Sable, an absolutely beautiful upcoming indie game about traversing a brightly colored desert, got a surprising demo this week. I don’t just mean “surprising” in that we didn’t know it was coming. I mean it actually served the purpose of a demo — teaching me more about the game than I expected. Many new folks will find plenty of ways to learn more about Sable for themselves soon (it was selected for the games spotlight of the 2021 Tribeca Festival, for example) my own expectations were still thoroughly subverted.
With its arid environment, focus on movement, and a player character wearing a red scarf, I instinctively assumed the game would be a lot like Journey. Every trailer I had seen up till this week gave the same impression. They show a quiet, lonesome trek under a fantastic art style. They’re also basically silent. Having finally touched the game myself, I now see that’s not really the case in-game.
Sable is actually quite talkative. I mean both the game itself and the titular character, Sable, who hails from a village of other masked characters that appear to herd ibexes. They haven’t started the journey we see in the trailers yet. They’ve got quests to perform and dialogue to hear. See, this game’s got jokes.
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Sable is also a surprisingly lighthearted game — jovial at times, if not outright comedic. One of your first tasks is to ride the Star Wars-y hoverbike seen in most of the promotional material. Only it’s not really your hoverbike; it’s a piece of shit. And the dealer who lends it out seems suspiciously afraid it might burst into flames.
You can frame these text exchanges in different ways. Sable has an internal monologue that gives you some sense of what the character is thinking, but it’s up to you to choose what’s actually said. The decisions don’t seem to affect the quests — one of my coworkers described it as more Kentucky Route Zero than Mass Effect — but I was able to lean into the humor more while hunting machine parts and beetles.
These quests were, honestly, a little fetch-y for my tastes. Though the early stuff seems designed to show off traversal. You can climb almost any wall, so long as your stamina meeting holds out, à la Breath of the Wild. And there’s “Gliding” down long distances inside a magic energy bubble. There’s very little penalty for failing at either, too. As far as I can tell Sable is totally free of fall damage.
The greatest punishment was getting caught on invisible curves and ledges. It happened more than once as I tested just how high and far Sable could climb. I even got lost once or twice as I slipped and slid around empty space. Thankfully, there’s a nifty compass you can summon that will at least lead you back to the hoverbike, if you don’t think to put down custom waypoints for your map. It’s all nicely diegetic and doesn’t interfere with the stark look of the game.
Looking good only goes so far, of course, and I’m curious how much variety is in store as I tour the world. Exploration heavy games like The Pathless and even Genshin Impact have really wowed me in the past with their sheer number of puzzles to unearth. If Sable can grip me the same way, and maybe smooth out some of the climbing issues, it ought to follow in those footsteps just fine.