I’ve been a staunch supporter of the Fable series over the years, and I’ve received an unfair amount of flak for it. For every person I’ve come across that enjoys the games, there’s three or four that just don’t get my love for Albion (What? I love British humo(u)r). It’s true that Peter Molyneux’s ambition for the franchise far exceeded his grasp, but I’ve always cut him some slack for it. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. While the games have been competent action / RPGs (I’m going to politely leave out the shitty gold-farming Pub Games), to this point they haven’t delivered on the promises made, and for that, a lot of gamers have given up on viewing them as anything more than chicken-kicking, multiple-partner-swapping affairs. So many families I’ve fathered…
Molyneux announced in March he’d be departing Lionhead, seemingly leaving the franchise to fall short of his lofty visions for it. There’s no doubt that Fable will continue to see many sequels in the console generations ahead, but for now we’re left to witness the bastardization of the Fable name by turning it into a more family-friendly, Jack-of-all-Blades… ahem, Jack-of-all-Genres arcade title that sheds some of its personality in the process. Fortunately, I can report that this isn’t the disaster it could have been.
The beetles invasion, Albion-style.
Primarily a hack-and-slash for the Everyone 10+ crowd, Fable Heroes (800 MSP) culls parts of Mario Party, Castle Crashers, and LittleBigPlanet (the characters are based on Fable lore, but they look like sackboys and play like a LBP character pack… also buttons… hmm…) and assimilates them into the Fable fold. It’s playable offline with the AI (and perfectly enjoyable that way, surprisingly), but the real draw here is four-player co-op with friends. Players pick from a familiar cast of puppets / classes, depending on their style of fighting; all of the franchise’s go-to attacks are represented— melee, ranged, and magic-casting. You’ll then use an overworld game board to move between unlocked areas.
Heroes has a really stylized cartoon look and feel. Health is represented via hearts, coinage can be milked from enemies, treasure chests, and the highly-breakable environments (Fable would like to thank Zelda and Mario, respectively, for their long-established ideas), and the game splashes titles, explanations, and results on everything, just like an episode of Fringe. Fable’s offbeat humor can be seen throughout. Series’ staples like character expressions and the good / evil choices are here, but relegated to supporting status.
Showcasing the likes of Bowerstone, Mistpeak, and Aurora, all the stages and areas in the game (a total of 8, plus separate options for minigames / bosses, with a nice ‘ending credits’ romp thrown in) will be familiar to fans of the series. Moving left to right doesn’t engender a lot of the exploration Fable is known for, and indeed most of the levels are blocked off by invisible barriers, but the artwork and enemy designs / encounters do make it feel sufficiently Fable-y. You’ll know it when you see it, I assure you. Each level ends with your choice of a boss battle or button-mashing minigame. Beating the initial run of stages unlocks a Dark Albion version for play. Outside of a different end boss, increased challenge, and a new visual filter, those levels grind out largely the same.
Hack-and-slashers tend to get old, and Heroes is no exception. What saves the game from that tedious fate in the interim, and gives replayability to the rather slim level selection, is the Mass Effect-like upgrade system that combines the capitalist dream of acquiring and subsequently spending money on items that won’t bring you lasting happiness, with compulsive gambling and the random chance of dice throws and a game board layout. Introduce it to your kids early, parents, as there’s certainly no escaping it. Throws of the dice are determined by your end score of coins in a level, and also found in some chests. With each throw, your character lands on a game piece, giving you the option to buy various upgrades to things such as speed, attacks (both general and enemy-specific), extra characters, and multipliers to your combos and gold pickups. Once you’ve secured all the upgrades for a specific character, you move on to the inner ring of the board, which grants single-level perks or challenges.
Outside of the aforementioned extra characters, and the drive to level them up, there’s not many thrilling extras to be had; there’s achievements to earn that unlock inner tiles on the upgrade board, options to accent the gameplay (think things like Big Head mode), and a gold-switching station to send funds between characters (helpful!), or to stockpile cash earned in Heroes for future Kinect title Fable: The Journey (these games sure like to push the ability to transfer gold between each other, don’t they?). The multiplayer is fun with friends in tow, if a little laggy. Hits sometimes don’t register, or take longer to show, and you seem to spend more time in loading screens when playing online. I had to return to the dashboard twice when I got stuck in an unfrozen but unending cycle of loading.
Wow, that’s incredibly sexist! Oh, you meant the treasure chest? Oh. Sorry. Ah, carry on then!
Bottom line, Fable Heroes probably won’t (and arguably can’t) do much to persuade perpetual haters to see a silver-lining in the series, even with this casual (well, more casual than it normally is) iteration. Its pick-up-and-play simplicity and emphasis on co-op will likely charm the kiddie crowd, which is of course the game’s goal, but older fans can just as soon find that same charm in revisiting series’ locations, or with the wealth of represented characters / villains and its manic coin-collecting upgrade system.
The end dish contains a ton of ingredients, so the taste is not for everyone, but the series’ core spices, fun and accessibility, are fully present and accounted for.
As usual, I don’t expect to see many on my friends list playing it, and I’ll count on a few quizzical messages, but ah, what the hell, I enjoyed it. What say you, cat?