Earlier this year, Peter Molyneux announced that he would be leaving both Microsoft and Lionhead Studios, a development house of his own design–after playing Fable Heroes, I don’t blame him. As a parent, there is a part of me that occasionally forces me to play out the scenario in my head, “What would I do if my child died?” and the answer is almost always that I would have to leave the town I live in now and move to some place that would not constantly remind me of my lost child. Assuming Peter Molyneux feels similarly about the Fable franchise as I do about my children, packing it in and looking for greener pastures is the most logical reaction he could posit. Fable as a franchise has been steadily slipping for years, and Fable Heroes is not doing that descent any favors.
GAME NAME: Fable Heroes
DEVELOPER(S): Lionhead Studios
PUBLISHER(S): Microsoft Studios
GENRE(S): Action/Adventure, Party Game
RELEASE DATE(S): 5/2/2012
Fable Heroes is a multiplayer hack-and-slash, where you and four of your friends, either online or on-the-couch, can take up roles as legendary heroes of Albion and cut your way through swarms of Hobbes, Hollow Men, and Balverines. Think Castle Crashers with Fable characters. Now take away all the intuitiveness, the clever art design, the humor, and the fun, and you pretty much have Fable Heroes.
Fable Heroes is laid out similarly to a board game, a choice that is almost entirely aesthetic and has next to nothing to do with the gameplay. You play as known characters from the Fable universe, such as Hammer, Garth, Reaver, and, of course, The Hero, with several others available to unlock through gameplay. The fact that your stable of characters is largely composed of Fable II characters rather than more recent Fable III ones serves as further evidence of the Fable franchise’s slow death spiral.
The heroes have all been re-imagined as puppet versions of their former selves, which is, again, an aesthetic choice that makes little sense in the context of the total game. The heroes are the only part of Fable Heroes that has been given a Little Big Planet-esque hand-made appearance. The rest of the game, though slightly brighter and more cartoony than the disc-based Fable games, has no trace of the hand-made aesthetic on it, and the character models on the enemies look only slightly altered from Fable proper.
Adding to the already lengthy list of visual assaults Fable Heroes insists upon you, is the gaudy use of large-type faux Helvetica font liberally throughout the game. It truly is the “uncanny valley” effect applied to fonts–there is something not quite right about it, just enough to be off-putting. And every time the game wishes to communicate a new concept or enemy type to you, large, brightly colored words in this font are dropped haphazardly into the background scenery, towering above the puppet you picked as your in-game avatar. The font pervades the menus and interface outside of gameplay as well–every line of text is some variant on size and color in the offensive type scheme, and in time it gets hard to focus on your own menu selections. I cannot remember ever being so conscious of the use of typeface in a game, and it is not a pleasant sensation.
I realize that I have spent a long bit of time complaining about Fable Heroes’ visual design, but since that train wreck is the main thing that sets it apart from similar multiplayer hack-and-slashs, I feel justified. The controls are pretty much the same you expect from every game in the genre: light attacks, heavy attacks, jumps, and dodge moves. The heavy attack is supposed to be representative of Fable’s finesse attacks, and launching one comes with an obligatory charge time that finesse attacks entail, leaving you open and vulnerable for a moment before the attack plays out. Your hero also has an area affecting power attack that they can drop on a crowd as a desperation move–using it will deplete some of your health, so use sparingly.
Using these exceptionally light move sets, four heroes will traipse across familiar, scaled down version of well known Albion locales, fighting through waves of enemies and doing their best to collect the stacks of gold coins said baddies leave behind (admittedly, the coins were the one graphic touch in the game I actually enjoyed–to make them easier to collect they will automatically stack themselves up in the field, as though they were meticulously positioned on Ebenezer Scrooge’s counting desk). Players who end up getting their burlap backsides handed to them and lose all their health will stay in the game, but are unable to collect gold coins until they find a health token, which will bring them back to the land of the living. The end of a level usually ends up with branching paths, leading either to a boss fight or a Mario Party-styled four-player mini-game, after which everyone’s gold collection for the level is tallied and the game takes pains to humiliate whichever poor sucker ended up on the bottom of the list.
Gold serves as experience in Fable Heroes, used to increase your puppet’s abilities as well as add flashy visual effects and purchase additional characters. The character improvement system was one aspect of Fable Heroes I actually enjoyed, and was additionally the only callback to the board game aesthetic the world map tries to share. You earn dice rolls in the levels, dependent on how much gold you managed to score in your slash fest. These earned dice rolls allow you to move around a Monopoly-reminiscent character advancement game board. On each space of the board, you will be given several options for power-ups, aesthetic changes, or even altering your board placement, of which you may choose one (assuming you have the gold to cover that choice’s price tag). It adds an interesting bit of randomness to your character advancement, and serves as the only real moment of tension in the game as you try to coax Lady Luck into landing you on a square with the power-ups you want. The effect does wear out a bit later on, as you begin to run out of spaces that have not yet been cleaned out of power-up options, but it makes things interesting early on.
Unfortunately, an neat take on character advancement is not enough to save the overall blandness of Fable Heroes. As a whole package, Fable Heroes feels somehow less than fully realized–the visual and conceptual styles employed all seem half-baked, and leave you wondering why they avoided pushing these ideas further. Even at a ten dollar price point, you can find a ton of games in the multiplayer hack-and-slash genre that are better put together, and several of them that are the same price or cheaper (Castle Crashers, TMNT: The Arcade Game, and Crimson Alliance all say ‘Hi’). In the end, the only real reason to jump into Fable Heroes is if you are simply a die-hard fan of the series, and even then, you have to question whether or not that is a fandom that you wish to perpetuate after this (and several other) lackluster presentations.