|System: Xbox 360|
|Dev: Lionhead Studios|
|Release: May 2, 2012|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Mild Fantasy Violence|
by Shelby Reiches
Fable Heroes is a game in the unenviable spot of being a downloadable tie-in for a yet-to-be-released retail product. Further, throughout its run, the developers persist in taking the time to remind you that what you are playing is only a partial product, a shade of the whole that will exist when Fable: The Journey is in your sweaty, Kinect-owning hands.
I can't buy it yet, Lionhead. You haven't released it.
That said, there's still the question of whether the ability to transfer gold from Fable Heroes to its disc-based big brother is worth it. I'm kind of getting ahead of myself, though, because I think I need to explain why I doubt Fable Heroes will succeed in enticing players to purchase Fable: The Journey. It all begins with the aesthetic.
There's nothing wrong with a quirky or unusual art style. In fact, I might even be inclined to call Fable Heroes' wooden puppet characters endearing, if they weren't so creepy and gawky, clearly trying to draw upon the same appeal manifested by Miis and Sackboys. The world in which they run around is colorful, though it doesn't really feel like anything other than generic fantasy, with the requisite lava cave, ice mountain, and idyllic farming villages to satisfy that trope. There's a graveyard, of course, and it's populated by some of the more demonic beasties from Fable's menagerie of monsters, such as Balverines. That said, you won't really recognize them; the camera is pretty distant from the action (and at a very flat angle, which makes judging depth a challenge at best; when even collecting coins is difficult, your game has perspective issues) and their designs have been retooled to fit with the game's style, but they're so distinct that they're really only the same in name. That's okay, though; the first time an enemy shows up, the game is kind enough to have its name plastered against the background in bright red letters.
Really, I think the idea with Fable Heroes is to make it like a kid's board game. You're playing with little doll/figurine things that, when selecting levels/minigames, you move from tile to tile on an overarching map, which appears to be set up on someone's desk or table. Fable meets Mario Party? The only part that really plays like a board game, though, is the post-stage leveling board game, in which one must roll a die to move one's figurine around a square, buying upgrades when one lands on spaces. There are a lot of these upgrades and they cost a lot of gold (earned through playing the levels and minigames); further, the "inner-board" upgrades only appear when at least one character on your save has purchased every possible ability from a given tile, making a special tile appear in the center. All special tiles must be unlocked before the inner board is available, making leveling a fairly linear process, hampered more by the fact that you have no control over what upgrades are available to you than anything else—want to buy a speed upgrade, but landed on an attack tile and already have everything for that? Too bad.
The question remains, though: Does the actual gameplay entice one to play through the levels, grind minigames for upgrade currency, and unlock new characters? The short answer is that no, it doesn't. The long answer is that, while the basic beat'em up gameplay is functional, it's immensely unsatisfying. Fable Heroes is a game designed for co-op. Specifically, it's designed to have four players, to the point where any slots you can't fill with a flesh and blood human will instead be taken by some of the most brain-dead (yet disturbingly greedy) A.I. I have ever seen. So the four of you traverse extremely linear side-scrolling levels, and occasionally enemies pop up so you can beat them into a puff of smoke. To do so, you have a dodge roll, a normal attack, a "flourish" attack, and your area attack, the last of which takes a heart to use, diminishing your health by at least twenty percent per use. It's unfortunate, too, because it's one of the more useful abilities.
Overall, combat feels unresponsive. Your puppet swings its sword or hammer, shoots its gun or magic, but enemies don't really respond in a meaningful way—the game lacks visual and auditory feedback—and it leads to the player firing/swinging blindly in the middle of a swarm of enemies, taking unnecessary hits both due to the lack of information the game is giving you and the sluggish controls. Yes, Fable Heroes suffers from that worst of offenses: its controls are horrendously, terribly sluggish, to the point where the flourish attack, even upgraded to reduce its build-up time, isn't worth using in any but the safest of situations. Attack speed and movement speed can both be upgraded, but the only time the game really feels the way it should is when one has stumbled upon a Super Speed power-up (power-ups as a whole are randomly gifted to whichever character opens a chest, making them mostly useless). This makes it far more playable, and it's a shame that this wasn't simply the default movement speed.