Sable review

By Luke Albigés,
Considering gliding is such a central mechanic in Sable, it's perhaps fitting that the game should have such pronounced highs and lows. At its best, Sable channels an incredible sense of awe and wonder, sending us on an open-ended rite of passage through its truly remarkable world. At its worst, though, Sable can feel unpolished, dull, messy, and, on occasion, even genuinely uncomfortable to look at. It starts out strong with its striking art style and tantalising freedom (hence why I enjoyed the Summer Game Fest demo so much), but the longer the adventure goes on, the more things like the glitchy climbing, rough performance, and barren landscapes start to grate, like grains of sand pouring into your boots and bits to make an otherwise enjoyable outing increasingly unpleasant. I absolutely adored Sable at times, and couldn't stand it at others — it's a game all about the journey, and good lord, does it ever take you on one.

sable xbox review

The premise is straightforward enough: as the titular Sable, a girl from a small nomadic desert tribe, we prepare to set out on The Gliding — a journey of self-discovery where the Glider may go wherever and do whatever they wish before returning to the tribe for a coming-of-age ceremony where they must select a mask that will define both them and their role in society. There's no looming threat to deal with, no great corruption to expose, no all-powerful MacGuffin to hunt down... Sable's main story, in as much as it has one, is as simple as 'go see the world, come back when you're ready.' This all begins in the smaller 'tutorial' area around the camp, where you learn all about Sable's stamina-based climbing, custom waypoints, and fairly basic puzzles while assembling the hoverbike that will carry her out into and around the world proper. It's a neat little microcosm of the Sable experience, and a fitting start to the game that makes that initial ride out of the gates and into the vast open wilderness even more powerful. You're not entirely left to your own devices — a friendly elder leaves you with a potential lead at a nearby settlement, which you're free to follow or ignore as you see fit — but after that introductory freebie, you're totally on your own.

Before you can return from The Gliding, you'll need to find and/or earn masks, from which you'll choose the one which will define Sable at the end of this voyage. You only need a couple to trigger the ability to return home, so it's quite possible for this 'epic' journey of self-discovery to be over within an hour if you want it to be, but you can just as easily take your time, try your hand at everything the world has to offer, and delay your return until you're able to pick from every possible mask. There's no right or wrong choice here, nor does your decision directly impact the ending of the game — just before locking in your final decision, there are cool little explanations about what each might mean for Sable's off-camera life once the credits have rolled, but the choice itself is just as open as the rest of the game. For the most part, these masks are tied to professions or roles, and awarded for turning in three badges earned by impressing folks in the relevant fields. It's basically work experience, with each badge earned offering a little window onto what Sable's future might look like should you have her walk that particular path, and since there tend to be more than three of each badge up for grabs, you shouldn't have to exhaustively trawl the map for opportunities before you can claim the mask you want.

sable xbox review

We often save achievement chatter for later in reviews as it's something that typically sits apart from discussion of the games themselves, but that's not the case here. Even though we don't have the full list at the time of writing, I can already tell from what I've unlocked that Sable's achievements sit directly at odds with the game's open-ended nature. With achievements tied to getting most of the individual masks, a bunch of collectables, and even a lot of the optional side content, completionists and achievement hunters alike will find Sable's generous promise of freedom to be a hollow one. It's designed to be (and works best as) a personal journey that you can act out as you like and end when you're ready, but the achievements instead encourage thorough play not unlike many more traditional open world games — it just doesn't sit right, and it's made all the worse by the fact that Sable's initially mesmerising world slowly loses its lustre as you discover and solve its mysteries one after another.

Sable's world being so vast and largely barren could be seen as an issue in and of itself, but especially in the early stages of the game, it does serve to make actually happening upon a new landmark all the more exciting. Upon initial discovery, the majority of these are a genuine thrill to investigate. Whether you're scaling the remains of some long-extinct gargantuan creature, messing with critters in a dingy underground cave system, or scoping out the wreckage of a crashed spaceship, it always feels like an adventure, even though the game has no sense of peril. These moments are Sable at its most magical, with nature and technology colliding in myriad unusual and fascinating ways that will have you pondering 'what the hell happened to this place?' and wanting to see and find out more. As the map slowly runs out of cool new things to show you, though, seeing those familiar ones only tends to spark a fraction of the wonder that first contact did, and the relative emptiness of the rest of the world comes to the fore more and more as the magic of each location dulls with time. In an ideal playthrough, you would never even reach that point. The world beginning to lose its charm should be a fitting place to call time on your adventure, head home to reflect on your journey, and pick your mask. In a thorough playthrough, however, you'll likely grow tired of all bar the most impressive locations long before you bag your final badge or max out your stamina gauge. It really doesn't feel like the game was designed to be played like this, so it's strange to see the achievements (along with some other in-game rewards) actively encourage it.

sable xbox review

That striking art style is another victim of trying to play the long game in Sable, mainly because you're going to end up seeing it at its worst a lot more often. At times, Sable is utterly gorgeous, particularly in simpler environments where the limited palette affords it the feel of a comic book or even a minimalist painting. But on top of a few general issues — pop-in is prevalent, foliage jitters and warps unsettlingly, and visual noise can prove extremely distracting — there are times when this simple style does the game absolutely no favours. Draining colour from areas (usually done during dark periods or in areas of difficult terrain) makes judging traversal really difficult, with scratchy monochrome lighting effects only compounding the issue, while visually busier areas are just naturally hard to read in this style at the best of times.

