Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Fable games tend to be foreshadowed by a downloadable precursor; a cheap and cheerful tie-in that allows players to amass a stock of transferable gold before the main event hits the shelves. Fable II had Pub Games, the drab and lacklustre collection of aggressively dull minigames that was only marginally more interesting than a screensaver. Next came Fable Coin Golf, an infinitely superior mobile proposition, but one that went largely unnoticed since it released exclusively on Windows Phone 7. With Fable: The Journey nearing the end of its voyage, we now have Fable Heroes, an uncomplicated brawler that lets players assemble a team of adorable familiar puppets and visit classic series locales, earning gold to both persistently upgrade characters and eventually transfer over into Lionhead's upcoming Kinect exclusive.
This, of course, neatly wraps up the second biggest question surrounding Fable Heroes: who is it for? When Microsoft first announced (and accidentally leaked) this colourful brawler, we were slightly at a loss to explain the target market. The cutesy art style and pared-back combat seemed too simplistic for series fans, yet its reliance on Fable lore and characters seemed to act as a barrier to entry for youngsters or new players. Now that transferable gold is on the table, it's clear that Fable Heroes is being pitched directly at the existing fanbase without containing the depth they crave from the franchise - which raises the most important question of the lot.
Is Fable Heroes fun?
Yes. While Fable Heroes may be dead simple and sickeningly cute, it's also an intensely enjoyable cooperative romp with a nifty persistent hook.
As a simplified third person brawler, players take charge of a puppet based on a "beloved" Fable character (such as Reaver, Hammer, Garth and a host of others who you'll meet throughout your travels) and embark on a small selection of 15-minute long levels. Classic locales such as Bowerstone and Millfields have been converted into linear corridors in which you'll be assaulted with numerous familiar monsters including Hollow Men, Balverines and Hobbes. Press X to light attack. Y for a heavy flourish. And B to roll. Ranged characters use spells and guns while melee bruisers wield swords, hammers or scythes, but the action is incredibly shallow in the main. Thankfully a gentle sense of humour, numerous surprises, gorgeous visuals and a Rare-esque orchestral soundtrack keeps the action light and frothy, keeping a smile on your face as you smash and roll like there's no tomorrow. So long as you're willing to have fun, you'll find it here in spades.
Indeed, Fable Heroes has more in common with Traveller's Tales' LEGO games than any technical brawler. It's an irreverent, amusing cooperative romp hinging around the acquisition of gold (or studs) to unlock new content, and competing with players for the highest totals possible. For example, levels split into two parts towards the end, allowing players to either fight a boss or battle each other in a button-mashing minigame, such as dodging exploding chickens or white water rafting. Every once in a while, you'll be presented with an enormous destructible scenery object that haemorrhages coins when hit, causing a frenzy of collection as players race to beat their fellows to the biggest piles. Powerups add helpful or bizarre effects to characters (such as causing them to grow massively in size or releasing a pointless swathe of red balloons), with certain chests presenting the first player to reach it with an interesting good vs evil dynamic. Will you help out your team with a random powerup? Or curse them with something that will probably increase your short-term coin grabbing potential? It's an brilliantly enjoyable blend between cooperation and competition, and due to the 15-minute long levels, provides a perfect choice for killing short periods of downtime.
Once you've collected your coins, completed your minigames/boss battle and beheld the podium (the loser being played off by an embarrassing horn stinger), you'll be whisked across to a board game, which serves as the character upgrade hub. Rolling dice will advance your character onto a selection of permanent powerups that can be bought with your cumulative gold tally, including everything from damage upgrades, cosmetic touches and defence. This constant and palpable feeling of improvement is intoxicating, especially for Fable fans.
This setup provides some annoyingly compelling, albeit somewhat sterile singleplayer gameplay. Creating a continually-improving team of Fable series favourites is intensely satisfying, despite the experience essentially boiling down to massive, massive grind. The minigames don't make sense when your entire team is controlled by AI, and neither does the option to betray what is essentially an extension of yourself with the binary chests. Basically, the main purpose of the solo campaign is to act as a way to level up your characters for multiplayer, which is where the experience comes to life.
When played with other people, the minigames stop being chores and become tense, rewarding and frequently humiliating beatdowns. Gold tallies matter, and betrayals become personal. What can be a mindless and repetitive experience becomes riotously good fun with friends, especially when sat on the same sofa and in range of real-world retribution. Though playing with anonymous silent strangers can defeat the object, finding some likeminded fellow adventurers packing headsets can lead to a few minutes turning into several hours, as 'just one more level' syndrome kicks in with full force.
Sadly, a few problems stop Fable Heroes from becoming an essential multiplayer purchase. The camera is frequently caught short, especially in online multiplayer where it aggravatingly tracks the host rather than individual players. Environments quickly become extremely busy, and it's all too easy to lose sight of your character in pitched battles. I'm not quite sure why player models aren't surrounded by a coloured circle denoting their position, and as a pro tip, I'd recommend switching player icons to 'always on' in the options menu to avoid some serious confusion. Bizarrely, gold multipliers can also be bought in the character upgrade board game, which can massively unbalance the multiplayer leaderboards.
And, damningly, there are only 14 levels, each of which takes approximately 15 minutes to complete. If you do the math, you'll end up with a seriously short game, though it's primarily built for short, replayable sessions. I'd personally have liked the levels to feature a greater degree of randomisation to make up for their brevity.
Some players will also moan about the Fable world not being portrayed to any degree of depth and nuance, but personally, we're not convinced that the world of Albion is imaginative or rich enough to support the three Fable RPGs, let alone a spin-off. Lionhead has finally decided to play to Albion's only strengths - colour and humour - and the simplified approach works well enough. It's fun. With friends. And that's all Fable Heroes really needs to be.
- Simple, honest, brawling fun - especially with friends
- Charming, adorable visuals and upbeat musical score
- Compelling persistent character upgrades (both solo and multiplayer)
- Extremely short, if eminently replayable
- Camera gripes and balance issues
- Simplified and shallow approach might enrage series fans
The Short Version: Fable Heroes isn't big, and it certainly isn't clever. But this adorable brawler will delight if you approach it with an open mind and three friends along for the ride.