Creative Day is an annual holiday of sorts at Lionhead Studios. On this day they encourage their employees to present new game concepts. During a recent Creative Day, Tim Timmins (a scripter on the first three Fable games) presented a concept that combined the four player hack and slash gameplay of Gauntlet with the competitive minigames of Mario Party and the handmade puppet-esque visuals of LittleBigPlanet, all set in the Fable universe. What resulted was the XBLA title Fable Heroes.
Fable Babies! They make your dreams come true.
You're placed in control of “puppets” that are versions of important characters from the Fable universe. You start with protagonists like the sword-wielding Hero, the heroine of strength - Hammer (guess what she uses), the hero of skill - Reaver, and the hero of will - Garth. Over the course of the game you unlock more (twelve in all), which includes some of the main villains from the franchise.
There isn’t really a plot to the title. You and up to three other players (drop-in/drop-out local or online) will journey through familiar environments fighting toy versions of familiar enemies like Hollow Men in Bowerstone or Balverines in Mistpeak. It's a bit like playing through an abridged version of the Fable trilogy as done through a puppet show. The visual style supports this with environments that look like they were built out of cardboard, wood, and fabric, with a few filters in place to resemble cel shading. The music is enjoyable, if trying a touch too hard to be charming. It's all nice enough, but it misses that eye-for-detail that other cartoony action games simply do better.
You can change your puppet's expression through the five stages of grief though.
The game plays out like a standard action dungeon crawler. Each character has a quick attack and a slower but more powerful ‘flourish’ attack. There is also an area attack that is great for clearing out crowds, but is balanced by costing you one of your five hearts of health to use. Characters cannot jump, but they can evade enemies by rolling. Different puppets do play differently, with the Hero being limited to up-close combat, while Reaver can only attack at range. You'll later unlock characters that can do both, which is nice, it's just a shame that the Hero isn’t one of them.
The key to success is in effectively getting gold. Attacking enemies (and various barrels) will reward you with coins and defeated enemies explode into more coins. Coins disappear in a matter of seconds, so combat becomes a balancing act of fighting monsters and retreating to collect the spoils before they vanish. Coins do have this nasty tendency to fall on the other side of the game’s invisible walls, which bothers the collectaholic gamer in me. This is mostly due to how gold is used to upgrade your puppet (more on that in a bit), so collecting as much as you can is very important.
Games like this sometimes have a problem with one player who doesn’t help slay the monsters but instead runs around collecting everything. There is a multiplier system to help with this. The more damage you do, the more your multiplier meter fills. The higher this goes, the more gold you gain from the coins you get. If you want the big bucks, you’d better fight. But be careful, as getting hurt drops your multiplier level down, and the penalty for losing all of your health is death (big shock, I know), which turns you into a ghost. As a ghost you can still attack but you can no longer collect any coins. A single heart is all it takes to be re-animated, but there is never enough of those to go around, especially in the final levels.
Hobbe smash puny puppets!
Along the path, you will also run across power-up chests you can open. These chests can be beneficial, giving you coins, health, or even performing magical spells like Slow Time. Remember what I said about those annoying teammates that run around collecting things? The chests are balanced to punish anybody who makes a beeline for every single chest and leaves his buddies behind. Occasionally you will get a negative effect, like being shrunk down or having to deal with Son of Chesty (the living treasure chest with bite). You will also come across Good/Evil chests as a nod to the series’ morality mechanic. A good chest will select one member of the team to give a beneficial power to, while the evil chest could start a game of Zap Tag. This puts a storm cloud over a character that begins destroying their coin total, however the cloud can be passed by touching another puppet. Personally, I just stuck with the good options… but I’ve always been more Jedi than Sith.
