The lightning farmers are one of the stranger tribes in the wasteland. Tall and hunched on dual walking canes, they spend their days marching up a mountain and harvesting crystals that form briefly after strikes from a controlled storm. It used to be carried out by giant robots that suddenly ceased to work. It makes me second guess if the monuments I’ve encountered across the desert weren’t other frozen sentinels.
The farmers aren’t chatty, but their leader is willing to share some kind words with Sable, a young woman performing a pilgrimage known as ‘the Gliding’.
Sable attempts diplomacy when the farmer asks if she finds them weird. Sable says she’s seen weirder. The farmer tells Sable she doesn’t have to be so polite.
Wherever Sable goes, strangers are gentle. They seem to see some light in her. Many had been her before. Sometimes the Gliding feels like a Bar Mitzvah, as Sable studies the history of the desert, alien ruins, fallen spacecraft, and her place within it. Sometimes the Gliding feels like an internship, as she helps shopkeepers and mechanics round up spare parts and beetle dung. It’s not clear how far down the line this civilisation is from the cataclysm that left them scattered across the desert. Humanity doesn’t seem to be on the ropes, but many sandstone villages have been abandoned, boarded up and buried in rubble.
Sending their young into the great wide open on a nuclear powered hoverbike may seem like a strange habit for the remnants of humanity. Yet Sable–the game–makes it clear, with civilisation scattered to the winds, that such rituals serve a purpose. It keeps these outposts connected, at the very least reminding each settlement there’s still others out there. It lets young adults see what the world still has to offer them. And that’s what you will be doing as Sable.
On your own path. At your own pace.
Some dorks took umbrage that small London studio Shedworks were quicker to namecheck Studio Ghibli as an inspiration to their debut game, Sable, ahead of a more obvious one. I can’t blame them. Lots of young people know little beyond the Netflix library, never mind a cult French fantasy illustrator. At worst, this influence is just a leapfrog.
Jean Giraud, better known as Moebius, left a wake of iterations. His most iconic character, the 1975 poker faced nomad Arzach who glided across the desert atop a stone bird, inspired Hayao Miyazaki to create Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. A founding artist behind the comics anthology Metal Hurlant (or otherwise known as Heavy Metal stateside), Moebius has left tracks on everything from Alien to The Legend of Zelda. While he crossed many styles and genres, his pen is uncanny. His level of detail and unruly creatures felt like an artist who could transcribe a one-to-one translation of the images in his head. On top of Arzach’s desert soaring adventures, Sable seems most taken by Moebius’ more ligne claire works: precise on simple line work, drunk on faded cocktail color gradients. Sable’s opening scene bears a striking resemblance to a print from 2001’s Mystere Montrouge.
Making an interactive facsimile of Moebius’ style is a daunting task. While it isn’t always a slam dunk, Sable provides handsome eye candy, encouraging you to climb mountains for the view alone. The anticipated score from Japanese Breakfast is even more versatile, stringing the wasteland with theremin, accordions, shoegaze and desert psych. It’s a shame that the initial glider sounds like loose change in a dryer, so I encourage players strictly seeking to vibe to trade up for better parts as soon as they can.
When I learned that Sable was going to forego combat, my heart winced. It’s not that I’ve got a bloodthirst as much as it affirmed that Sable wouldn’t be the Arzach experience I always imagined (punting a troll in the nuts and zipping away). It may push the dream game further down the line, but disallowing iterations of Moebius would rob us of so much. Instead, it’s more important to see what Sable does with these foundations.
Sable is a Breath of the Wild that’s benefitted from playing Breath of the Wild. For every intended route Nintendo baked into their open world epic, speedrunners and ding dongs alike bullishly muscled their own path: cheesing up a cliffside like a mountain goat, or spending an extra 20 minutes trying to clear a wall the dumb, futile way. It feels like Shedworks played Zelda in that fashion, making Sable with that in mind.
Inklings and unlikely looking paths often expose entire new methods of tackling tasks and temples. Where combat helped smooth out Breath of the Wild’s pacing, Sable retains momentum by constantly rewarding your curiosity. Useful items and new secrets seem comfortably nestled across the map. A more generous-than-usual ability to hover encourages you to really test Sable’s abilities, climb every vantage and dive in every grotto.
Stumbling across new outposts and nomads creates an ongoing net of tasks to do. Some are as simple as fetch quests or driving through rings, while others are investigating black market conspiracies or taking up the mantle of an urban legend. While Sable is only able to climb, float, drive and talk, quests that take the form of puzzles, exploration and mystery solving rarely makes it feel like the game is cannibalising your time. Some of the more ambitious obstacle courses, however, do seem to overlook technical hiccups and clipping issues, which, while rendering some platforming moments tedious, are otherwise negligible through the bulk of the game.
Sable’s task is to collect masks, which are exchanged for medals you gather, which reflect the peoples and secrets you’ve prioritised. That’s the task. The purpose of Sable is a pilgrimage that you have to mould to your own likeness.
Follow intuitions. Explore alien horizons. You’ve played plenty of video games. You’ve played them in your own weird way, so keep doing it here. You never know what you’ll find.