Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse and a fondness for digital entertainment, I thought I would sail about the iOS app store and see what could be found.
Since then, I have played a good number of “free-to-play” games, and it’s been a very small fraction of those that have felt, well, “fair” is probably the best description. The first Fantasy Defense game is my best example of that – it was absolutely free to download and play, and I was eventually able to clear the game without spending a dime in the in-game store.
I did buy some random currency for $5 AFTER I cleared it, mind you, because it was a fantastic game and the developers deserved to get paid.
Rare positive examples aside, I’ve tried a ton of games that turned out to be thinly-disguised whale hunts. Montowers was a particularly grotesque example, and Gameloft’s My Little Pony was infamous for a) being targeted at preteen girls and b) having a main quest line that couldn’t be completed without dropping a couple hundred dollars on virtual ponies.
That leads me to Fable Age, which came to my attention by way of my wife, who is something of a nightmare for developers; a white whale if you will, because she has a tremendous patience when it comes to extracting fun from these games without spending money on frivolous stamina refreshes and one-time power ups.
I think that is probably as far as I can stretch the Moby Dick references without actually reading the damn thing.
Anyway. Fable Age, a game where you collect characters from NOT DISNEY versions of fairy tales DID WE MENTION THESE ARE NOT THE DISNEY CHARACTERS, take them into battle in “quest books”, match colorful gems, watch damage numbers dance above the heads of your opponents, watch damage numbers dance above the heads of your characters when your opponents retaliate, and generally try to get a lot more of column A than column B. At the end of each chapter of the quest book, you get some loot, which you can use to power up your characters. Occasionally this loot contains another character, though they’re generally fairly low-powered. At the end of every quest book (usually 3 to 5 chapters), you get a “Fable Stone”, which is the game’s premium currency. Collecting five of these allows you to get a much more powerful random character. Collect characters, level them, collect more characters, rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat.
When in combat, you do damage by matching colorful gems. When you clear out gems, other gems cascade down to take their place, and of course sometimes THESE gems form chains and there are happy explosions and enthusiastic music.
There’s more to it, of course – your characters all have special attacks which power up over time, and there are mechanics based around the color (element) of your characters and the color/element of the thing you are trying to defeat, and you have a resource (“links”), which allows you chain together strings of unlike colors to make longer combos, and your characters have passive effects which affect damage, or which increase elemental resistances, or which boost the number of links you have, and it’s actually a little deep if you get into it.
But at its core, it’s all about sliding your finger over pretty colors, watching the numbers fly, and building up teams of cute fairy-tale characters to kick assorted arse and take assorted names.
It has a pretty interesting way of gating content based on player level, as an aside. Undertaking quests takes a certain amount of stamina, and your maximum stamina increases with level. If you’re low level with 15 stamina, and you’re looking at an optional quest with a 25 stamina cost, you know you’re not ready for it. When you DO get up to a level where you have 25 stamina and you’re looking at that same quest, you’re weighing the odds of actually beating the thing versus the odds of spending your entire stamina pool and having nothing to show for it. As silly as that sounds, it can actually get a little tense.
Fortunately, quests with that high of stamina costs are strictly side quests so far. There are thirty “quest books”, and the chapters in these come with single-digit stamina costs, at least as far as I’ve seen. You can play a ton of them without worrying about running out of stamina too quickly. It’s honestly, well, fair.
I know, I’m shocked too.
Now, if you want the absolute best characters, you’re probably going to be shelling out actual cash. Likewise, if you can’t put the thing down and do something else when you run out of stamina and need to wait for it to recharge, you’re going to suffer the costs of impatience.
On the other hand, I’ve managed to get some pretty powerful heroes from the scarce few pieces of premium currency that I’ve gotten through game play, and it’s very much a game that I’m able to play for 15 or 20 minutes and walk away from, so I’ve had a lot of fun with it so far and managed to avoid temptation in the process.
To sum up: A surprisingly fair free-to-play game with cheery graphics and music and all the carefully-calculated endorphin releases you could hope for.
Take it away, Melville.
Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.