Glider? I barely know her
With three years of tantalizing trailers, musical performances and drool-worthy Twitter GIFs, Sable has glided into the hands of real players to explore and quest within. It was one of my most anticipated 2021 games, with its graphical style and relaxing mechanics looking like the video game equivalent of a candle-lit bath. Having played the demo beforehand, I was already trained with its opening prologue that purposely kept its cards close to the chest, and I was still excited.
You open in a desert settlement in the world of Midden, as a young girl about to go on a rite of passage everyone has to: become a Glider, and choose your next path in life. Walking around the camp I felt warmed by the writing of NPCs, their words seeming genuine and human in a world that looked so strange and alien. I don’t get a bike, but a rusty temporary one to learn the ways of the game: gliding, climbing, and eventually the ability to float in a big magic orb. Teenage stuff.
This opening was messy at times, with a navigation telescope ability that was confusing to use and even more bewildering to keep track of even in such a closed-off area – an ability I never seemed to use again. The rust bucket I was gliding didn’t help, but the jankiness of it seemed very purposeful, to make me hunger for the real thing. After some errands, it gives me it. The camp clears out for this moment and I’m unsure why, as I’m left alone in the sand. I call out, and a beautiful hoverbike arrives to meet me. As I climb on and glide out the gates into the unknown, Japanese Breakfast’s music swells and I feel utterly lost in the palm of this game’s hand.
It’s hard to understate how much of Sable is how it looks. It’s a visual experience that both immerses you and constantly jars you due to regularly stopping in your questing tracks to look around in awe at the environments. Colour palettes shift depending on the area with a mood of hues dressing every scene, the intricate architecture of structures blended with how it uses light to give an exploratory kid-in-a-candy-shop experience. Whether it’s gliding through the dunes, walking through the settlements or scaling ancient space relics, it’s one of the most screenshottable pieces of media I’ve played and a top contender for the best looking game of the year.
After pulling my eyes from ogling the sights, my role as a rookie Glider began. I had to collect masks, each designated to clans on Midden such as Climbers, Guards, Machinists and Scrappers. And to do that, I needed badges. And to do that, I had to earn them. Quests in Sable are a mixed bag, with many exceeding my expectations greatly with depth, humour, originality and playful style. Sometimes I was taming giant beetles, sometimes capturing lightning crystals in a plateau littered with enormous fallen robot titans. I often felt refreshed with changing tones and experiences, pushing past simple fetch quests.
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However those basic quests still exist, and there’s a lot of them. To put it simpler, there’s a lot of quests in general. You’ll find yourself racking up fifteen quests at a time ranging from in-depth adventures to spending twenty minutes carrying batteries around a room until a door lights up green, only to find an audio log. When they’re good (as majority are), they’re great, and when they’re bad, they’re extremely boring. The quantity of them does allow you to pick and choose, but it’s hard to know what might end up a great experience and what might make you give up and fast travel back. It’s a gift and a curse: I didn’t expect a quest to collect beetle husks to be one of my favourites, nor did I expect doing crashed spaceship exploration to be the most dull.
What doesn’t help Sable’s quests was an often confusing set of UX/UI design choices often causing me to lose track of where I was, what I was doing, and where I was supposed to be going. It’s not easy to find locations you heard once in a conversation and sometimes are expected to know about, nor is it easily explained by the mini-map giving you little to go on even when purchasing maps from cartographers. I’m delighted by what I find in Sable, sometimes discovering mammoth spaceships in the sand, a strange worm queen or a small forest to collect butterflies in. The world is evenly dotted with interesting locations never making the desert feel monotonous, but without the comfort in knowing what the game wants from me I was often neither ‘exploring’, nor ‘questing’. I was just lost.
Zipping from place to place is the strength of Sable, as you might have seen from any clip or trailer. Gliding over sand dunes in the comic book world of Midden is an otherworldly experience, one improved by buying and customizing new bike parts on your travels. These customizations don’t just stop at a paint job but feature quirky alien tech with custom animations I appreciated, as the original given is a hard design to want to give up.
One of the curses of the gliding was frequent framerate issues, causing jittering and rubber-banding for my glider. I often don’t dwell much on bugs pre-release for reviews, but for a game designed to be about zoning out in a smooth and relaxing journey, the regular lag often ripped me from that immersion and reminded me that I was just playing a silly little video game. I would recommend waiting until these issues are definitely fixed, as when it happened less towards the latter half of my playthrough my experience was improved massively. When it’s smooth at 60FPS, it’s one of the most awesome indie pleasures you can have, combining phenomenal visuals with detailed animations and interesting landscapes. It’s a looker.
Once you get your first mask through the badge process, you’re able to go home, and select your lifestyle. I loved the lingering option to end my gliding journey at any time, leaving it up to the player to decide when they feel the game should end and they should return a more complete person. There’s a pang of panic that makes you want to glide forever, doing strange errands until your glider falls to pieces, but there’s an attraction to finding your piece of Midden in Sable.
It’s a flawed game that is disappointing in areas, but exceeded by a large margin in others. Visuals and vibe take the lead as you might expect, that I imagine will keep me coming back once my bugs are fixed. What surprised me were the depth and entertaining storytelling of many of the quests, and the compassion of the dialogue. It’s filled with bizarre finds, incredible structures, some frustrating UX/UI, and gliding mechanics that will wear your screenshot button down to the bone. I technically haven’t chosen a mask yet, in honesty. I’ll get there.