Sable: A Cozy Open World

Sable is an Open World Action/Adventure game developed by Shedworks and published by Raw Fury. It was released in September 2021 for PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S. MSRB is $25. I played the PC version.

Sable first caught my eye way back in June 2018 during the annual PC Gaming Show. I was fascinated by the art direction, and I did a double-take when I found out that it was being developed by only two people. As silly as it sounds, this indie game was a legitimate factor in convincing myself I needed to get a “good” gaming PC, which I eventually did last year. I’ve been following the team closely and counting down the days until its release. And then this autumn, after a long delay, I could finally put myself on that speeder bike and explore the world for myself.

Sable is best described in three ways: 1) the exploration-based gameplay of Breath of the Wild, 2) the coming-of-age story of Kiki’s Delivery Service, and 3) the surreal visual and sound direction of Hyper Light Drifter.

You play as Sable, a young girl from the nomadic Ibexii tribe. She’s now old enough to engage in The Gliding, her tribe’s most important rite-of-passage. She receives her very own hoverbike and sets out to explore the world, helping others along the way. By completing quests for people she can earn different masks, each belonging to an occupation in her society, such as mechanics, merchants, and cartographers. You need these masks for when The Gliding ends, as these are how Sable picks where she wants to work as an adult.

It’s a simple coming-of-age story, and yet I felt like Sable’s surrogate father, counseling her on what direction her life should take. I wanted her to be happy. She needed to be happy.

When I saw Sable say goodbye to her village, I couldn’t help but think about my own emotional departure for college. Sable is just so eager to see the world, and her tribe is so proud of her for embarking on this journey. I would’ve cried if it weren’t for the witty writing keeping the tone light. Whenever you speak with NPCs, you’ll eavesdrop on some of Sable’s delightful inner monologue. She has plenty of funny things she wants to say, but doesn’t. Their side quests will range from the simplistic “Fetch me some giant beetle poop,” to elaborate jailbreaks of wrongly-imprisoned vigilantes. One of my favorite quests was collaborating with a guard to figure out who cut the power in the game’s biggest city. After acquiring at least 3 masks, you can end the game at any time by returning to your village, though if you only stopped at 3, you’d be selling yourself short.

Sable‘s desolate world is full of secrets. And while you may uncover some as you complete quests, the real joy of this game is looking at a landmark in the distance, tagging it with your compass, and setting out to explore. You may find ancient ruins, or an insect nest, or a wrecked spaceship. When you arrive, Sable can navigate by climbing and gliding. These mechanics feel very similar to Breath of the Wild, with a basic stamina meter that you can gradually improve. Movement in this game isn’t quite seamless, but it works well enough. Considering all of the jagged rocks and oddly-shaped objects, the climbing certainly could’ve felt worse.

The game has some bugs, but where it matters Sable is impressively free of frustrating jank.

At times Sable feels a bit more like a platformer with all of the cliffsides, canyons, and ruin walls that you have to navigate. There were several times I had to put a marker down and return to a location later when I had a bit more stamina. Your rewards for completing these feats include money, cosmetics, and some rare masks, but the collectible you really want to find is a little creature called a chum. As tricky as some of these cute little guys can be to find, they’re worth the effort — they’re the key to improving your stamina. Usually, though, the view is reward enough.

Yes, these sections are basically SciFi Breath of the Wild Shrines.

Every once in a while you’ll encounter an area with environmental puzzles, like a Zelda dungeon. They’re not difficult to execute if you have an observant eye and some patience for trial and error. Some ruins have tricky riddles in them, and your reward for solving them often is a secret mask, a large dungeon, or a peek into the world’s lore. A lot has happened to make Sable‘s world look like it does.

You can customize your bike parts to change its stats and appearance; however, outside of these changes, there’s not much else to gliding. At first, I was disappointed. I felt like the developers needed to add some challenge, like falling off the bike, or adding abilities to the bike — the same way that The King of Red Lions from The Windwaker eventually learns how to pull up undersea treasure or fire cannons. However, as I meandered around the desert, I began to change my mind on this point. My journey to the next destination became my favorite part — I could chill out and soak in the bizarre desert landscape. Travel feels like a Walking Simulator where the emphasis isn’t on any complex gameplay; instead, I had time to reflect on the story. I frequently mulled over my interactions with NPCs, wondering what career I should have Sable choose. The rest of her life was at stake. Sable is a game without any combat, so I admit the gameplay feels the most “deep” during the dungeons, and the most “shallow” when gliding. However, with all the pros and cons I needed to sort out, as well as all the vistas I wanted to screenshot, it’s for the best that gliding is free of gameplay clutter.

I could just zoom around this world at sunset forever.

Speaking of screenshots, well… I guess I don’t need to say much about the visuals. These screenshots speak for themselves. However, they still don’t do the game justice — you need to see the game in motion. I loved panning the camera over the side, like I was the director of some Star Wars spinoff movie set on Tatooine. And even though the game takes place in a desert, there’s still plenty of variety in its topography. I’m in love with how this game portrays its day/night cycle. After the sun goes down, all of the colors wash out; in fact, in the darkest places you may only see thick wireframe contours. As the sun comes up, the color returns to the world, making everything pop. Consequently, nighttime feels even more mysterious, and you appreciate the day’s saturated tones all the more.

Accompanying this Moebius painting in motion are the musical talents of Michelle Zauner and her band Japanese Breakfast. The flowing synths, haunting guitar riffs, and laidback rhythms provided the perfect ambiance to this journey. At times the dream-like soundscapes reminded me of Death Cab for Cutie’s most recent albums, as well as Disasterpeace’s work for Hyper Light Drifter. Considering how highly I regard that soundtrack, that’s one of the best compliments I can give. I’ll definitely be adding Sable’s OST to my good vibe playlist when I need to write more blog posts.

This bike was really fast; unfortunately, it was also too unwieldly.

My biggest issue with Sable is that, at this date (November 1, 2021) and on my specific platform (PC), the game has some technical problems. As impressed as I am that only two people made this complicated game, I can’t help but think they needed a bit more time to polish everything up. The camera unexpectedly swings upward after finishing the climbing animation. Some of the bike parts I used were really touchy. On one bike in particular, I would frequently bump and flip around, even if I didn’t collide with anything. Eventually I went back to my old bike parts just because the flipping was too annoying. Furthermore, the quest menu sometimes froze when I tried to scroll up and down. Your hoverbike also clips through water. Judging from how the vehicle freaks out afterwards, I don’t think this was intentional. I’m sure a game this massive is guaranteed to have a few issues, and the bugs were never enough to sour my experience, but I did feel occasionally annoyed.

Overall, Sable was worth the wait. While the gameplay itself is a bit simple and derivative, I also feel like it’s a good starting point for newcomers to open world games, or for those who simply want to explore an open world without the stress of combat. It’s Breath of the Wild for fans of Walking Simulators.

This past summer I flew home to attend a friend’s wedding, and I saw my parents’ house in the summer for the first time since 2012. I felt comforted by familiar sights, yet forlorn by the uncanny changes. I felt a similar thing when I had Sable finally park her glider back at the village she started from. It was hard for me to end this journey and allow Sable pick a mask — I wanted her to be forever young, forever discovering herself, a wanderer among the sand dunes. She frequently mentioned her love for her glider, so I decided she would be happy as a mechanic. She could live out her days helping other young adults build gliders to start their own journeys.

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