We also need to talk about performance, because... well, it's sort of terrible. The game generally rattles along okay but as soon as it starts to stutter, it can quickly go from being awfully pretty to being pretty awful to look at. The fact that Sable herself is animated at a lower frame rate than the game typically runs isn't itself a problem, and it usually fits pretty well with the art style (plus it's amazing how quickly your brain starts to fill in the gaps in the animation cycles anyway). But when things get too busy and you've got multiple elements chugging away to themselves at different low frame rates with a ton of other visual noise layered on top, it just becomes a horrible mess, to the point that it actually made me feel physically unwell a couple of times. While such extreme moments are rare, Sable didn't hold especially steady on either Series S or Series X outside of the walled garden that is the opening area.

sable xbox review

Even gameplay falls foul of the same kinds of cracks developing over time. The climbing already has its issues in that it can feel glitchy and you don't always latch onto things when you seemingly should be able to, but if you're going to give players a toolset like this, you surely have to expect them to explore. Once I'd rounded up enough worm friends to almost max out my stamina gauge (trust me, it makes sense... I think), I started scaling the game's most dizzying heights, only to find entire sections where no collision had been programmed, or vast, completely empty stretches of bare desert — hardly the kinds of rewards you'd expect for putting in the effort to fully develop your abilities and see what lies at the farthest reaches of the world. Sure, there are plenty of functional examples of greater stamina and rigorous exploration leading to new outfits, resources, badges, and masks. But few things snuff out the excitement of finding some towering new thing to scale quite like the concern that you might simply bounce off or clip through the summit and have to spend 15 minutes clambering back up just to give it another go and see if it actually works next time.

If it seems like I'm being overly critical of Sable, know that it pains me to do so. There's so much I loved about the game; so many moments when its rich imagination and vivid visuals spoke loud enough that no mere glitch could drown out Sable's voice. Which, interestingly, she doesn't really have, aside from the odd yelp of fear or delight. She's presented as something of a pensive sort, with a lot of the storytelling done through internalised thoughts and feelings rather than direct dialogue, although regular conversation options still allow you to find your own voice for Sable in the end. It's wonderfully written throughout, with some fantastic micro-narratives to be found in place of any larger one beyond that of your own making. The game's largest town — as confusing a place as those labyrinthine old JRPG cities you still have nightmares about — is perhaps home to some of the best (none of which I would dare spoil) and worst (playing hide-and-seek with children is hereby banned from all video games) of these, but there are many more to root out elsewhere in the world, often completely by mistake. These moments, when random acts of creativity, compassion, or craziness actually lead somewhere, are some of the best parts of Sable. Just like with stumbling across amazing new finds on your travels, Sable hits hardest when the element of surprise is on its side.

sable xbox review


Summary

It breaks my heart to criticise Sable so. The first few hours are truly remarkable, packed with moments of beauty, creativity, and childlike wonder, but the more you play, the more the mask slips. Despite the technical issues, it's testament to the abilities of the small team that it has been able to create a world so inventive and interesting, if one whose sparseness starts to work against it once the initial sightseeing tour is over. It's a crying shame, though, that those who want to see everything that this captivating setting has to offer — whether through inherent completionism, chasing achievements, or simply being drawn in by the lush playground itself — are those who will suffer Sable at its worst, even if the highs should still prove strong enough to carry you through the lows in the end. There's no doubt in my mind that Sable is a game that will work best when experienced as a personal, non-thorough Gliding that comes to a natural end long before any rot has a chance to set in. But with so many incentives (both in and around the game) for trawling every sandy inch of the world in search of worms, badges, and whatever else, the mixed messages Sable sends are probably going to lead to a lot of people playing in a way that actually works to the game's detriment.
6 / 10
* Luke spent around 20 hours exploring the sandy wastes of Sable, picking up most of the achievements as he went. A review copy was provided by the publisher, and played on Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S.
Luke Albigés
Written by Luke Albigés
Luke runs the TA news team, contributing where he can primarily with reviews and other long-form features — crafts he has honed across two decades of print and online gaming media experience, having worked with the likes of gamesTM, Eurogamer, Play, Retro Gamer, Edge, and many more. He loves all things Monster Hunter, enjoys a good D&D session, and has played way too much Destiny.