Does a Full House beat a pair?

Fable Heroes was the result of an internal Lionhead Studios creative day that was initially conceived and a prototype built during four staff members free time. When Peter Molyneux got a look at it he immediately loved it and the project was greenlit as a full Xbox Live Arcade release. Initially it sounded worrying, but some of the best ideas have been thought up by people daydreaming and Fable Heroes, thankfully, hasn’t turned out to be a stinker. In fact it’s turned into quite the competent co-op game, worthy of a bash for anyone looking for that co-op fix.

Beyond descriptions for levels such as ‘Bowerstone has been overrun by baddies, help bring some law and order to the streets of Albion’s capital!’ Fable Heroes doesn’t really have a story. You play one of a selection of puppets, which are charmingly displayed in a puppet theatre for you to select. I selected Hero to take me through the majority of the game, although you can go back and change your character between levels. Hero is basically the Hero you’d always play in a Fable game – except you can’t customise him – and comes complete with crown and a big pointy sword. Alongside Hero are 11 other puppets; these being characters from the series including Hammer, Garth and Reaver. You unlock more as you play, but a selection of characters can only be unlocked by playing Fable: The Journey upon its release.

The world of Albion in this incarnation of Fable is only eight levels, which may not seem like a lot but there’s plenty of scope for replayability as you’ll find out. The world map sits on a table top, with the pieces of each location and the route you take to get to them pouring out of the sky as they get unlocked. Here you can play any of the levels you’ve unlocked, or simply play the bosses or mini-games associated with those levels. There’s also a section that will tie into Fable: The Journey, allowing you to transfer any god you’ve earned in Fable: Heroes over to that game once it’s released. You can also transfer gold to the other puppets you’ve unlocked, so if you’ve picked up too much gold with one puppet you can give some to another to help upgrade that one.

Bazinga!

Once you’ve jumped into a level you’ll find that it plays out like many side-scrollers. You’re following a straight path, dodging obstacles and fighting enemies you come across along the way. Each level is colourful and vibrant, looking like a scene from a play where the backgrounds have been built and painted especially for it. Even the enemies you face, such as the series familiar Hobbes or the clockwork robots, all look like ‘cuter’ versions of themselves (the Hobbes even wear little Santa hats on the Mistpeak level). To be fair Fable has never attempted to be a realistic looking world (afterall it is firmly rooted in the fantasy genre), but Fable Heroes embraces its arcade-style cartoony looks with a passion. With that said you’ll recognise all the familiar Fable locations, such as the steampunk inspired Bowerstone and the gypsy caravans.

Fighting is as simple as bashing ‘X’ for a light attack, or holding ‘Y’ for a heavy attack. You can also push the right trigger for a powerful area attack that can take out a group of enemies, although doing this will sacrifice one of your five hearts. You do get a sense of getting lost in the chaos, as your puppet is often hard to make out amongst the mayhem of the large groups that attack you, as well as spells and weapon effects whizzing around you. Due to this the gameplay largely boils down to mashing buttons, hoping that your attacks are actually killing things. However, there can be a tactical approach depending on what puppet you pick. While Hero and Hammer will dive into the thick of things, swinging their weapons around at anything that moves, characters like Reaver and Garth should stand back from the crowd as they employ range weapons. While it’s satisfying to jump into the fray and mash things to a pulp you’ll have to learn to dodge a lot more when you’re a ranged character. It becomes a game of fire a couple of times, and then dodging anything running towards you. This is harder in some of the smaller sections, put you’ll tend to find that you die less when you play a ranged character as the characters carrying melee weapons will attract the most enemies. Strangely there’s no ability to jump, although I’m not convinced this was needed anyway as the rolling dodge more than serves its purpose.

Whenever you kill an enemy a shower of coins will erupt, prompting the hoarding of cash that has long been a staple of the Fable series. When loads of these coins appear at once, this will usually be the case as large crowds get obliterated, you’ll notice that they tend to stack up and sometimes you’ll get a giant coin. If you’re playing online then it becomes a mad dash amongst players to sweep as many of these coins up as they can, and you don’t get long as they quickly disappear. The slow running speed of your characters (which can be increased through upgrades) does help other players get their fair share, but I’m willing to bet that arguments will break out about people stealing coins when they’ve not done much work as you could easily hang back and collect coins while other players are occupied fighting.

