Traditionally, Fable games have all been about choice. Do you save a town or destroy it? Do you protect your family or your dog? (Obviously your dog!) Do you look after the masses or your money? So it comes as bit of a surprise that here, with Fable heroes we have a game set in the Fable universe that is of slightly simpler fare.
Fable Heroes was devised during one of Lionhead’s annual creative days, which in fine Lionhead tradition lasted 48hrs, by a small group of employees who thought that if they took the basics principals of an old school brawler like Gauntlet and (using the same needle and thread that sewed the hems of LBP’s Sackboy) stitched them onto Fable’s home in Albion, they would have created and enjoyable stop gap between Fable 3 and the forthcoming Fable: The Journey.
When you load up Fable Heroes for the first time, you are given a choice between one of four different puppets based on characters from the main games. Each of these puppets has different attacks, be they close quarters or distance, but you are given no indication of this when you start up…so it’s all kind of pot luck to begin with. From here you quickly warp over to the table top world map so you can begin your Fable adventure. The world is split up in to a number of different parts of Albion, where you wander from left to right hacking, slashing, shooting and…magic-ing? your way through hordes of foes all trying to stop you stealing their precious gold. And it’s the gold that is the key to succeeding in Fable Heroes. Collecting gold means that when you get to the post level board game, you have access to more and better upgrades.
So in the general scheme of things, Fable is a relatively simple throwback of a game; think Castle Crashers’ younger brother and you have a rough idea. Unfortunately though, it doesn’t quite live up to the high standards of its predecessors. The basic combat can become very repetitive, needing you to just hang back and hammer the x button until things fall down. You can mix this up with a charge attack, but generally you can get a better return just using your basic attack. Additionally, you can use a stronger area of effect attack, but this will also take down a chunk of your health so should be used wisely. Early on you’ll be hammering X more than any other button, as you progress, however, and purchase more upgrades the AOE attack will become your best friend, taking out any Hobbes daring to get too close.
Ultimately, the entire previous paragraph can be boiled down too “Hammer X, move right…repeat.”
Thankfully then, the worlds in which you are battling are much more interesting. Each world takes a direct influence from different parts of Albion, with levels set in areas as diverse as Bowerstone, Aurora and Mistpeak. The key here is that all the different levels have such a different aesthetic, meaning you should never get bored by where the fights are taking place. Add to that an excellent variety of enemies, each in turn coming with a number of sub-varieties, and Lionhead have done as best they can to take a basic premise and make it interesting.
Around the actual fighting, you are tasked with collecting as much gold as you can, and it’s this currency that allows you to improve your characters in game. At the end of each level you total gold is totted up, and depending on how well you do, you’ll be allocated a number of dice rolls for the upgrade board game that follows. When on the board, your little puppet moves from space to space and wherever he lands determines the upgrades available to him. Upgrades can be race specific, giving you 100% extra damages against Hollow men for example, or a more rounded boost to your overall attack or maximum multiplier.
This means that the way upgrades are handled is as close to random as it could be. Often you will land on tiles that you have already purchased, making that roll a waste of time. However Lionhead seem to have noticed this, as on my play through when I started maxing out my various options, any time I landed on a square that would move me onto another random square or offer me a random upgrade it almost always moved me to a place a needed to be. Now this may have been luck, but if it was done intentionally, it’s a nice little touch that makes the upgrade process a lot less frustrating.
My major gripe with the game however is the camera, as we weave our way through Albion; there are plenty of times when the screen can get very busy. With four heroes on-screen and any number of enemies, it can often be incredibly difficult to see where you are and where you’re pointing, meaning the game can quickly become a crap shoot as you aim wildly in to the distance hoping you hit something. The game really comes into its own in the multiplayer mode, but this is also where the camera can show its worst side. If your brave band of heroes should dare separate from each other, it’s all too common for players to get trapped at the boundary of the screen and simply not be able to escape, meaning the entire rest of your squad has to wander back to free them. That means wasted time, loss of multiplier and worse than anything…player frustration.
As stated earlier, player choice is a common thread throughout the Fable series. Fable Heroes is no different, but to a much smaller scale. Dotted throughout the level are power up chests, each giving the player temporary upgrades such as bonus cash, slowing time, or speeding you up. Used more sparingly however, are chests that allow you to choose whether to be naughty or nice. The nice option is pretty much the same as the normal power-up chests, but instead of whoever opens it automatically getting the prize, it’s sent out to a random player. The naughty box is the exact opposite of that. A random player gets hurt in someway, be it in health or by taking cash straight from their pocket. It’s a token gesture and comes across as such, the impact on gameplay is minimal at best, and for the most part when I was playing we totally ignored them instead choosing the more friendly option.
At the end of the level you are also given the option of which final set piece to encounter. Go left or Right, on one side is a boss battle and on the other side a mini-game that may see you kicking chickens or racing down a hill on a sled. The boss battles start out as a war of attrition, with your early stats meaning you do relatively little damage just slowly wearing them down until they start spewing coins. Thankfully as your character improves, these become much easier….and more importantly quicker.
Finally, when you have completed all the opening worlds, a new set of levels open up. By pressing the right trigger on the menu you gain access to the Dark World. The same set of levels, but given a twist. Dark becomes light; deserts become lush green landscape and enemies….well they just become odd. And the whole thing just becomes a fair bit harder.
So Fable Heroes has a very simple concept behind it, run to the left and hit things, on the surface it’s a very basic game and that can be taken to be a massive negative against it. When sitting in front of the TV by yourself you would be forgiven for making your way through its relatively short first run, then heading straight back to the Xbox’s dash and looking for something a little more meaty. But in doing this you would be missing the point of the entire game. Fable Heroes is meant to be played with people. Get a few people around you, all battling for any gold that springs forth or health giving hearts that pop out of corpses and the game is transformed into a thoroughly enjoyable brawler. Mix in the fact that there is a mode where – in typical Fable fashion – you’re encouraged to kick chickens and, when surrounded by friends, you have a game that quickly becomes more than the sum of its parts.
Not long before this game was released Microsoft updated its achievements policy for the XBLA allowing developers to give each game 30 achievements worth 400 gamerscore. This game, as it turns out, is a pretty damn good advert for why this was such a wise choice.
Whether you agree with it or not, achievements are a driving force for many people’s gaming experience. If they are seen as being easy or at least interesting, it can push a player to give more time to a game they would other wise have given up on a long time before. XBLA games have often struggled to gain the benefit of this as the limit of only 12 (then recently 20) achievements meant that there was a relatively limited scope that the Dev could use to point out the fun, interesting or hidden aspects that their game may hold. Fable Heroes, taking full advantage of the newest cap, throws in a number of unlocks that would simply not be available with the old system, adding achievements that encourage you to play new levels in different ways and showing off some of its hidden modes (Big head mode may not be that original, but damn it, every game should have it!!), that otherwise might remain tucked away in menus. Doing things this way makes for the absolute best use of achievements, its makes you want to play the game more.