Sable (Xbox Series S) demo impressions

Sable’s vast, visually-stunning deserts and ruins beg you to explore, but is there enough gameplay complexity to keep us hooked for the long run?
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Sable – developed by the two-man team Shedworks, published by Raw Fury and Microsoft – is a third-person, exploration- and puzzle-focussed game set in a retro-futuristic world of open deserts, nomadic tribes, massive monuments, and the remnants of a space-faring civilisation. The titular protagonist Sable is about to embark on her “Gliding” – a rite of passage – on which she’ll unravel the secrets of her world and discover herself.

It’s a great setup for a combat-free game with a strong focus on exploration. A game in which soaking in incredible vistas and distant structures is part of the appeal. There are RPG-lite elements that let you pick dialogue choices and hear (at least read, there’s no voice acting) Sable’s inner thoughts but the bulk of the experience is about navigating open deserts, then scaling and puzzling your way past massive obstacles (natural and man-made).

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There’s even a button to simply sit down and take it all in. Always a good choice once you’ve managed to ascend an ancient ruin.

The demo appears to take place in the opening of the game, as Sable finds herself tasked with hunting for three key components that’ll be used to craft her hoverbike. To get to these locations – after a brief introduction to several key members of her community – you’re first saddled with a smoke-billowing sand-bike that gives you a taste of what it feels like to cruise through the spectacular wastes (albeit slowly).

When not on her bike, Sable can run, jump, and climb almost any object – limited only by a stamina meter. This plays into several platforming sections that require you to identify a safe route (there are visual cues, of course) and explore hard-to-reach places. There’s a degree of sci-fi-magic going on too, as it doesn’t take long to gain the ability to glide from great heights and further expand your traversal options. Other ruins require you to combine platforming with basic puzzling – think activating switches, timing jumps, or dealing with physics-based obstacles.

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Dialogue with quest-givers in the demo allows you to mold Sable’s personality. However, it remains to be seen if that has any gameplay implications as quests play out the same way regardless.

The world of Sable feels vast and open, so quests – both primary and secondary – are doled out by characters in the world and the story can apparently unfold in a nonlinear fashion. Initially, you’ll be talking to the various members of your community, but there are other nomads exploring the deserts that’ll guide you forward. In addition to progressing the story, they’ll reward you with a currency that can be used to purchase maps of each region and – presumably – upgrade your hoverbike.

It feels overwhelming at first, even within the limited confines of the demo, as the world feels completely open – aside from the improbably vertical cliffs that delineate the edge of the massive maps – and devoid of the usual clutter of waypoints. However, that sense of scale feels appropriate and adds to the immersion. Simply cruising along on your hoverbike both looks and feels incredible. That said, the demo only offers a single type of collectible that you’ll find off the beaten path, so it remains to see what incentive there will be to explore in the final game. 

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When it comes to presentation and atmosphere, simply cruising around the environment never fails to impress.

A huge part of the experience is the unique visual style and soundtrack. The environment and everything in it is hand-crafted, with striking visuals that rely on sharp lines, vibrant and contrasting colours, and simple flat textures. The animations look great but take a while to get used to as they operate at a lower framerate, similar perhaps to Japanese anime. The soundtrack – composed by indie-rock group Japanese Breakfast – is mostly instrumental and sometimes absent, but excels at generating an atmosphere befitting of the lonely, desert environment.

Overall, the Sable demo suggests Shedworks has a great foundation in place. Exploring the world is an alternating combination of engaging and cathartic. What remains to be seen is whether that sense of exploration, puzzling, and an underlying mystery is enough to keep players hooked in the long run. Personally, I’m hoping there are more underlying RPG-like systems for Sable’s skills and her hoverbike in the final product.

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