Sable hands-on: A vast and striking desert world worth exploring

If I had to describe Sable with one phrase, I’d pick “golden hour.” The game feels like that time between evening and night where the world is on fire, lit by the setting sun. The colorful new perspectives that come from its day/night system and its incredibly unique visual style make the entire world feel new every time the sun rises.

Sable positively teems with its own personality, constantly beckoning you toward something fresh in a world you want to explore. Developed by Shedworks and published by Raw Fury, Sable is one of eight unique titles featured at the first-ever Tribeca Games event at the Tribeca Film Festival. In my hour-long hands-on demo with the game, I learned quite a bit about what makes this unique exploration game tick.

A classic tale

Sable is, first and foremost, a coming-of-age story. After a short loading sequence, I stepped into the shoes of titular character Sable and was tasked with guiding her back to the nearby camp of the Ibex clan. Soon after arriving, I learned that Sable is about to embark on her first Gliding, an event that involves traversing her home planet’s environment on a fast, smooth-riding hoverbike. The Gliding is considered a necessary adventure for people her age and many other clan members talked about their own experiences with it.

Throughout this process, which involved simple dialogue choices and a little bit of exploration throughout the Ibex camp, I witnessed the game’s striking visual style first-hand. The flat, low-poly shading style contrasts sharply with the thin black lines that define most people and structures; when the sun rises or sets on the game’s desert world, everything moves into shade and changes color dramatically. It’s quite beautiful, if a little busy sometimes.

Sable slides down a desert hill.

As I began exploring around the camp in an attempt to receive a goddess-borne blessing and find parts to build my own Gliding bike, it struck me just how peaceful everything was. There are no enemies or battles, just quest objectives and conversations. It felt like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild without enemies or Minecraft on Peaceful mode. When the focus on combat is removed, the environment and exploration become characters just as much as Sable and her clanmates. While making my way through this environment was a bit of a chore, particularly before I had access to a bike — the Breath of the Wild-like stamina system depletes too quickly, and Sable’s running speed is extremely slow — the world’s mix of nomadic clan life and technology made me want to see more.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to run for long. Hoverbikes are Sable’s main mode of transportation, and I got to ride one about 10 minutes into my demo. Movement was sharp and responsive side to side, and the bike’s sidle ability makes it easy to steer around the canyons and tall rocks of the Ibex camp, but it lacked the sort of forward speed that I expected. (Maybe it’s because the bike I was given was a bit of an old clunker.) After receiving the bike, I completed a few quests with it, solving simple puzzles to find the pieces for my own new bike.

What’s old is new

One of Sable’s main themes seems to be finding new ways to use old things. In a similar way, I can see that pieces of influence from other mediums have been sewn together to make something entirely new. The quest and navigation systems very much reminded me of Breath of the Wild, while the dialogue choices and narrative tone are more reminiscent of mythology and old stories. Over the course of the demo, I found myself becoming very interested in Sable’s machines-and-gods ideology — the beginning of the game implies that there are plenty of mysteries and secrets for an enterprising player to uncover.

The game is also full of small touches that make a big difference. There’s no fall damage and no penalty for clipping a canyon wall with your bike (which I did more than once). The gentle soundtrack varies based on your location and activity. It all adds to the game’s serene, almost dreamy atmosphere.

Sable watches the sunset from a perch.

That being said, I did have a few issues during my time in the Ibexii camp. Mantling and climbing objects can be cumbersome, especially if they’re high off the ground. Poor Sable got stuck inside of rocks once or twice. While the demo’s activities were diverse — collecting hoverbike parts, capturing beetles for a fellow camp resident, and so on — I felt as though the game was deliberately stretching out the experience through unnecessary quests.

One of the first items I received in the game was a compass, which functions as your quest marker hub. The compass is later upgraded with a navigator feature, which allowed me to place my own waypoints in addition to those the game provided. While I liked the idea, placing your own waypoints is annoying, thanks to an unwieldy selection system. I’d rather just write down landmarks that I need to visit — or better yet, just have the game give me waypoints.

More to explore

My demo, which lasted a little over an hour, ended just as I constructed the bike that Sable will use for her Gliding. With the help of Sizo, a Machinist who specializes in working with the parts found all over the game’s world, Sable built her bike and listened for it to tell her its name, a sacred act that connects man and machine. (I won’t spoil the name here.) A dramatic zoom-out and more of the game’s beautiful music accompanied my journey back to the title screen.

Sable certainly looks and moves like nothing else out there. The game’s beautiful day/night system, intricate details, and hybrid natural-mechanical environment draw you in and make you want to see more, as does its unique narrative. If some of the smaller kinks can be ironed out, Sable will be an exploration that shouldn’t be missed.

Sable launches on September 23 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One/Series S/X. A demo is available now on Xbox and Steam.

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