired you to climb a tree in your formative years, or to have paid money to access the viewing deck of The Empire State Building as an adult.
Unlike reality, though, falling from these heights in Sable doesn’t result in broken bones, as fall damage is negated by a glider-like bubble that appears seconds before you hit the floor. You can, and will, activate this any time, for unlimited periods of time, until you touch down on land, marveling at the rainbow-colored expanse all around as you go.
It’s in these moments that you’ll spot something new out in the wilderness. You’ll invariably flag a marker on your map, hop on your hoverbike, and follow your compass to discover a Merchant selling new clothes, or a Machinist trading new color schemes for your vehicle. You might spot a Cartographer’s hot air balloon grazing the clouds, and set off to purchase a map that reveals new places of interest. And you might even discover the Chum Lair, home of the Queen Chum, who trades Chum Eggs for new abilities, such as boosted stamina.
Fly the nest
Fast travel is available throughout all of this, but when regular roving is so enjoyable, I can’t see why you’d ever want to. The journey is more important than the destination, so goes the old adage, but Sable nails both in presentation and execution. My only criticism of the wider world is that, while inviting, it can feel a bit sparsely populated. This, of course, underscores the game’s themes of isolation, responsibility, and contemplativeness, but an extra wee township or territory here or there wouldn’t have gone amiss.
The ‘Go Here, Collect This, Return to X Person,’ routine is also repetitive by nature, but whereas fetch quests in other open-world games often feel like filler, Sable’s credible characters and alluring locations frame the process with an attractiveness other games fail to deliver. Sable hardly reinvents the wheel, granted, but there’s a certain charm that drives every search-and-retrieve outing that keeps you going and going and going.
To this end, after casting your first mask, fellow Ibexi Clan member Jadi will recall you to your hometown, praise you for your solo efforts, offer to end your Gliding expedition, and allow you to return to a quiet life. For the purpose of this review, I took her up on her offer in order to hear my compadre out – before quickly reloading my save, hopping on my hoverbike, and hitting the long and winding road for another lap of Sable’s eye-watering world. I’ve since collected every mask on offer, and still have no plans of heading home any time soon.
Reviewed on PC with a code provided by the publisher.
4 out of 5
Sable is downright beautiful in its execution and storytelling, and captures an innate desire for exploration like few other open-world games.