Sable Review: "Offers Something Unmatched In Video Games"
The debate on whether video games should be considered art will be one that rages on forever and of course, the answer will always be subjective. It’s easy to tell from screenshots alone that Sable is a game that will staunchly argue in favour though, with its hand-drawn, cel-shaded aesthetic and unique, colourful character designs. While first impressions are important - and boy does Sable start with a metaphorical bang - there’s a lot more to discover beneath the stylistic exterior.
You’re A Big Girl Now
Sable follows a short chapter in the life of the titular protagonist, a teenage girl exploring a long-abandoned world on a bike. After completing a few menial tutorial tasks around the Ibex Camp, home to the clan Sable has grown up with, it becomes time for her to begin her first ever “Gliding”.
The entirety of Sable takes place during this notable event that every inhabitant of Midden - the name of the region the game is set in - fulfills at least once in their life. Comparisons can be made to Broken Age, with Vella and her Maiden’s Voyage, or to Horizon Zero Dawn, when Aloy enters the Proving. Embarking on a Gliding is all about finding yourself and who you want to become, represented by various masks for different professions and ideologies.
So, once Sable gets her first hoverbike, the entirety of Midden is your oyster. Quests will nudge you to specific landmarks and objectives, but you can zoom off in whichever direction you please and discover the world at your own pace. Completing quests is vital to earn badges - get three to exchange them for a mask - but the manner in which you go about them is completely yours.
Despite Midden being a world full of lost civilisations and remnants of a bygone era littering the landscape, there is no combat in Sable whatsoever. Everything you come across, from guards and merchants to beetles and butterflies, is peaceful. That’s not to say hostility and war doesn’t exist in Midden, because there is evidence of it everywhere such as enormous skeletal remains of creatures, guards keeping watch over the one “city”, and certain characters you encounter being of the “hunter” profession.
With that in mind, even though some areas are eerie and have an ominous atmosphere, it makes Sable so relaxing to play, knowing there won’t be any sort of threat around the corner. The biggest difficulty you can run into is a parkour or logic puzzle, the latter of which can be serious headscratchers, but there are no bosses, nothing with a time limit putting you under pressure; everything can be taken at your own leisure.
While you can fast travel to landmarks you’ve discovered already, the majority of your Gliding will be spent aboard your hoverbike, hurtling across mostly breath-taking landscapes. The world is quite barren though; each of the six distinct biomes only has a handful of places to investigate. Your first port of call should always be the cartographers by their moored hot air balloons, since that is where you can acquire the map for each region, then use your telescope to place waypoints at other interesting things you spot. Aside from some wonky physics when landing after significant airtime, pottering around Midden and taking in the scenery is nothing short of joyous.
One question you’ll constantly be wondering - and one you’ll eventually learn more about - is who your people are and what happened to the world to result in such a scarce population and lack of civilisation. Numerous ship ruins can be found and exploring each one will slowly “reward” you with knowledge from a friendly AI called Sarin. Even though you can upgrade your bike and stamina limit, you’re ultimately playing Sable to simply learn more about the past and discover who your Sable should become.
Diverging From The Formula
As mentioned before, completing quests is a huge part of Sable and is the only aspect of the game that provides any structure. Aside from your standard fetch-quest fare though, there are some objectives you’re tasked with that truly break the formula, so the result is you have no idea what to expect when going from one area to the next. Repetition and growing tired of the same old thing simply won’t happen.
A prime example is during the tutorial, when you have to obtain a part to build your first hoverbike, but an envious child hides it. You have the option of either getting something for her in exchange, or if you explore the camp enough, you can sneak into her hidey hole and find it yourself. When you reach one of the bigger encampments, someone has sabotaged the power supply; it’s up to Sable to fix it and accuse a suspect of being the culprit. Neither of these mechanics are ever seen again.
This does come with its own problems though, namely the fact that Sable isn’t a very long game to say it’s open world with myriad quests to complete. You’re only looking at around 10 hours, give or take, when there is undoubtedly potential for way more. Since the narrative is essentially what you make of it and the lessons you learn, some may find the ending quite underwhelming, because there isn’t exactly a resolution at the end of Sable’s Gliding. It’s just another chapter of her life ticked off before starting the next.
Beetles And Butterflies Aren’t The Only Bugs
It’s painful to say because with such a flawless and artful looking game, you expect the performance to match, but it unfortunately has numerous hiccups. Bugs like a location in some dialogue being replaced by [LOCATION TBC] and a floor texture being placed over an area you’re meant to jump into - so it’s difficult to know that you can actually clip through the intruding sand - both happened within 15 minutes of gameplay.
When climbing, Sable can often get stuck in a repeating mantle animation for quite a while too, and in what was meant to be quite an emotional cutscene, her hoverbike was duplicated multiple times somehow. As mentioned before, the physics on the hoverbike can be quite jarring and perhaps the most infuriating of all was when speaking to a mobile postbox, it kept repeating a “Logging In” dialogue with no escape. Auto-save truly saved the day when alt-F4 was the only solution.
Fantastic But Fleeting
Are video games art? In the case of Sable, I think it’s foolish to claim otherwise. It has been an honour to play and review this magnificent experience, with its jaw-dropping vistas, witty, personified dialogue, and genuinely unique world that offers something unmatched in video games. Sable will likely fly under the radar for a lot of people and were it not for the plethora of technical issues, this would be close to a score of the highest order. As it stands, the bugs do detract from the experience a little, but even so this is an absolute must-play title... I just wish there were more of it.