Hold up, you've dropped something.

There are two reasons why these coins are sought after. Firstly whoever collects the most coins out of the four players in each level will win the level, so hovering up coins becomes a priority amongst those who love the healthy competition. Secondly the coins you collect allow you to purchase upgrades after every level. Funnily enough dying isn’t a major inconvenience to your fighting ability, you’ll just turn into a ghost who can still take out their fair share of enemies until they collect a heart to turn solid again, but it will take away your ability to collect coins, which is definitely something you don’t want to happen when you’re trying to beat your three friends.

At the end of each level the coins you collected will fill up a metre, and depending on how high that is you’ll be awarded a certain number of dice rolls. These dice rolls are then used on a mini board game which you and your three companions play after the level has ended, with each square allowing you to unlock certain upgrades for your puppet. For instance, you could land on a square that increases your attack strength or the range of your attacks, while other squares might increase the amount of coins you collect in each level or make it easier to dispatch certain enemies. You have to spend your coins to unlock each ability, but once you’ve unlocked all of the outer abilities even better upgrades will be unlocked on the inner board. It’s a novel way of upgrading your characters, and it makes a change from the usual menu screen.

It was hard to imagine how Lionhead would introduce the choice and good/evil mechanic that’s always been a part of Fable into this game, but they’ve at least attempted to emulate it. For starters you can open chests throughout the levels, which may give you abilities such as super speed or stealth, or could just turn you tiny or massive. It could even try to eat you, or just give you a shower of coins. You’ll sometimes come across a pair of chests that have good or evil indications above them, choosing good will mean that one of your party will get a useful ability, while choosing evil will inflict a curse upon one of your party (or you, so remember that it’s entirely random!). One of the curses is a black cloud that sucks up any gold coins that you collect, but hilariously you can pass this on to another player just by touching them. So the game then devolves into a game of tag, but it also neatly interplays with the Fable series moral implications by giving you the option to spread your infliction to others or just suffering in silence until it goes.

You also get a choice of directions to go during your journey through each area of Albion. For example, in the Hobbe Mines level you could choose to go to the pit or deeper into the mines. One will lead to a boss that rises from the lava, while the other will lead to a mini-game where you bash buttons repeatedly in order to win a race with mine carts. These mini-games offer a temporary breather from the constant button mashing battles, and also give an extra layer of competition amongst your friends. The exploding chicken’s game is my favourite, with the objective to stay alive the longest and the ability to kick chickens at your opponents before they explode. As for the bosses they all largely boil down to the same thing. You have a lot of variety, such as a giant chicken or steampunk robot, but you’re largely just hacking away at them, dodging their crushing moves – or projectiles such as lasers – and fighting off the smaller enemies that inevitably spawn. Still, they provide a flood of coins when you’ve finally banished them to Fable heaven, or hell as is probably the case.

It’s really the multiplayer where this game shines. While the AI companions are competent enough (you can actually sit back and watch them kill everything for the most part). It’s incredibly fun to get three friends together and just while away an hour or two competing with each other to nab coins while also working together for the common goal, and the mini-games are hilarious for at least a short while. You also have to give a respectful nod to the Lionhead team for including local multiplayer, something which is sadly missing from most releases these days.

Just like when we played the Snowmobile level on MW2

Finally there is plenty of replayability in Fable: Heroes, with a host of abilities, puppets, and trophies to unlock. Plus, when you complete the game (the last level is genius, as it turns the credits into a playable game with all the areas merged together into one level and you’ll even get attacked by the letters making up the developers names) you’ll unlock a dark version of the game that plunges the world into night, with evil having taken over and begun burning Albion to the ground. It’s more of a challenge, but it overall Fable: Heroes never proves to be that tough, especially as you can’t really die.

Ultimately while Fable Heroes main mechanic is bashing buttons it’s extremely enjoyable when you’re playing with friends, with a healthy amount of competition and enough content to keep you hacking away at least until Fable: The Journey lands on our shelves. I’d still say Castle Crashers was the better game, but Fable Heroes is a nice little spin-off for any Fable fan and those who want a new co-op game that will bring out the gauntlets (and hopefully the beers!) amongst your friends.