Sable – The Verdict
“The world is waiting, Sable.”
I see a mustard yellow sky with stars like snowdrops as I climb. Scaling the peek, I sprint across terracotta sand to the next rise. Ascending towards an angry cloud lashed with gold lightning. Dust or ash or both tumble from the cloud. I don’t know what’s up there, but there’s lots of transparent, crystal-like forms in the area, each one percolating with gold particles. Presumably the cloud and the crystals are bonded. A sense of foreboding builds the closer I get. A similar feeling hit me half an hour earlier, as I stood beneath a set of interlocking stone platforms rotating far above the ground. Ashen ground that spewed endless plumes of smoke, dashed here and there with red.
But there’s nothing to fear. This is Sable. No evil needs vanquishing nor villain confronting in this gorgeous, cel-shaded land. Even the giant beetles don’t bite.
“Gliding’s odd, eh? You have nothing to do, you have everything to do.”
Shedworks’ debut title is all about the discovery of self-actualisation by its eponymous hero, Sable. After a long tutorial in the confines of her clan’s valley, she embarks on a rite of passage, known as the ‘Gliding’, by leaving her home and journeying into the wilderness. Who she chooses to become is your decision to make – if and when such a time comes.
The beauty of Sable – or rather one of its many beauties – is that time and freedom are essentially yours to do with as you will. Sable’s journey doesn’t involve pain or hardship. It’s a spirited journey that emphasises joy and leisure over adversity. Your only companion is a hoverbike, which can be kitted out according to your specifications. It’s more than just metal, though; a whistle will call the bike to your side if you find yourself separated, suggesting its engine thrums with a living energy.
The Gliding, then, is for both of you.
Across a sublime wilderness, clans await your coming, some more eager to help than others, but almost all with quests to offer. Masked clans. Whether plantweavers or cartographers, the people of Sable’s world all wear masks. Symbols of belonging and purpose, but not of allegiance; these clans coexist in harmony.
“Little Sable. Tiny little Sable. A grain of sand, tossed about by gentle wind.”
When I shot off into Sable’s world of Midden, initially all sand dunes with scattered pockets of civilization and metal husks, I thought of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s character of Splendid in Mad Max: Fury Road. Seizing a sick acolyte of a mad warlord, she screamed, “[Who] killed the world?!” A rhetorical question, speaker and viewer alike knowing exactly the sorts of people who had ferried humanity to the brink. But I was quickly disabused of any notion that something wrong had happened on Midden. I wasn’t flying across a post-apocalyptic wilderness, tough though it could be. It was just a beautiful, vibrant, living land. And inhabiting it is a joy you won’t soon forget.
The map is divided into several sections, each with their own aesthetic and vibe, adding diversity to an otherwise sandy expanse. There are forests of particoloured flora, salt flats, and plains decorated with the bones of colossal creatures from another age. The scope of the world is consistently breath-taking. Best seen from a great height, climbing is a key facet of Sable’s gameplay, and it’ll reward you with extraordinary views for your dexterity.
Directly inspired by the art of the late French cartoonist Jean Giraud (Moebius), Sable’s linework is much like a comic, and its use of colour some of the best I have ever seen in a game. Taken together with a marvellous soundtrack by indie band Japanese Breakfast, Sable’s aura is pretty hypnotic.
That lovely spell is occasionally broken by a few faltering steps, one of which is its obtuse UI. Clicking the option you want on a menu should be straightforward, but whether navigating by mouse or keyboard it’s bewildering how quickly you can break it. Combining inputs frustrates the UI, especially during conversations. Sometimes I had to repeat dialogue trees because I wasn’t able to select the option I needed to leave. Slow and clunky, I groaned whenever I had to use the menus.
It’s a cumbersomeness that can translate to the game world, too. Sable is not always a deft character to control, with the camera frustrating your passage through narrow tunnels, or every so often bouncing her off rock faces. And whilst I’m having a moan, I’d point out that audio bugs still persist, months after release.
But none of these problems overwhelm Sable. The cumulative power of its aesthetics, the funny, insightful writing, and simple but fulfilling gameplay keep the experience intact. Even now, having fully concluded the game, I miss it. I miss the pleasant drone of my hoverbike, the dust trails at midday, and the magenta glow of dusk.
And the sunsets. That enormous white sun enriching the sand and rock, excavating Midden’s many layers of history. A curious history, scattered across the desert and carried on the wind.
It feels like it is moving / In time
Wrecked ships from beyond the stars are the only incursion on this otherwise ancient and peaceful land. Their digitised and mechanical croaks, almost like the remnants are angry to have come so far for so little, suggest something utterly alien to Sable’s way of life, to her home. But given the inscription on some of their storage crates, it is not so alien to you and me. Splendid’s furious demand to know who killed the world booms again in my mind, followed by the static-laced words of the ships’ logs. Words of unmistakable danger from a world whose population likely demanded more than it could ever give.
Though the loss of life a tragedy, there’s a strange, melancholy relief their mission capsized, as the sun rises on a land treated with equality and respect by those who dwell there – however they came to inhabit it.
Platforms Available – PC, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One
Review based on Steam media account copy. Please read this post for more on our scoring policy.