‘Sable’ review: a literal sandbox with big ideas and little annoyances

Would I glide to you?

My favourite thing to do in life, before Covid-19 slammed the brakes on international travel, was to arrive in a new city and set off walking in one direction, to keep going until I was lost. There’s no better way of immersing yourself into the bloodstream of urban design, no better way of seeing history from the inside than tracing steps along the veins of a new city like this. Sable arrested my attention in its first hour because – unlike any game I’ve ever played – it managed to emulate the feeling of this ritual to a staggering degree.

“Try to have fun,” says a reliable and friendly voice you’ve known for most of your life as you set off into Sable’s desert world for the first time. “The world’s an easier place if you put joy first.” Strip back that gorgeous Moebius-inspired art style, take away the remarkable soundtrack composed by Japanese Breakfast, and you’re left with a world that values your time and your agency above all else – a world that lays breadcrumbs out for you to pick at as you’re lead deeper into yawning chasms or baffling architectural structures, creations that some sci-fi Kevin McCloud would stand in the middle of, extolling the virtues of space and bravery and craftsmanship.

Sable
Sable. Credit: Shedworks

Sable does away with reams of conventional game design wisdom in coaxing you into these wondrous zones. Tutorials are light, the game barely holds your hand – choosing instead to tug once at your sleeve here and there to get your attention, rather than dragging you kicking and screaming into some cookie-cutter dungeon or sewer. It discards the landscape-revealing towers and cluttered HUDs of its open-world stablemates in favour of something altogether more naturalistic. And, importantly, player-driven. You have a compass, and there’s something glinting on the horizon – and that’s your lot. If you play the game in any way like I did, that’s your next few hours.

Sputtering off into the languid sunset on a hoverbike threatening to cough up its last drop of life any minute and getting lost in some ancient, monumental ship or forgotten monolith is all part of a day in the life of Sable, your eponymous hero in this dreamy desert world. You don’t even really need to talk to anyone – great news if you like to roleplay as an introspective introvert in these games like I do. It rhymes with the likes of Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian or Ico, but more free-form than its Japanese forebears. You can just follow a compass pip from that one quest you had to pick up after the tutorial and wander off.

Sable
Sable. Credit: Shedworks

It makes sense, though, that this is the core gameplay loop of Sable: it’s how the game was born. Early in the game’s life, the developer purchased some dunes on the Unity Asset Store, revved up a hoverbike and slapped a huge cube across the other side of the world to drive towards. That was the first kernel of Sable, and from there – really – the developer simply expanded the scale, dragging the corners of the world outwards and baking stupendous structures in as it went.

“The world is big and I feel very small” Sable reflects early in the game, a sentiment I echoed as I weaved through the lonely sand dunes of this watercolour Tatooine. But that doesn’t deter Sable from her Gliding – a rite of passage, a coming of age – and she soldiers on into the vastness, at once thrilled and horrified by her own journey of discovery.

Sable isn’t very light on subtext, but it doesn’t need to be: it’s very clearly a game about self-discovery, and Shedworks hammers home the thematic helix of self-discovery and actual physical discovery often. And it works! Feeling your way to the top of a precarious outcrop seemingly made out of the spines of long-dead behemoths and blowing the dust off a slightly modified version of an NPC’s uniform makes the world feel more lived-in, more worn down and softer at the edges.

Sable
Sable. Credit: Shedworks

Why is this old uniform stashed away out here? Who lived way out here, and did they see the world unfurl in the dawn light as the wind skimmed the dunes like I just did on the trip over? Did the game designers know this would all happen so organically, or have I just been lucky? These are all questions that feel important in the moment, but that really don’t need answering. You kickstart your hoverbike and make your way back to the nearest camp, wearing your new clothes and feeling a bit more familiar with this imposing world that dwarfs you at every turn.

When there are no enemies to battle, no creatures to fend off, no worlds that need saving and no princes to save, Sable gives you time to soak up its world. After a few cycles of that washed-out, hypnotic day/night cycle, you start to realise the dichotomy of exploration and stamina-based puzzle platforming is quite then… but that’s fine. The stakes are low; this is about Sable and her journey. This is about small-scale discoveries and the beauty in the minutiae of things.

“Try to have fun,” Hilal says to you at the start of the game. It’s something you’ll keep coming back to. When you finish a quest before you even meet the NPC that has it for you, you’ll realise you made your own fun in that peculiar pink-walled fortress over yonder dune. When you rock up to a new outpost wearing a gorgeous new mask, top and trousers you excitedly purchased or pilfered, you feel the same childish glee Sable herself feels inbetween pangs of separation anxiety.

Enjoying Sable can feel tough, at times. It’s not often you see a game value player choice and curated spareness at the same time. But – even in the lonely spaces between waypoints – it finds a way to keep you interested, trudging through the desert alone, desperate to see what’s over this one last dune. Time and time again.

Sable is out now on Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Mac OS and PC. We played the Series X version of the game.

The Verdict

Sable, with its sci-fi desert, reflective soundtrack and reverent respect for architecture, could so easily have valued aesthetic over impact. But the actual feel of the game experience itself is the oasis in the middle of a desert of incredible ideas and inspiring design choices. Sable concocts a warm world full of delight and character at its edges, and leaves the gaps in between intentionally blank for you to fill with your own stories – and it’s quite unlike anything else you’ll play this year.

Pros

  • Moebius-inspired graphical style never gets old
  • Michelle Zauner’s soundtrack is compelling, haunting, gorgeous
  • Sense of scale as hypnotic as the day/night cycle

Cons

  • Fair amount of ‘downtime’
  • Performance issues can mar the experience
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