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Brightly coloured, cartoonishly exaggerated, and with not a straight line in sight, you’d think that Fable’s art style was already welcoming enough for those seeking an antidote to naturalistic fantasy. A team within Lionhead, however, clearly thinks otherwise, and has knitted together a cel-shaded, pop-up book version of Albion, turned the characters into round-headed dolls, and even managed to cutesy up the hordes of hobbes and slavering balverines as much as is possible. Indeed, Fable Heroes is more reminiscent of Double Fine’s downloadable confection Costume Quest than any Fable game released so far, its jaunty visions of previous games’ heroes (and villains, too, whatever the title might lead you to believe) making for a more family-friendly brand of sidescrolling brawler.
And ‘family’ is very much in Lionhead’s mind here: it’s what the easy mode is known as, for a start, and there’s a sense throughout Fable Heroes that the studio’s eyes have been lingering over the simple, play-with-your-children charms of the Lego games as much as they have the hectic action of The Behemoth’s XBLA download-chart-dominating Castle Crashers. All this means that death is a mere inconvenience to your character, who will immediately be resurrected as a floating ghost shorn of nothing but his or her ability to grab the gold coins that scatter, twinkling, from enemies and level furniture as they’re torn apart by sword slashes, small arms fire and magical attacks. Even this ghostly state can be quickly remedied by picking up a heart, which sees you reincarnated mid-level.
While it may be somewhat trivialised, death is more irksome than it sounds, though, since Fable Heroes is all about collecting those coins. You and three other players might be in a loose alliance against common enemies, but you’re also in competition with each other. Whichever player ends the level with the most gold is the winner, and, perhaps more importantly, will also have more money to spend between rounds.
In Fable Heroes, character progression is governed by a simple minigame – a board game in which players roll dice to land on themed squares that in turn allow them to exchange gold for stat boosts, improved equipment, and even new dolls. The rolls add a random element that captures the frustration and thrill of any die-based game, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s a reason most games offer more direct control. No matter how tired you are of your character’s sluggish and ineffectual blows against even bog-standard enemies, you’ll remain at the mercy of the dice if you wish to boost their attack power. Irritatingly, too, certain squares of the board remain locked until you’ve encountered the enemy types they relate to, which means landing on these regions early on is little more than a wasted move.
That said, there’s still a compulsive rhythm to the pattern of farming levels for gold, which you then spend on improvements that make you even better at farming levels for gold, which you then spend on even more improvements, and so on. But since the vast majority of upgrades simply help you to do more damage, take less yourself, or lower the charge time on certain attacks, the actual business of killing enemies never really changes. Rather than offering you new possibilities and tactics, Fable Heroes simply makes you increasingly efficient with the default ones.
Your character is either melee- or projectile-based and has three attacks: a normal blow, a heavy ‘flourish’, and an area-of-effect attack that costs them one unit of health every time it’s used. Combat boils down to a matter of wading into (or standing on the edge of) a crowd and hammering these buttons until every last creature has been reduced to shiny gold pieces. Enemies from all three Fables turn up for Heroes, and you’ll apply the same tactics to all of them. The same is true for boss encounters – these oversized beasts squat in the background of the screen, where you must alternate between hammering them with all you’ve got and hastily dodging AOE attacks. Minigames such as mine cart dashes and boat races punctuate the game, but again these QTEs have clearly been calibrated with an eye on remaining gently accessible.
Heroes’ charm, however, lies in the realisation that there are more interesting ways to play than altruistic cooperation – the moment every player understands that grabbing gold is more important than killing monsters is the moment the game finally comes alive, turning into a fiercely fought battle to snatch every last coin scattering its levels. There are glimpses here of The Legend Of Zelda: Four Swords’ elastic sense of comradeship, wherein a joint effort can become a free-for-all the moment a boss disintegrates into irresistible collectibles. Wily players will even snatch up the hearts needed by any fellow adventurers reduced to ghost form, robbing them of the ability to compete for loose change. There’s none of Four Swords’ collaborative puzzle solving, however, and even this competitive dynamic can very easily become undermined by the game’s levelling system, which gives a monster-slaying, gold-grabbing edge to a player who’s sunk more time into the game than his allies.
There’s a familiar humour to Fable Heroes, twinned with enough detail and cameos to ensure that this use of Lionhead’s premier brand is more than just a cash-in. But in a sense that’s the issue: Fable Heroes’ appeal is all Fable, rather than its elaborations on the well-worn, side-scrolling brawler. Played in a group, there’s a knockabout charm in vying to emerge the victor, but unlike those gold coins there’s not quite enough longterm value beneath the outer sheen.
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