Sable is a melting pot of familiar game design philosophy that’s brimming with technical shortcomings but won’t forfeit the simple closure of just being a write off. Because it’s also stunning to behold at times, that same melting pot being home to ambitious subversions of a well-worn genre and an emotionally engaging script. It is consistently more and less than the sum of its parts, holding the player at arm’s length but beckoning them forward all the same.
Shedworks, a two-person development team that came from a humble North London shed, have cited all the right things when it comes to Sable. An open-world exploration title that riffs on Breath of the Wild while adopting the art-direction of a French icon and Studio Ghibli? Sable is tailor made for my pretentious, artsy taste in games and yet I find myself out in the cold here. It is a beautiful collision of ideas that make for a compelling foundation, but a lack of technical polish and limited gameplay ideas make Sable a deeply compromised game.
Sable at dusk is always a treat for the eyes
You play as the titular Sable, a young girl who is set to embark on her Gliding, a rite of passage in her nomadic culture. Coming of age in Sable’s world requires a self-determined adventure across the sprawling sand dunes of her vaguely alien world. It’s a familiar open world in which you’ll find towns full of quest-dispensing NPCs, derelict ships and mysterious structures to climb as well as a humble selection of puzzles to solve. What you won’t find in Sable is danger, of any kind; the game purposely avoids combat and fall damage to ensure its landscape is as inviting as possible. These omissions have a drastic impact on the game, being a systems-wide subversion of the genre that eschews one kind of player tension for another.
The Gliding itself is Sable’s rebuke of the humdrum ‘save the world’ business most games of the genre concern themselves with. The only discernible goal of the game is to choose how you want to spend the rest of your life. It’s small fry relative to Ganon’s blight but a journey nonetheless. While journeying, Sable will earn badges which in turn earn a chosen profession’s mask which can then be permanently affixed to Sable’s face to end the game whenever the player chooses. The game places implicit trust in the player to establish pacing, challenge and meaning in its vastly open world, a gamble I admire though don’t fully appreciate in practice.
To complete your Gliding, you’ll be equipped with a magical orb that can be activated mid-air for a slow but costless glide and a sleek hoverbike named Simoon. In one of Sable’s many fantastic writing touches, its world has a distinct relationship with technology that is founded in spirituality as much as practicality. The opening hours of the game see you rummaging up parts to build Simoon with the town’s Mechanist (one of the handful of professions Sable can choose from). Once completed, Simoon is named by the Mechanist as the two of you share a moment over the creation of life inside the machine. It’s beautifully written science-fantasy that made my heart soar.
It also profoundly bummed me out. To collect the parts for Simoon I was given access to an older model bike the town had lying around. This thing sputtered loudly when I engaged the ignition, a plume of dark smoke billowing from behind me as I took corners too quickly on the dunes, eliciting another complaint from the aging engine. It was a piece of junk, but I loved it. So, when I had to unceremoniously leave it behind for Simoon, a sleek and personality-less bit of modern tech, I felt the first pangs of Sable’s core contradictions. Go forth and find yourself, the game invites, but at every turn all I found were limitations and dust.
Sable’s coolest locations are often washed out by this stylistic choice
Quests often task you with retrieval missions and other mechanically simple outings. The Merchant requires some such flower, the Mechanist needs you to go pick up a rock that’s blocking a machine and so on. Occasionally you’ll have the chance to do something a little more involved for certain factions such as the Entertainers, but ultimately the world expects you to fulfil menial tasks to earn your way into a menial career path. Puzzles are equally unengaging, typically involving moving a battery back into its slot or climbing up and hoping you find the right button to stand on.
Sable does somewhat elevate these systems with its phenomenal writing and sense of place. Interactions with the world and NPCs often trigger short text entries that give us an insight into Sable’s mind and her surroundings in turn. These are some of the best pieces of writing I’ve seen in a game all year, perfectly dispersed moments of interiority and world building that make Sable feel human in this alien place. The inclusion of Sable’s own biases and limited cultural understanding was a hugely welcome one too as I would often find her asking questions I had rolling around in the back of my mind as an outsider to this world.
That accomplished sense of place is a by-product of the game’s breathtaking art direction. The game uses a genuinely unique line art style to emulate the work of Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, putting the stylised approach into motion with mixed results. It is, undeniably, beautiful to behold and the minimalism of the art direction serves the mysterious world you’re exploring nicely. The lack of concrete detail only further enables your mind to fill in those gaps, making everything you find in Sable evocative and alluring. The game’s soundtrack has been composed by Japanese Breakfast and perfectly synchronises with the stark landscapes at times, a bewitching blend of vocals and ambient tracks.
