Ever since the first game's release and success, the Fable franchise has tried to do something different with tie-ins to its main property. Prior to the release of Fable II, for example, fans could get Fable II: Pub Games on XBLA to play some side games to build up a cache of gold in preparation for the main game. Likewise, Windows Phone 7 got an app called Fable Coin Golf that let you play minigolf courses to earn some nice starting gold in Fable III. With Fable: The Journey coming later this year, Lionhead Studios decided once again to release a tie-in game that adds more depth to the side game while still retaining the gold transfer capability. The result is Fable Heroes, a multiplayer title that is fun, if a little shallow.
Like the franchise's other side games, there's no story. You simply play as one of the many heroes in the Fable universe, albeit in doll form, roaming around the various lands of Albion and defeating monsters along the way. You won't be doing so alone, as you are accompanied by three other heroes. While the main goal is to wipe out enemy hordes, the equally important side goal is to collect as much gold as possible in each land and save it for your future Fable: The Journey profile or use it to invest in your character to increase your chances of earning more gold later.
The combat mechanics are rather basic for a beat-'em-up. Every character has a light attack and heavy attack, though your choice of character determines if you're playing with a strictly melee or projectile-based fighter. Each character can also perform a defensive roll and unleash his/her strongest attack at the cost of one heart. Unlike the main game, there are no magic spells to learn, and you can't switch weapons. You can augment your skills with temporary power-ups by opening up treasure chests. Those power-ups include the ability to shrink or become giant, disguise as the enemy, or produce a shower of coins for a limited time.
There are a few changes to the beat-'em-up formula that make the game's focus more casual than expected. Gold can be earned by picking up the coins in the level. Executing successful enemy attacks without getting hit increases your multiplier, which increases the value of the coins you pick up. However, gold can also be earned when you hit an enemy, rewarding those who choose to play aggressively. Then there's the way the game handles death. Dying doesn't make you useless to the team, as your ethereal form still performs attacks and inflicts damage. You can even return to life if pick up a heart icon in your spirit form. However, you lose the ability to pick up gold for your character, and power-ups can no longer be obtained. It is a fair trade-off, but it also makes it less frustrating for players who don't do well in this genre, so they can still contribute and have fun.
For the most part, the levels play out as expected. You go from one part of the level to another, breaking objects for coins while stopping in enclosed areas to get rid of an enemy threat that spawns for a short while. You take a break every so often to destroy a large object for more gold before moving on to fight more enemies. Once you get toward the end of a level, you are at a fork in the road and must make a choice. One route leads to a boss fight while another gives you a chance to be competitive in a few minigames, which are usually some variation of survival or a race. No matter which you choose, beating the boss or finishing the competition counts as finishing the level.
The forking does do a good job of lengthening the game, as you'll always need to play each one twice to open up both ending paths on the world map. The game length is extended when you open up a darker version of Albion later and have to play levels twice in order to unlock both ending paths in that dimension. However, the game is still fairly short, lasting in the single-digit number of hours if you want to accomplish everything with the exception of fully powering up and unlocking all game characters.
Like most modern games, there is a leveling system, but players may be befuddled by the developer's approach. At the end of each level, you're ranked according to how much gold you've earned. Depending on the amount and the level, you're given various amounts of dice before being taken to a small board. Throwing the dice determines how far along the board you'll move, and that decides your character's power-up. Each tile covers various categories, such as attack power, attack range, amount of damage dealt on certain enemy types, and speed. Cosmetic things, like sword trail color and even extra characters, are also unlocked via this method. Each tile gives you three items to choose from, with a total of 49 different things to upgrade on your character. While the approach is novel at first, it can be frustrating that you can't directly choose your upgrade when your options begin to dwindle. The only real consolation is the fact that you can also upgrade your companions, reducing the grind needed to assemble a fully upgraded army of characters.
For a game that seems so focused on multiplayer, playing solo isn't as bad as one would think. Your AI companions do a good job of handling the enemy mobs and can wipe out almost all of the enemies in an area if left to their own devices. They're also fairly conscious of active human players, refusing to pick up any fallen gold unless no other player makes an attempt to grab it first, and they do a good job of picking up health so they don't die right away. The only thing that seems wrong is that they never decide to move unless you're further ahead than they are. They sometimes wait until they're off-screen before deciding to move forward, so players might think the AI is pretty dim-witted. The game is infinitely more fun when played with human players. While local offline play is always fun, online play and performance couldn't be determined during the time of the review since no other online games were found.
There are a few things that will bother some players about Fable Heroes. Unless you turn up the game's difficulty, the enemies are pretty brainless. You might be hit a few times, but you can wipe out the hordes with minimal effort. Even though the bosses differ in looks, they have the same attack patterns. The timing may be different, but each stands still to absorb hits, send projectiles, do a ground stomp, and send out minions before repeating the pattern again. This can be disappointing for those who want some sort of challenge. The level layout never changes, so there are no surprises in a new stage. Finally, while it is nice to have a bonus section for staff photos, it's disappointing that they're only viewable in a small window and can't be zoomed.
The sound matches the casual fare of the game. The music is light and fanciful in every environment of the regular world while Dark Albion's environments produce more adventurous tones. The effects match what you'd expect when it comes to hits and sword swings, but more booming stuff, such as gunshots, are replaced with lighthearted sounds like pop caps. Voices are restricted to the recap screen at the end of a level, and even then, you'll only hear shouts of happiness or sadness. Those expecting dialogue will find none of that here.
Likewise, the graphics evoke a sense of whimsy even in the darkest of environments. The cel-shaded nature of the game gives the title a cartoon feel while the palette shows off plenty of gradients through the wildly different environments. Animations are done nicely, and the attack transitions are near flawless. More impressive is the use of particles, which are almost everywhere. Enemies always appear either through puffs of smoke or burrowed soil flying upward, and considering how many of them appear at a time, it's impressive that it doesn't affect frame rate performance. The same goes for blankets of snow on the mountain tops and embers from a burning city; their sheer number is immersive and breathes life into the game world.
Fable Heroes plays to simplicity and chance. The limited move set makes it easy for anyone to pick up and play, and the reliance on good dice rolls to get upgrades makes the process both exciting and frustrating. The game's predictable patterns can be annoying, but it somehow never feels like it drags on, even though you have to play the levels multiple times to unlock everything. In the end, Fable Heroes is just a way to earn bonuses for Fable: The Journey, which comes out later this year, but at least they've made it more involving and fun. Those who love beat-'em-ups will get some fun out of Fables Heroes as long as they don't expect something overly complicated.