The Fable series is easily one of the most recognizable RPG titles of the modern gaming age. The fantastical stories come off as some of the most believable tales as of late, grounded more in reality of the era captured than most games in this field. It’s also known for being a pioneer in choosing your own moral path in video games. However, as part of the Xbox Live Next initiative of Spring, 2012, Lionhead Studios and Microsoft Game Studios present Fable Heroes, a side scrolling Hack ‘n Slash style release that brings together Castle Crashers and Mario Party clearly geared towards family and children. This effort brings together some of the best loved characters of the franchise (though often under simple names like Hero and Hammer), having them take out enemies along their quest to the credits in a board game style world and map that revists most imaginary childhoods in all of us.
In keeping with the family motif, the music here is often quite upbeat, and does take on a bit of a classical score to it, but one dumbed down for the simpler, less grand or epic game play experience. It perfectly suits the relatively “cute” nature of the character designs and settings, and never really gets old, boring, or all that repetitive. Of course, sometimes you may feel the urge to throw on some music of your own to offset the childish charm of this world, but when it’s over you won’t really try to fight unmuting the game and going back to the soundtrack. The only real gripe is that sometimes the sound effects seem to disappear. Often it can be based on the camera’s distance from the players if the AI or your partners happen to fall behind, but sometimes it just doesn’t come through aside a sword swipe or two, but then kicks back in with the music once the confrontation is over. Those effects sound good though, and since there’s no dialogue between anyone here, text or otherwise, there’s no worry about poor voice overs holding the title back.
The audio is backed up well enough by the graphics. The wood builds of the puppets you play as are decent, cheesy representations of a childish atmosphere found throughout. It’s clear Lionhead wanted more of a simplistic yet vibrant artistic approach, which is achieved well in Light Albion. However, the colorful images can often seem like a Nintendo Wii release, like the aforementioned recent Mario Party efforts. This isn’t even played off as a coincidence either, as references to Super Mario Bros. can be picked up on here and there, but mostly notably in The Credits when a team involved in the creation are called the “Super Marrow Bros.” and are seen going up and down two iconic pipes. This doesn’t carry over well into Dark Albion. The background often blends in too much with the foreground and the puppets, sometimes looking like nothing more than a thick deep purple film over a camera. This isn’t an increase in difficulty, but rather just a frustrating way to try to make it seem like the stages are increasing in that respect, but actually aren’t. There’s also a lot of light colored text on light colored backgrounds that make it nearly impossible to choose power ups at times, or even see what tab of the Leaderboards you’re selecting. There’s literally a color blind mode in the option, which is something you may end up turning on for later stages due to how badly some of the colors bleed together, even if you are good at picking out those that have some not-so-subtle differences.
There isn’t even a story to the title, really. You just start out at Millfield and work your way to the end in which you fight King Chicken. All throughout the game, the typical cartoonish torture to these animals does occur, and ends up being some of the more entertaining inside jokes for fans of the Fable franchise. As you progress through each level, you eventually come to a fork in the road that takes you to higher ground where you find yourself facing off against a boss such as a large beetle or elemental troll, or the lower path which throws you into a small party mini-game such as Mine Cart Racing, kicking the most field goals, survival, and more. Perhaps the most enjoyable is Chicken Bomb, which pits you against your colleagues to see who can survive the longest as a growing number of blinking chickens chase you, expand in width, and then explode. Of course, there’s the shift to Dark Albion, which throws not only the aforementioned King Chicken at you, but a battle against the Jack of Blades immediately after your success against it.
One of the biggest gripes about Fable Heroes, however, stems from the controls. The response time is there, but the character movements are just really slow. Running around an object can feel like a hassel, and trying to move around the other three puppets on the screen can feel tedious and ruin your ambition to even continue onward, especially in tightnit spots such as bridges. The main attacks work out well though, and while they start off a little slow, especially the heavy attack, things pick up for your puppets as you unlock more abilities and upgrade him/her. There’s also the option to share the coins with other puppets, which will help maximize the abilities being earned, as well as port the funds into the upcoming Kinect title Fable: The Journey, and selecting how much you want to move is simple and respnds well to the controls, which is a lot easier to say than it is for the previous XBLA release, Fable 2 Pub Games.
Upgrades are handled through a board game approach, as well as the general progression from one level to another on the stage select map. The more coins you get in the game from defeating enemies, breaking picket fences, jugs, opening random chests, etc., all count towards a group total that determines is you earn a bronze, silver, or gold medal. However, your individual score counts towards dice rolls, which are awarded for use on the Ability Board. This allows you to have more strength against certain enemies, expand score or gold multiplier, and so on. However, some achievements in this title unlock additional tiles on the inside of the board, which you reach once you purchase all outside abilities. This won’t be a problem since most, if not all achievements if you’re paying attention, can be unlocked in your first time through Light and Dark Albion. However, there is a hidden stage that can only be unlocked when the top one hundred players on the leaderboards reach an accumulated score of one billion coins (a throwback to Austin Powers perhaps?).
Finally, there’s the co-op. Fable Heroes was clearly designed with multiplayer in mind, and it handles this quite well. There are three different difficulties that range from Normal, Challenging, and Family. The latter of those three pools all the points together at the end, and is meant to promote unity. There also are “perks” you can use such as Big Head Mode, No HUD mode, and others designed to be cheap design tactics to maintain a child’s interest, but actually work out well to keep the game fresh and enjoyable in a group. Local co-op is available for up to four players total, but hopping in and out of games requires you to go to the Puppet Select screen. On-line mode does have hop in/hop out options, as well as allows you to set up privte Live games, as well as Public ones right at the Main Menu with ease. The entire game is easy to figure out and navigate, which is good since the Help section doesn’t really explain much. Then again, there isn’t much to really know in the first place. This section does have a typo though, citing one million coins for The Cloud instead of one billion. Clearly, this was an alteration made towards the final production days of the title, or just a complete oversight by someone.
Fable Heroes isn’t really the greatest Xbox Live Arcade title, but is still an enjoyable, light hearted Fantasy romp for any age group. Clearly aimed at bringing families and friends together, it definitely shines a lot more when all the AIs are replaced by living, breathing beings. Even if those people are inexperienced at games, the quick-to-understand controls and concepts make it easy to pick up and play. I was able to sit down with my fiancee and, after messing around with the controls for two minutes, she was right in the battle with me. While far from the obvious aforementioned inspirations for this work, Fable Heroes will keep gamers mildly amused in single player off-line, but will keep your interest even past the approximate three hour completion time (for both Light and Dark worlds mind you) just having a good time with other people.