An art game for people who like adventure games, and vice versa

Christopher Byrd

THE WASHINGTON POST – Of the many games that have drawn inspiration from the Zelda series, few have enriched the formula like Sable, an exquisite adventure game that forgoes combat mechanics in favour of exploration and a take-it-or-leave it approach to puzzles.

Sable’s appeal rests on its aesthetics, which make the player want to hear and see more. Its sensual lure stems primarily from the strikingly-coloured, fine-lined visuals – an homage to the French artist Jean Giraud, more commonly known as Moebius – and its mellow, nimbly modulated soundtrack by the indie band Japanese Breakfast. Here is an art game for people who also like adventure games, or vice versa.

Set among the dunes of the desert planet of Midden, Sable follows the titular heroine as she leaves her nomadic tribe and goes on a journey to learn about the world and fulfill a rite of passage – her symbolic entry into adulthood. At the start, we see her stride into a temple and sit contemplatively before a statue of the face of a woman. Exiting the temple, Sable rejoins her tribe whose members greet her expectantly since it’s her day to become a Glider. Through a series of tasks and the performance of a ritual, she acquires a hoverbike and the ability to descend gently through the air enveloped in a red bubble.

After gaining her gliding ability, Sable finds that her tribe has decamped from the nearby area and left her to her own devices. Her only imperative is to explore the world and, if she chooses, earn masks. The masks will play a part in an initiation ceremony when she rejoins her tribe and chooses what mask or identity she will adopt as an adult.

Most of the masks in the game are acquired through earning badges by performing tasks for some of the people Sable meets along her journey – innkeepers, machinists, etc. (The machinists approach their work of fixing and upgrading hoverbikes from a metaphysical orientation – they practice machine-whispering.) Earn three badges of a particular kind and Sable can take them to a “mask caster” who will fashion her a mask through a process not the least bit mundane. With a radiant light pouring from behind a hooded cowl, a mask caster will wait patiently as Sable reaches into a pool of white light emanating from beneath the hood and retrieve a mask.

A scene from Sable. PHOTO: RAW & FURY

As Sable explores the world around her, she’ll come across abandoned spaceships which take the form of puzzle boxes. Similar to the puzzles in the Zelda games, these areas require her to manipulate power sources to raise and move platforms. Successfully doing so allows her to access the ships’ AI systems to uncover information on the origins of the ship’s long-departed crew. (Speaking of Zelda, Sable’s ability to scale walls, which plays an important part in puzzle solving, will remind anyone who has played Zelda: Breath of the Wild of its stamina mechanic.) Other quests require Sable to perform fanciful tasks such as collecting beetle droppings and engaging in a bit of light detective work.

Poke around the world and soon enough Sable will receive a note informing her that her tribe has returned and that she can begin the initiation right. Sable can be completed without anything approaching an exhaustive plumbing of its content. I salute the developers for adopting one of the most easygoing approaches to an endgame I’ve come across in an open-world game.

Sable excels at evoking the joy of movement and a feeling of calm. Driving the hoverbike over large stretches of desert is a pleasure. The sand dunes have a way of tossing Sable around as if she were on an arid sea of varied and beautiful shades. I found it easy to lose myself in the game’s fantasy of travelling an unfamiliar world, sightseeing.

It’s worth considering what makes Sable such a visual marvel. Unlike many adventure games with a nice budget behind them, Sable’s art style embraces a sumptuous minimalism. From a visual standpoint, every line and every hue seems purposeful, in contrast to so many other games that heap colour upon colour and detail upon detail as if “more colours and visual effects equals better graphics”. Sable is not a game that feels as if it were designed by a multi-interested committee. I don’t foresee it requiring a remastered version “with improved visuals”.