The key part of any video game is in the gameplay; nothing more, nothing less. If you don’t get that right, then it doesn’t matter how clever the rest of the work that you’ve done is. It simply won’t be a hit, and therein lies the problem of Fable Heroes.
Those looking for a stop gap until Fable: The Journey hits the shelves later this year will have been pleased to see a spin off game from Lionhead turn up in the big push on the Xbox Live Arcade platform known as Arcade Next. The idea of the initiate is to show a step up in the games that you can digitally download in exchange for your digital Microsoft Points and, yes, of this Fable Heroes is an excellent example.
Not aimed at the hardcore gamer
A party game spin off from the hit Peter Molyneux series, Fable Heroes is a Gauntlet-inspired, 4-player, cartoon-style hack and slash through the well-known and well loved world of Albion in which the main game is set.
Rather than realistic interpretations of the characters and the environment, Fable Heroes has an entirely stylised look both to underline the more “surface fun” experience that it’s supposed to bring, as well as to differentiate it from the big budget part of the franchise. To that effect, it looks more like a Mario Party version of Fable, with each of the heroes that you get to play as depicted as little wooden puppets. Complete with oversized heads and little stumpy limbs, there’s Reaver with his pistol, Garth with fireballs, the Hero of the series with his sword and Hammer with her, er, hammer. The balance of how they play is very similar to that of Gauntlet, with them probably best representing Questor, Merlin, Thyra and Thor in that order.
Choose whichever you’d like to play as - with more puppets to unlock as the game goes on - and either hook up with your buddies online to make up the foursome, get some random matchmaking or just play on your own with computer AI controlling the other three heroes.
It’s then all about whacking your way through some lovely representations of the different parts of Albion including - Mistpeak, Bowerstone, Aurora and even the end credits sequence - while hoards of Hobbes and Hollowmen do their best to stop you, and every time you “off” one of them, you get coins to collect of varying and seemingly random different sizes and therefore values. Ultimately, it’s important to collect as many of them personally as you can because not only does the player with the highest win the level, but also because you then get to spend the money levelling-up your character through a board game system in what is probably the most enjoyable part of the game.
There’s end of level bosses, some very amusing mini-games - largely involving chickens - an alternative dark version of the entire game to unlock, good and evil chests to open and more Fable jokes and references than you can shake a joystick at. The whole thing is both rendered and handled beautifully, it has superb music and production values and it’s an experience guaranteed to tickle. In fact, it’s nigh on perfectly made.
There’s a but...
Are you ready for the but? It’s quite simply that the gameplay itself is just not that compelling. The only compulsion is to level up one’s puppets and unlock more of their abilities, but once you clue into that fact, you do rather wonder why you’re spending the 10 minutes per level of semi-druggery for the 30 seconds of pay-off at the end. Add in the realisation that it won’t take too long to max each puppet out and it rather takes the shine off the whole experience. And that’s a terrible shame because the rest of the game is so well put together.
What it seems that the gamepaly of Fable Heroes is supposed to rely on is the fun factor and it very nearly comes through. There is a lot of fun involved, but it just falls short of that critical amount required to make the game addictive in the way that it needs to be to make you want to play it above everything else in your collection. We admit that the majority of our review experience has been one-player, which was never enough on even with Gauntlet to make it a classic, but with the Fable Heroes not on official release at the time of writing, there just weren’t that many others available online.
All the same we did taste enough of the multiplay experience to sense that it wasn’t quite going to do the job. Yes, there’s a good scrabble for coins and, yes, there’s a decent balance of team and competition at the same time but there’s little sense of excitement that generates, and the only thing we can put it down to is the absence of Death.
Death was a character in Gauntlet that you could only kills with magic potions. If you didn’t have any, he’d simply chase you around the screen until he’d corned one of you and sapped a huge bulk of your energy, while at the same time making a very loud and alarming noise. He caused panic and, at the same time, hilarity. Now, it’s not that you need to have Death, per se, in Fable Heroes to make it work, but you do need a third emotion at play as well as togetherness and competition.
You also need panic, or something like it. And every now and then, you need something in the game to be the cat amongst your pigeons, and that never happens. The result of that is that it’s all a bit flat.
Fable Heroes is a beautiful and inventive game dashed on the rocks of disappointment by a single but sadly most important shortcoming that any game come have. It’s just not quite as fun to play as it should be. It seems harsh just to give it a low score, because the the look and feel, the quirks, the design, the music, the graphics, the thought, the extra detail and everything else about it are all a four-star experience at the very least. But, if you’re not going to want to play it for very long, then it makes it very hard to recommend it as a paid download. All the same, it’s only 800 Microsoft Points and you’ll get a least a fiver’s worth of fun out of it.
Other than that, the only reason we can tell you to play Fable Heroes is because you’ll be able to transfer across some of your gold to Fable: The Journey when it comes out later in the year.