The Fable franchise has, for all intents and purposes, seemingly become Microsoft Studios’ fantasy faire equivalent to the science-fiction shenanigans of Halo. This is a franchise upon which the publisher is banking, diversifying the gameplay styles associated and presenting new titles for every new platform, taking advantage of every new possibility. Games for Windows, Windows Phone 7, Kinect and even Xbox LIVE’s Games on Demand service have all championed (or are set to receive) their own release in the Fable series, along with both Xbox consoles of course. Having already received Fable: Pub Games, the Xbox LIVE Arcade now gets a second title as launching this week is Fable Heroes, a brand new expedition in the land of Albion.
Fable Heroes is as twee in its design as it is simplistic in its mechanics. A modern revision of the basic side-scrolling beat-‘em-up formula – and that’s ‘modern’ as in given a levelling-up system – Fable Heroes sees the players take on one of twelve characters featured in the three core Fable outings and journeys across the land slashing, shooting or casting spells to repel enemies. Up to four players can play simultaneously either on- or offline, which is a very good thing as Fable Heroes can feel somewhat soulless in single-player.
As a multiplayer experience, Fable Heroes takes the lessons taught by Too Human and learns from every single one of them. The player is directly responsible for the timing of each of their actions, instead of a prescribed animation series via a single button press, and the levelling-up system can be just as engaging as the action. As it is with some of the best level-up systems out there, it’s often the case that players will continue to play long past their intended time allotment just to gain an additional ability or strengthen an existing one. This is done simply by collecting coins within the action stages, either by defeating opponents, opening treasure chests or finding them hidden away and then spending them in a mini-game at the end of each lengthy stage.
Gold earned within the level (or your share of the collective tally when playing on the easiest difficulty setting, labelled ‘Family’) can be spent on new abilities or upgrades on the end-of-stage mini-game, which is a simplified board game. A roll of the dice will land you on a square offering either new attacks, increased stats or additional gold bonuses, amongst others. Each square has a limited amount of bonuses available which can be bought with the collected coins. Each character has their own abilities and upgrades, and as such players will find that all twelve must be upgraded individually.
The characters fall into one of a number of categories, such as close combat, mage or gunner, each with their own basic moves, special move and strike ability. Additional manoeuvres earned through levelling-up come atop these standard frameworks, allowing players a small amount of customisation with each, though of course the completionist will aim to unlock every further ability for all characters. Of all those available it could be argued that the range-based mage and gunner are at a disadvantage, as they strike from afar giving close combat players the opportunity to snatch the coins dropped from the enemies they defeat.
The most interesting aspect of Fable Heroes is arguably its death mechanic, or rather the lack thereof. Each player’s life is determined b y a series of hearts, and once depleted instead of being removed from play or simply respawning minus a penalty fee, players continue with the action as a ghost. While playing as a ghost you can still attack enemies and open chests, but you may not collect coins until you find a heart to bring you back to life. An interesting take on the death principle that chooses not to penalise your success so far but instead add a limitation to that point onwards, Fable Heroes makes its mark on the genre here, and other competitive/co-operative titles will surely follow suit.
Fable Heroes features a small selection of stages, each taking approximately ten to twenty minutes to play through. Each stage offers its own unique mini-game or boss fight, as well as the choice of two possible routes for the final third. Once the videogame has been completed once, players can replay each stage in a ‘Dark Albion’ mode, increasing the replay value significantly. Of course, the potential for downloadable content (DLC) is enormous: new levels, new abilities and characters, with the odds-on seeing one of Halo’s Spartans appearing in doll form at some point.
Fable Heroes is hardly a groundbreaking work from a technical point of view, but it does meet all the expected requirements for a franchise-led multiplayer adventure. The doll theme is delivered is abundance, with the stages designed as hand-crafted recreations of familiar Albion locales and the enemies presented with the same creativity witnessed in the core series. The soundtrack can quickly become annoying, relying far too heavily on the traditional ‘gamey’ formula of repetitive jingles, but the networking functionality is near-flawless.
As an argument for a digital future, Fable Heroes is well positioned. Arguably presenting just an entertaining an experience as the harshly judged Fairytale Fights, Fable Heroes is enjoyable as a no-brainer multiplayer action videogame. Beyond that there’s little to talk about; a shallow single-player title and a lack of innovation by all accounts. Fable Heroes may try to be the Xbox LIVE Arcade answer to New Super Mario Bros., but in reality it feels like an artificial modernisation of Streets of Rage. As a franchise piece Fable Heroes delivers what is expected of it, with connectivity to the forthcoming Fable: The Journey just as was the case with the previously released Fable: Pub Games and Fable: Coin Golf, and perfectly in-keeping with the established lore thus far, it’s sure to find an audience amongst Fable fans if nowhere else.