As part of the [email protected] Summer Game Fest celebration, 40 indie games have released demos on the Xbox Store. Whether it’s a new peak at long-awaited titles or a fresh look at something totally new, there is a ton to like that is part of the event. But arguably the biggest in the line-up is Sable.
Originally announced in 2018, Sable is almost too beautiful to be real. Scarily the game was delayed a few times after its reveal leading me to believe that it was in fact, not real. But thankfully, I’ve played it. It is real. And it is amazing, so far. In fact, Sable has the potential to be one of the year’s best releases – if it plays its cards right.
Firstly, we cannot talk about Sable without mentioning its aesthetics. From simple screenshots, Sable looks like a 3D graphic novel. In motion, Sable more than delivers. The environment has cel-shading, film grain and saturated colours, but it’s the game’s titular protagonist, Sable, that sells this vision. She and other characters move at a lower framerate to the rest of the world. This paints an image of pages flicking and it’s what takes Sable’s looks from beautiful to surreal.
As stunning as Sable is, there are some refinements that can be made coming up to release. The camera occasionally moves by itself in tighter spaces and can be jarring as it clips to terrain, walls or foliage. The camera never gets in the way as it often does in other 3D games, but it does stop Sable from being a flawless visual delight.
The area available in the demo is set on an isolated desert. There are what seems to be spiritual structures, statues and so on, along with wrecked ships. This is where Sable’s world teases something bigger than the demo, but we’ll need to wait for the game’s final release for any secrets. Sable’s nomadic community is also camped here to give you quests, offer insights into the world and generally just chat.
That’s also where Sable starts her journey. She’s reached the age where it’s time for her to leave her home behind – at least for a while – and venture out on her own. There are some interesting things teased here, such as another member of your community never returning from her own adventure. Hopefully Sable is able to mix a personal coming-of-age story with the larger mystery of the world.
Sable’s world isn’t just alluring because of its art. The world channels the ‘homemade sci-fi’ tone of Nausica or Mad Max. The camp tents look scraped together and the vehicles look like they’ve been made with recycled scrap. But there’s still a kind of spirituality to Sable’s desert that draws me in and begs me to uncover its secrets. The full game isn’t just set on this desert though. Even the demo makes reference to a toxic swamp and screenshots on the Xbox Store also show off other biomes.
The game pretty much lets players go anywhere in the opening area, from the very beginning of the demo. You can go digging for chests and pots that contain credits, though it’s currently unclear what you’ll be able to spend these on. Mainly, you’ll be following the quests that your community members give you, despite being able to go in any direction. This structure slightly hinders the experience, in my opinion. Following quests makes Sable feel far more like a scripted, linear experience, rather than a world waiting to be explored.
In the gameplay department, Sable borrows heavily from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. You can climb up anything in Sable, as long as you have enough stamina – stamina is also used for sprinting. There’s also a glide ability that helps with traversal. And just like Zelda, there are no pre-set markers on your map; in the game you’ll have to pull out binoculars and set your own waypoints. Unlike Zelda, Sable has no combat and no puzzles (at least in the demo) so it really needs to nail the exploration.
In all fairness, Breath of the Wild’s introduction was also slightly more scripted than the majority of the game. But after that section Breath of the Wild gives you one goal and lets you approach it from any angle, exploring the world to prepare, or just existing in it at your own leisure. Hopefully, Sable begins to open up after its initial fetch quests.
I hope I’m not projecting my dreams onto Sable too much; I am ready to meet and play Sable on its own terms. However, its exploration is so crucial to get right because of the lack of combat, puzzles and difficult platforming. I shouldn’t be directed toward a wreckage from an NPC and just run towards it. I should see it on the horizon, wonder what it is, find a way to reach it and be rewarded with an answer… and maybe some credits. Sable does have some of these secrets laying around in the demo; ideally the game would deal with its main objectives in the same way.
I hope Sable can stick the landing in the gameplay and story department, because its demo introduces an unreal world. It teases the game’s potential so much. A scrappy sci-fi/fantasy world, with no combat and the freedom to approach the world on my own terms. I don’t want Sable to ever put a gun in my hand, I want Sable to challenge me to explore its wastelands and navigate it on my own. You don’t need to look any further than Outer Wilds to see how that kind of experience can be just as exciting, mysterious and engaging as any action game.
Sable will release on PC and Xbox consoles – with full Series X|S Optimisation – on September 23rd 2021. It will also hit Xbox Game Pass on the same day. I can’t wait to go exploring. In the meantime, head over to the Xbox Store for a download of the demo – merely a preview of what is to come…