Unless you’ve been keeping up with previews and the like, Fable Heroes almost certainly isn’t what you’re expecting. The action-RPG series from Lionhead Studios is known for its unique sense of style, heavy focus on player choice, and expression-based character interactions. Fable Heroes, on the other hand, is a side-scrolling brawler with RPG elements, a unique board game-like character progression mechanic, and some of the most relentlessly adorable art stylings imaginable.
Fans of Castle Crashers will find that there are many comparisons to be drawn here. You have a range of characters to choose from, all of whom are equipped with different arrangements of weapons. The basic set of tools you’re working with are a standard attack, heavy attack, area attack (which drains one life heart per use), and defensive combat roll, but the feel of the Hero’s sword-based combat differs, for example, from Reaver’s pistol. You’ll use these tools as you move from left to right through a series of familiar-yet-stylized Albion locations, taking on the usual assortment of enemies — everything from Hobbes to Balverines to Hollow Men — and collecting the coins that explode out of their downed corpses.
You’ll always bring four characters into a given stage, though there’s no switching between them once you’re playing. The AI handles the other three, though both local and online co-op is an option. Each character slowly builds up a stock of coins, both by collecting them and by scoring successful hits. These earnings are then used after each stage to improve that character’s skills.
How you level up in Fable Heroes is based in large part on how lucky you are. Your characters are placed on a Monopoly-like game board. Each one who participated in the just-completed stage earns a number of dice rolls based on how much gold they picked up. Each square on the game board is related to a specific skill category, everything from attack and gold bonuses to enemy-specific boosts. As you move around the board and land on different squares, you can opt to spend some of your gold on one of the square’s available skills. While the implementation is flawed in some ways — we’ll get to that in a minute — the basic concept of board game-based leveling is actually kind of neat and addictive, definitely adding a “just one more level” impulse to the overall experience.
Unfortunately, all is not well in Albion. For starters, there are only a handful of stages to play through before you reach “The Credits” (actually a playable level as well). Complete them once and you’ll unlock “Dark” (read: nighttime) variants, which deliver a slightly rejiggered challenge on the same, palette-swapped set of maps. A special boss awaits at the end of the Dark Albion stages, but that’s about the extent of it. There’s an additional level, The Cloud, which won’t unlock until the community reaches a combined earned gold milestone, so I wasn’t able to check that one out.
Each of the levels, Light and Dark, also offers two possible paths to close out the stage: either a boss fight or a competitive challenge of some kind that typically involves things like timed button-pressing or chicken-kicking. All of this adds up to the feeling that you’re playing a game that’s been artificially padded to create the sensation of a deep experience even though it’s not actually very deep. It even works for awhile; I found myself constantly fighting the urge to play another level, earn another die roll, buy another ability.
Unfortunately, there are cracks within this core framework that begin to show themselves after a few hours. For one, every single stage follows the same formula. You’ll advance, fight a group, repeat that process a few times, come upon a large container or object that needs to be destroyed for coins — unimaginatively called “Break Time” — repeat the advance-fight pattern a few more times, and, finally, choose between a boss fight or a competitive showdown.
Then there’s the board game. While it’s cool to level up in this way, especially since there’s an inner game board featuring more advanced skills that you can unlock by fully leveling up characters and unlocking a handful of Achievements, it too falls short. The process for unlocking all of the inner board squares is challenging to the point of tedium, for starters. There’s also no reward or allowance made for characters that land on a square they’ve already unlocked abilities for. It’s just a wasted die roll. Since you’ll generally only get two or three per stage, the leveling up process quickly falls into the trap of becoming a frustrating grind.
There are also just some basic design issues. There’s no simple way, for example, to share gold among your characters. You have to be actively controlling the character that you want to have gifting money out. If you’re in a multiplayer game and another player is using the character with the bulk of your gold supplies, your friend will have to switch to another character before you can switch over, transfer gold, and switch back. It’s a welcome feature, the ability to share gold, but a half-baked one.
Beyond that, it’s also incredibly easy to lose your character in the midst of a battle when enemies start spawning. You can press and hold the right trigger to highlight the character you’re controlling with a circle of light at his or her feet, but even that can be hard to see amidst a crowd. It’s a feature that the game doesn’t even bother to teach you; the first stage brings you up to speed on the most basic combat mechanics, but things like highlighting your character or building up multipliers are either ignored or given only the most cursory of explanations.
The overall feeling is of a game that could have been something really strong and different for the Fable series, but it falls short due to a litany of questionable design choices and a seemingly half-finished execution. Fable Heroes offers fun times, no question, but it feels rushed and incomplete, like a game that was almost there when the order came down from on high to tie up any loose ends quickly and get it out the door. It’s a hard game to recommend for these reasons, though it could serve up some good times at parties.
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Microsoft Studios)