Villainy brings a satisfying eye-in-the-sky twist to Fable Legends’ gameplay

The Fable games haven’t ever passed judgment on their players. Instead, each entry in the open-ended RPG series provides a blank template that you can fill out however you wish. Want to do good in the world, helping unite lovers and save orphanages? Have fun. Prefer a life of infamy and kicking poor, defenseless chickens just for the joy of it? Go to town. 

Fable Legends changes all of that. There are heroics to partake in as you embark on a series of quests in a style not dissimilar to that of a dungeon crawler. Fight monsters, gather loot, win the day, and then go party back at home base as the story pushes ever-forward. This time, however, the villain is up for grabs as well, and taking on that role requires a very different approach to play, as we learned during a closed-door session at E3.

Story/Concept

Back to Albion. Four centuries before the events of Fable, Albion teems with the Heroes of myth. This is a younger land than we’ve seen before; magic is more common and danger lurks everywhere. The four Heroes at the heart of the story follow a narrative arc through the game’s series of dungeon crawls, but developer Lionhead Studios isn’t quite ready to talk about the particulars yet.

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What is clear is the fact that each playable Hero follows a slightly different path through the his or her own story. There’s replay value in the overall shape of the game, but players are also encouraged to set out on each character’s journey if they want to see the full picture. The open world of the series’ previous games is gone, replaced with a hub town that players operate out of and gear up in, before setting out on quests in specific, dungeon-style locations.

Gameplay

So you want to be a Hero? Those looking for something closer to traditional Fable gameplay in Fable Legends should turn to the Heroes. Each character’s abilities differ, but the slightly pulled back, over-the-shoulder perspective and reflex-driven action closely resemble what’s been seen in the series before. We didn’t try out any of the Heroes during our preview session, but it’s evident even in a hands-off look that controlling them is where players should go for their traditional Fable fix.

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Wretched hive of scum and villainy. We’re not clear on how the lone Villain character factors into the larger story, but each four-on-one dungeon crawl pits a team of four Heroes against this unseen big bad. Taking on the Villain during a quest is similar in many ways to real-time strategy play. You’ve got a birds-eye view of the landscape that the Heroes are exploring, and you use that advantage to direct an assortment of forces and other assets around the map.

Each quest starts with the setup phase, during which the Villain has the opportunity to place traps and units around each area. A quest breaks into multiple areas, and the Heroes are always stronger than individual enemies. The goal for the Villain is to deploy forces smartly so that they can slowly chip away at the total health and resources of the Heroes. Villains are unlikely to nab a win in the first few areas, and that’s by design. Playing as the bad guy (or gal) in Fable Legends is meant to be a war of attrition.

To arms! To arms! Once the Villain’s forces have been placed and the setup phase ends, the four Heroes move in to start fighting. There are various types of units to choose from, including stealthy Pucks, hard-hitting Trolls, and a number of other beasties that cover everything from ranged attacks to artillery. As a general rule though, you can only have four sets of units at a given time, with one mapped to each of the controller’s face buttons.

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Directing your forces is as simple as moving a set of crosshairs around the map and pressing the appropriate face button to give orders. The AI is robust enough to filter those orders out to appropriate units — say you’ve got two Pucks, but only one is close to the action; that’s the one the game will send in on an attack order — though holding a button rather than tapping it allows for greater control over micromanagement. You can also hold down one of the triggers as you press the button to activate each unit’s cooldown-managed special ability.

There’s a bit of a learning curve here as you get used to the strengths and weaknesses of each unit, as well as the advantages offered by traps, triggered gates, and healing totems, but the controls are relatively easy to grasp. Real-time strategy is tough to pull off without a mouse and keyboard, but your units are hardy enough that constant micromanagement — while an effective tactic — isn’t strictly necessary. More than that, it’s satisfying to successfully pit your wits against the reflexes of four Heroes as you engineer their doom from afar.

Presentation

Eye-in-the-sky. Generally speaking, Fable Legends Albion is the same colorful high fantasy realm that we’ve seen in past games, albeit with a more impressive range of lighting and particle effects, as afforded by the Xbox One. Villain mode isn’t ugly, but the pulled-out perspective renders it less of a looker than the more personal, third-person action that the Heroes offer. You can only zoom in so close while managing forces from above, and while that’s enough to make out fine details on the map, it isn’t enough to get in close on the action.

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There’s a possibility that we may see the Villain mode migrate over to second screen as an optional SmartGlass control method. Lionhead is actively looking into the possibility now, as the game continues to come together, but there’s no confirmation one way or another on whether it’s going to happen.

Takeaway

Fable Legends looks to be moving in a different and not at all unpleasant direction. The addition of co-op play for the Heroes and the switch from open-world adventuring to loot-driven dungeon crawling both carry lots of promise, but the nifty, RTS-style Villain mode hints at a more significant reinvention. We’ll learn more as this fall’s closed beta approaches. You can sign up for the beta now at FableLegends.com.

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