Once a year, the development team at Lionhead Studios take a break from their daily tasks to spitball new ideas and new ways of working on what they call a ‘Creative Day’. When the notion of a cute looking, cooperative, hack-and-slash adventure based on the Fable universe was pitched, the inner-child of every employee present must have wee’d a little in excitement. Consequently, Fable Heroes was born and with just over a year on since development began, we get to take a look to see if Lionhead’s vision of miniature Albion strikes gold, or if it’s one idea that should have been left on the drawing board.
Game: Fable Heroes
Developer: Lionhead Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Price: 800 Microsoft Points
This spin-off of the popular fantasy franchise sets itself in a more focused, cartoony clone of Fable’s expansive game world, Albion. All the major landmarks such as Bowerstone, Mistpeak and Aurora make an appearance, but are instead built into a board game format full of colourful toy characters and jovial audio design; imagine a classic Disney and Koji Kondo musical love child and you’d have a pretty good idea of what Fable Heroes sounds like. Each Albion location on the board marks a level that’ll whisk you away into a linear side scroller to hoard coins and smash up scenery – reminiscent of games such as LEGO Star Wars and its successors. The visual design itself does run the risk of alienating some players before they’ve even picked up the controller, by orienting its look more towards a younger crowd. However, it does pay homage to the Fable series quite well and remains a satisfyingly smooth experience for the most part, even in spite of the odd glitchy moments.
Fable Heroes is intended to be an online four player co-op game and its by far the preferable way to play it, even with local co-op and single player options available. Before diving into the level selection, each player chooses one of the four playable puppets to control on their adventure, with more choices becoming available once unlocked during the game. Some resemble familiar faces – albeit with a little more patchwork – from the Fable series such as Reaver, Garth and Hammer and all offer a slightly different fantasy-based style to play with including Swords, magic and muskets. It’s not just the heroes that are in keeping with the Fable lineage either; you’ll be smashing up Hobbes, Balverines, Hollow Men and other slightly distorted versions of infamous Fable villains as you progress.
Taking these nasties down is a pretty straightforward affair. Attacking comes in three different flavours: Normal attack, a stronger attack, plus an area attack that’s particularly useful but expends a life heart when deployed, so it’s best used in moderation. The fighting is largely acceptable until it becomes painfully obvious that this hack-and-slash is more hit-and-miss. Enemies inadvertently become tough at times, not because they’re actually difficult, but because of on-screen congestion and a fighting mechanic that seems based more on sheer luck than skill. Thankfully, the end of level bosses offer a more traditional challenge, forcing any flagrant coin hoarding to be put aside for the sake of teamwork. If you do die in the mayhem, a faux-death sets in that keeps you alive in combat, but takes away your ability to reap any coins until a heart is restored – certainly a cause for a serious bout of sad-face if your compadres seize the chance to rake in a few extra coins and gobble up any life hearts lying around before you do.
Playing nice is certainly the less attractive of the two gameplay styles, as there’s plenty of reason to be greedy in Fable Heroes. Forget the cuddly atmosphere, cooperative play is an illusion shrouding a deeper, more sinister, survival of the fittest mantra where glittery gold coins rule over everything. They’re ultimately important because at the end of each level, all the coins are tallied up and you’re presented with a podium that celebrates the player with the most, whilst the 4th place gets berated by the ‘wa wa wa waaaaa’ of a muted trumpet. Once everyone’s had a good laugh at the loser, it’s off to another mini-game that acts as a leveling hub to spend all those hard-fought coins, throwing an interesting RPG element into the mix.
In this leveling mini-game, depending on how many coins you’ve managed to accumulate during the level, you’re granted a certain number of dice rolls which allow you to move around a smaller game board. Each square holds 3 abilities that can be purchased to grant bonuses like movement or attack speed boosters, whilst others simply allow buffs relating to particular enemies. If you manage to get them all there’s some inner squares that offer more bonuses, although landing on the right squares to do so is obviously based on the luck of the dice. This means that with one or two abilities left to upgrade, the whole process becomes slightly tiresome and repetitive.
Fable has become synonymous with the use of good/evil choices and there’s still plenty of similar undertones to be found that add some interesting elements to the game. Asides from the normal power up chests that contain buffs that can supersize your puppet, make it tiny or speed it up, you’ll occasionally come across a special set of chests – one good, one evil – that grant positive or negative effects respectively towards a randomly selected player. These effects can range from coins spurting out over a player’s head, to a black cloud that causes a comical game of ‘zap-tag’ to ensue with the player who carries the black cloud dropping portions of their hard earned coins in the process.
It’s these little interesting diversions that give light to what was really trying to be achieved with Fable Heroes. The sporadic batches of fun that arrive out of nowhere bring the game and its quirky competitive nature to life. For example, you’ll find mid-level breaks that have you beating up on a giant mushroom just for the hell of it; mini games that see you booting explosive pumpkins at each other or even button mashing to race down rapids in boats. When factored in with the mad scramble for coins that occurs throughout, these random moments are the catalyst for some of the best times you’ll have in-game, especially in human parties. In fact, most of the joyous glee the game embodies, derives mainly from time you’ll spend winding each other up.
Fable Heroes manages to drag out a good amount of playtime despite a relatively small amount of content. On your first run through alone you’ll be playing the same levels over, as each level has split paths which open up new levels on the game board to play. Then once you’ve played through the credits, a new ‘Dark Albion’ is unlocked offering the same levels yet again with new twists on visuals and enemies. Some of the more interesting ideas come in the form of a community level that unlocks once everyone as a collective has reached a certain amount of coins, and a tie in with Fable: The Journey, that’ll allow you to transfer coins over when it’s released.
If the Fable series at its best was a king-size feast, then Fable Heroes is a Happy Meal with a free toy; even for an arcade title, some will immediately be turned off by its niche packaging and lack of edible content. On top of that, it’s doubtful that any amount of cute patchwork effigies or contrived references will appease gamers that might have been expecting a more fleshed-out experience. What Fable Heroes does offer though, is a good degree of competitive fun, the odd moment of hilarity, and a game that celebrates the franchise in a way that’s suitable for all the family to enjoy. So if you’re looking for something that ticks all those boxes then Fable Heroes is undoubtedly worth the coin. For everyone else this fun-size Albion, despite being a solid blueprint, just isn’t the stuff great fantasies are made of.