Unfortunately all is not rosy in “LittleBigAlbion”. The game requires four characters to play at all times, with the A.I. taking the reins of the extras. If Lionhead ever programs their own Skynet, we’ll never need fear the robot uprising. Sometimes they’ll get stuck somewhere and there are points in a level that requires all four players to continue, forcing you to go back and hope they’ll follow you this time. While I’m glad they are not programmed to grab all the coins and generally do all the work for me, they often feel like dead weight. The experience of playing with humans is, not surprisingly, much better, even if they are quite a bit greedier. I just wish I had the option to tackle the game with a lone puppet.
The main game has seven levels and it shouldn’t take you more than three hours to see The Credits. No, I didn’t capitalize that needlessly, that is the name of the final level. In it you play through all the areas in the game again (albeit shortened) with the creators’ names in the background that you can destroy for more coins. I had to laugh at the ridiculous amount of money Peter Molyneux’s name was ‘worth’. This is the only level with no fork-in-the-road choice; you will be facing off against a final boss. I won’t spoil it for you, but the boss is definitely appropriate for Fable fans. Don’t think that this 800 MS Point game is only three hours long, though. Getting through The Credits unlocks ‘Dark Albion’. In it, all of the levels have more enemies that are tougher but drop more coins in battle. The environments have some aesthetic changes as well, for example the snowy Mistpeak becomes a lava-covered wasteland (but humorously keeps the same cheerful music). This easily doubles the play time without feeling like padding.
Tour the chocolate factory or fight monsters in the sewer? Decisions, Decisions.
The other element of replayability is that every level has two endings. You'll play the first 75 percent of the level on a distinct path until you come to a fork in the road. Taking the choice to the left will have you facing off against a boss that will require your team to work together, while taking the other path will lead to a minigame that pits characters against each other. These minigames are simple but fun diversions that will definitely remind you of Mario Party. One such minigame has you racing in a minecart that speeds up only as long as you are hitting the correct button. Another is Chicken Bomb. that has players trapped in a pen with exploding chickens. The last player standing gets a large reward, so players must avoid the volatile poultry while attempting to kick them at their opponents. More complex variations of these diversions await you in Dark Albion. If you want to unlock the full board you will have to play each level four times (twice in normal and twice in Dark Albion).
It wouldn't be Fable without some good ol' chicken kickin'
Getting more gold is the only way you will unlock your puppets’ true potential. Unlike the series it was inspired by, you do not gain strength in your swordmanship simply by using your blade a lot. At the end of every level, you will be awarded rolls of the die based on how many coins you were able to pick up. You then use the die to move your puppets around an abilities board. There are different tiles on this board that relate to things like the speed of your character’s attacks, their strength, specific damage bonuses, and more. These upgrades (while beneficial) all cost money.
I appreciate the boardgame style approach to leveling, though it does make getting to those last few upgrades frustrating, as your movement is always random and limited. If you happen to land on a tile that you have already maxed out, it’s a wasted turn (too bad for you). Add to this the fact that each of the dozen characters has their own individual skill set and wallet. Luckily, there is a gold transfer that allows you to move gold from one puppet to another, though it is a little awkward to use. You can only access this board by finishing a level, so expect to grind for gold if you are looking to unlock all of the achievements. Many of the achievements actually unlock an “inner track” for your upgrade boardgame, which contains more powerful abilities for your puppets, so there is a purpose to them beyond just adding more to your digital score. There is also some connectivity with Fable: The Journey planned, whenever it comes out, with unlockable characters and the ability to transfer gold between them.
Character leveling meets a game of chance
Fable Heroes is a fine downloadable title with plenty of charm and plenty to do. It's an enjoyable blend of hack-n-slash meets party game, and Fable fans will smile when they see the puppet version of Albion. The big question, after the first ten hours of play, really becomes: 'how much do you really want to replay the same 14 levels to complete all of the upgrades and achievements?' The experience seems to have been too thinly spread by trying to please advanced players and casual players at the same time. If you have three friends over who want to play something light-hearted over the weekend, this will hit the spot. Just don’t expect an experience quite as epic as its big brother.
This review is based on an XBLA download of Fable Heroes for the Xbox 360, provided by the publisher.