A big desert probably isn’t anyone’s idea of an open world setting.
Yet deserts have rarely looked as captivating as in Sable, the debut from a two-person developer who started the game from working out of a shed (hence the studio name Shedworks).
With an eye-catching aesthetic inspired by French comic illustrator Moebius and the open-world feel of Breath of the Wild but without the physics or combat, it’s an ambitious indie game that’s been on our radar for some time.
Now that it’s finally out on PC and Xbox (on Game Pass too!), is this a world you’re going to want to spend hundreds of hours exploring every nook and cranny of? The good news is that, while games in this genre can feel overwhelmingly daunting in scale, this can be a short adventure if you want it to be but can easily go for longer depending on your mood and how entranced you are by its chill atmosphere.
Come glide with me
Set on a planet that seems to have taken inspiration from Tatooine in Star Wars, Sable is a coming-of-age adventure where the titular character is about to leave her small knit isolated camp and venture out into the wider world to find out who she’ll become.
This ritual, known as the Gliding, makes you a bit of a dogsbody, as the world’s inhabitants you meet seem to be familiar with gliders and are all too happy to give you tasks to perform. It’s almost like a work experience aptitude test, as completing set tasks will earn you badges that give you an indication of the person you are - Do you like working with machines? Do you like collecting bugs? Do you enjoy climbing challenges? Getting three badges of one category will let you collect a mask representing one of your potential future paths in life.
That’s the general gist of Sable then, but it’s quite happy to let you take on any quests as you see fit, and once you’ve fulfilled the first few bits that lets you leave your home camp, in a similar fashion to leaving the Great Plateau in Breath of the Wild, the game essentially hands you the reins to go wherever your homemade hoverbike will take you.
It’s not the only comparison with Nintendo’s masterpiece, as this also features a similar climb-anywhere mechanic governed by a stamina meter, as well as being able to glide in the air, or rather float in a bubble, which fortunately doesn’t use any stamina. As a conflict-free game, it’s also generous with long drops so you don’t even have to use the bubble to break your fall, even if that’s what we still instinctively do when we see Sable plummeting from a few storeys.
Playing Sable is a minimalist experience, limited to some simple puzzles and platforming rather than having a sandbox of tools, while dialogue with characters also occasionally present you with choices, which are more to express your own personality rather than any hard narrative choices, although we do get wrapped up in one quest involving a bit of detective work that you can easily blunder.
The bigger impact the game has on you is more its atmosphere brilliantly evoked by its comic book visuals, which is still rare in open world games that favour gritty photorealism. Even the likes of Breath of the Wild and Genshin Impact don’t commit to the cel-shading aesthetic quite as faithfully here, which extends to its environments, so that a whole screenshot really does look like it could have come from a surreal cartoon. That the colours also change according to the time of day is another terrific touch, while you’re left with just outlines when you venture into somewhere pitch black.
That dreamy vibe is also bolstered by a fantastic soundtrack from dreamy indie band Japanese Breakfast, with a hypnotic title song that plays just as Sable first ventures out into the wider world, almost echoing Red Dead Redemption’s iconic moment when you first cross the border to Mexico.
It’s just a shame that you’re occasionally rudely awakened by some annoying bugs, one which messed up the environments’ lighting whenever we moved the camera at a different angle, while there’s also notable frame stuttering while riding your hoverbike. Considering it’s supposed to be gliding, it’s a bumpier ride than you might expect and doesn’t take well to steep terrain, and while you can call it over to you anytime similarly to whistling for your horse in The Witcher 3, we found it often wouldn’t heed our call or get stuck in the scenery somewhere.
The desert is your oyster
Performance issues or bugs are probably understandable from such a small team, some which have already been acknowledged at the time of writing and will hopefully be resolved with a launch day patch. But while we encountered one bug that made us unable to interact with a person or object until we restarted, the game also seems to have some awkward waypointing in general.
A system where you can place your own markers on the map feels inaccurate and limited, which we ultimately made little use of since most landmarks are fortunately distinct enough amid the barren environments. Quests that do have waypoints are also unreliable, such as not giving any indication of whether you’re supposed to go high or low, while another pointed us in the direction of a character who doesn’t even appear until we’ve completed another quest.
What you’ll find is that, after a point, some quests won’t even provide a waypoint, just a vague clue or direction to head towards. By then, you’ll probably come to the conclusion that you should just ignore the quests, map, and compass, and just go your own way. Sable is ultimately at its best when you just take the exploration into your own hands, spotting a structure housing secrets of some long-forgotten civilisation or the remnants of a crashed ship from an unknown planet, some which will yield their own questlines, which again, you can take or leave at your fancy.
Our time with Sable incidentally did leave a number of quests trailing off, although a few, such as collecting a lot of eggs from cute creatures called Chums that can upgrade your stamina, are clearly meant to last the whole duration of the game. You’ll likely have only just scratched the surface of its mysteries by the time you’re given the option to return home to finish the ceremony. Whatever you decide to do, you feel that the game is respectful of both your time and your choices.
As a minimalist open world adventure, Sable isn’t quite the desert alternative to Breath of the Wild, and its pared down mechanics and free-form structure means you’ll sometimes feel like you’re drifting aimlessly with a lack of things to do in the moment-to-moment.
For those who do take to its freewheeling exploration however, you’ll find an often chill and beautiful game with secrets just quietly bubbling beneath the surface, one which will reward those who wish to keep digging deeper but which feels like a pleasant journey even if you’re just passing through.