Sable is a game that hits remarkably close to home, despite its magical alien world. It won’t make you cry with the death of a beloved character, nor does it present an epic battle for players to become involved in. Instead, Sable’s quiet adventure reminds of a moment that can feel monumental in the real world, something which would seem mundane in many other games: the act of leaving home. I would know as it hasn’t been long since I also took that step, away from the home I grew up in and the streets that had become as familiar as a Halo 3 map. The step into the wider world where everything is a question mark, including myself as I tried on a different face every night.
The story of Sable, or rather the feeling of Sable, is going to be familiar to anyone who has had to take that step, or to anyone that’s seen a teen coming-of-age film – or to any literature students who have had to learn what a Bildungsroman is. The titular Sable has reached the age where she must leave her nomadic clan and embark on her ‘Gliding’, a rite of passage that sees her explore the wider world of Midden alone. She can take as long as she likes riding through the various dunes but by the end she must find and choose a mask that will define her for the rest of her life.
I imagine there’ll be a lot of writing comparing Sable to Zelda – Breath of the Wild, specifically – which makes sense. Both include big open-worlds that you can approach from any angle, both use a circular stamina meter for sprinting and climbing any surface and both have beautiful art styles complimented by a soft ambient soundtrack. But if Miyamoto was trying to convey the feeling of childlike exploration in The Legend of Zelda, then Sable can easily be read as a teenager’s journey toward self-discovery. Every corner of the map teaches you something about Midden’s culture and customs, people and creatures, history and astrology. It very much feels like flying away from home and seeing the world for yourself.
Since the only set goal is to find masks, you’re free to go wherever you like. Exploring might bring you to several other communities where NPCs can give you quests leading to solving a crime, tracking down a famous lost poet, collecting beetle excrement and other fun stuff. These quests can reward you with new clothing items, customisable bike parts, money or badges that can be exchanged for different masks. For example, doing quests for three different Machinists will give you enough badges for a Machinist mask.
But the game doesn’t rely on markers for you to follow. Exploration is so satisfying because if you see something interesting in the distance, there’ll be something interesting to do or find there. Almost nothing in the game is purely decorative, like ship wreckages that can be found, half submerged into the sand, in various locations. Each of them has a unique series of puzzles for you to solve; some of them can be a bit finicky thanks to the game’s awkward camera and weird physics. These are only occasional issues and most of Sable’s puzzles are short, intuitive and satisfying. They don’t hold your hand but they’re also never obtuse enough to become frustrating. Once these wreckages are unlocked the cockpits include hidden lore that slowly sheds light on Midden’s history.
This level of world building applies to every major landmark in the game, from the towering ancient statues to the relatively giant merchant’s city. What you’ll actually be doing at each location varies. You might have to steadily climb a deep well to save someone stuck at the bottom. You might need to complete some environmental puzzles to get into an underground cave. One of the hardest quests saw me follow a series of graffiti tags through the city’s rooftops, alleyways and sewers. Essentially, this is a game that puts a lot of emphasis on exploration and puzzle-solving. The variety in objectives is a joy but this isn’t a game that’ll challenge your skills in any way. But I don’t think it needs to.
Sable’s lack of combat means there’s a lot of empty space in the world and in a sea of games that are practically exploding with repetitive, meaningless content, Sable’s wide-open spaces are a breath of fresh air. Even though fast travel is available, I never found myself using it. The world of Midden is so grand, so mysterious and so relaxing that I never wanted to trade a few minutes riding through it to look at a blank loading screen instead.
Sable plays around with scale a lot too. Everything in the game is so big that you can’t help but feel like a tiny part of it. Even if climbing and gliding to the highest point of a building wasn’t that difficult, I couldn’t help but feel satisfied at the endless space between me and the ground. Shedworks understands how lonely and monumental moving away from home can feel and as a result, they’ve created a world that evokes both feelings. Most of your journey is spent alone, contemplating the world and yourself as you sit in awe of the elements, the architecture or the ruins. Only a few open-world games have ever given players the space to feel their feelings, to deeply think about the spaces they’re moving in, and Sable is one of them.
And my god, this game is visually stunning. It looks like a comic book come to life with its grainy filter, saturated colours and bold outlines. Far away mountains and wreckages can easily be mistaken for a painted backdrop. The game practically begs that you take a screenshot as you ride, kicking back sand while the moon illuminates the purple sky.
While I’ve gushed about almost every part of Sable, it’s not a perfect adventure… yet. There are some pretty annoying performance issues on Xbox leading to audio stutters, noticeable framerate drops and one or two bugs that had me reboot the game. None of the problems were enough to hinder my enjoyment but Sable’s aesthetic is so integral to the experience that I’d recommend waiting for an update to play Sable in its optimal state. Sable’s internal prose can also feel a bit awkward and unnecessary at times and a couple of the game’s quests are just plain and simple fetch quests.
A few rough edges do not stop Sable from being a one-of-a-kind adventure about finding yourself while alone in the big wide world. I hope Sable can fix its technical issues soon, because what’s underneath is a game full of discovery, tiny nuggets of wisdom and a plethora of ways to customise your insanely cool hover bike.
You’ll find the world of Sable opening up on the Xbox Store