That same aesthetic commitment also inadvertently impairs exploration at times as minimalism makes it near impossible to tell which surfaces can be clambered up. Sable makes the stylistic choice of having low light situations completely wash out the colour palette of the game, turning everything into a monochromatic flat wasteland of soft line work. Just as the rain made climbing a nightmare in Breath of the Wild, nightfall in Sable turns it into an exercise in pure frustration. Worse still, I could not find a means to move time forward in the game so I would frequently just get up and walk away until morning hit so that I could appreciate the artwork of whatever location I was travelling toward next.
The game uses a genuinely unique line art style to emulate the work of Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, putting the stylised approach into motion with mixed results
Sable requires you to travel across vast stretches of land on Simoon which is ostensibly a meditative exercise. Any semblance of peace is wrung clean from these moments by how uncontrollably jittery Simoon is though, with every new ride a chance for the bike to lose momentum due to its bugginess. Before setting out you’re warned to treat your bike well and not fall off but Sable’s aversion to consequences nullifies this too, you simply push forward, and hope Simoon doesn’t decide to lodge its nose into an invisible mound of sand.
Sable’s open world is quite sparse for large stretches but the places waiting to be discovered are usually something special. My personal favourite was hidden in one of the far corners of the map, a towering factory cut into a mountain that now served as a graveyard for giant robotic workers. Here, and in a few other places, Sable fully locks into place and the magic of the game comes to fruition. I found strange crystal miners who thought I was equally strange in turn. They gave me a cool duster and as it billowed in the wind while I climbed their ancient dead robots, I thought to myself, yeah, this is a bloody good adventure.
Any natural surface in the game can be clambered up by Sable as she burns through a dreadfully small stamina meter which then refills once you’re back on solid ground. This can be upgraded by finding gelatinous flower creatures throughout the world, though the exchange rate is a little exorbitant after the first upgrade. When attaching to a wall Sable immediately loses a sizable portion of stamina that makes eying off a particular climb tricky enough as it is, but that’s also assuming she will be able to find a footing in the first place. When I wasn’t trying to manoeuvre Sable around invisible obstacles to climb a simple ledge, I was made seasick by a camera that swivels like that little girl’s head in The Exorcist.
Sable is a game almost entirely compromised by its unpolished state. The severity of its bugs ranges from minor visual hiccups to broken interactivity and, in its worst cases, game crashes and corrupted save files. It’s frustrating for any game to be this way but these issues are so specifically antithetical to the intended experience of Sable that it stings all the worse. Especially considering that the mechanics that do work as intended in Sable, such as the intuitive yet minimalist compass, should be studied for future games of the genre they’re that compelling.
Sable’s landscape is peppered with gorgeous things to find
Even if you were to successfully patch out these issues, which I have full faith Shedworks will do, I’m not entirely sure Sable is all that fun. This is where things get a little bit tricky though because I’ve played and adored many games I wouldn’t always classify as traditionally fun experiences. Death Stranding is maybe the best example of this, a game about the technical minutia and the journey between destinations that enables periods of reflection. A perfect mirror image of Sable in that sense at least, but it works in Kojima’s non-traditional open world because the gameplay requires attention, the push and pull between risk and reward.
Sable has no risks and a major problem with rewarding the player. For all the praise I want to heap upon it for boldly defying genre expectations I find myself lamenting the space left by them because the game fails to fill it with much more than aesthetic pleasantries. Traversing your way up a mountain or through a temple will often net you a new piece of gear and a nice view but it’s all for show. That dope new piece of climber’s gear won’t actually make you a better climber, it’ll just make you look cooler for a moment.
This isn’t a design impulse I inherently dislike but if you’re going to build your game around self-expression as the reward then you need to let me do it. I couldn’t keep the bike I loved or name the one I was given. The Cartographer mask, the path I naturally gravitated toward, was ugly as sin but I had no alternative. The tasks I was asked to do required no real effort or thought, just another day at the office internship. I was meant to be discovering myself out on the dunes but instead the game is content to just let you look upon greater works that came before you, out of your own reach.
Sable’s script is an absolute delight
Sable is simplified to a fault; its mechanical edges having been smoothed to such a degree that it removed almost all means for me to emotionally engage with it. Its aesthetics are striking but falter in the face of practicality, just another mask that I wished I could take off from time to time. Its writing is its beating heart though, and no matter how frustrating I found the journey I could always take comfort in Sable’s thoughts as she found a new friend to observe and landmark to study. For all its promised freedom, I still had to compromise Sable’s choices and return home with a mask I was unsure of and memories of a Gliding more broken than fulfilling. Frankly, if I wanted to feel locked into a career path in a time-ravaged world, I’d just go outside.
Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher
- Raw Fury
- Xbox Series X|S / Xbox One / PC
- September 23, 2021