Sable is a gorgeously mellow game. Set on a desert planet, it’s a coming-of-age tale that will have you trekking across a sandy expanse, the muted, minimalist art style shifting in colour and tone as day turns to night and back again.
The limited-time demo available on Xbox and Steam this week gives us the opening moments from the game, as Sable (our titular protagonist) prepares for her coming of age Gliding. It’s a journey that will see her head out from her small Ibex tribe to explore the world beyond, find her future purpose in life, and to commune with Rohana and the Perpetual.
Before she can leave on this adventure, she has some final tasks to complete through the game’s tutorial-like hub. It feels almost guided here, in a manner not too dissimilar to the open hour of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Sable has to talk to a handful of the inhabitants of her tribe’s little settlement, each giving her a task to complete.
Speaking to Hilal has you heading off to a temple with a Gliding stone in hand, charging it up with some kind of ethereal energy that allows you to leap from ledges and glide gracefully across the expanse in a bright energy bubble. This allows you to bridge some of the platforming challenges through the open world environment, alongside stamina-based traversal. Fortunately there’s no fall damage to worry about. You also have to get your hoverbike, which Sable is particularly excited about, but the scattershot fellow who was meant to construct it for you first claims you have to complete a “tutorial” using their Sandskipper… Did they forget to build it, you wonder?
It turns out that yes, they did; but no matter, you can use the Sandskipper to get around, leaving a billowing cloud of dust behind you as you head to nearby spaceship wrecks to scavenge the parts you need. Three parts, to be exact. It’s rather formulaic at this point, but such is the nature of a game’s opening — especially games that want to invite as many people as possible in to experience them.
What stands out, however, is the charm of this world. Speaking to the Ibexii doesn’t just give you a simple back and forth of dialogue, it shows what’s running through Sable’s mind, how she acts and what she reads from the the other person’s body language. Although everyone here wears a mask, the text delivered without voice acting, the writing imbues them with character.
There’s a soulfulness to Hilal, as they wistfully talk about his own Gliding, the experience of the wilderness and how its influence fades over time and age. Then there’s Jadi, a matriarchal figure that teases Sable just enough to encourage her to set out for herself. Sable herself has a youthful exuberance. She’s certainly most excited to be getting her own hoverbike — the disappointment of having to build her own tempered by the guiding words of Sizo, the tribe’s assigned Machinist — but there’s also the apprehension of the journey that lies before her.
This is a journey that promises to be much more freeform. You might acquire quests from other characters you encounter, but exploring the world should be drawn from your own desires. There’s a compass that you can use to guide yourself to waypoints, but even in this opening area, you’re given more vague instructions and shown where to go visually, leaving you to piece together how to get where you need, or mark a location for yourself.
As I clean up the remaining handful of tutorial quests in and around the camp, collecting the parts to build Sable’s Glider, the end of the demo leaves me very much wanting more, not least because I need to hear more of the beautiful and haunting soundtrack by Japanese Breakfast.
With just a few months until the game’s September release, there are a few areas that certainly need polishing. One quest to catch beetles had me stumped when I was supposed to be looking for the seeds that could distract them — it turns out that they’re the size of coconuts and up on tree-like things in their nest area. There’s also collision and animation detection that needs to be smoothed out, as I got stuck in a spaceship computer console and had to start over at one point. Sable’s predilection for rock humping while climbing also suggests a very different story.
Don’t let those moments put you off, though. This is a journey that’s well worth taking. The hundreds of game demos going live this week alongside Sable are all work-in-progress snapshots of a game in flux, and all are bound to be more refined come release — in Sable’s case, on 23rd September for Xbox and PC.