Perhaps the biggest surprise at Microsoft’s recent Xbox 360 spring showcase was the announcement of Fable: Heroes for Xbox Live Arcade.
Built by some of Lionhead’s biggest Fable fans, Heroes pays homage to many of the series’ past high points while creating its own fun and original experience. It features a charming cartoonish aesthetic, set in what appears to be a child’s board game. I mean, just look at how cute Hammer is in doll form.
Fable: Heroes (Xbox Live Arcade)
Developer: Lionhead Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Twelve characters are available to choose from in what is best described as a four-player co-op beat-’em-up. The drop-in-and-drop-out experience can be played either online or offline in any combination of players, but one thing is constant: there are always four characters hacking and slashing their way through this delightful Albion.
As I worked my way through an area known as Millfields, armed with the brute strength of Fable II’s powerful heroine Hammer, smashing hobbes -- no matter how cute they look now -- brought back a nostalgia I hadn’t felt since I played Streets of Rage 2. The similarities to the iconic beat-’em-up didn’t end there. The combat mechanics boil down to light and heavy attacks, an evasive roll, and a special radial attack. This special attack reminded me the most of the Sega Genesis classic, since players must sacrifice one heart from their health to pull off the deadly maneuver.
While every character controls identically, they offer many different play styles. Pretty much all the varieties of combat found in past iterations of the Fable franchise are available. And just as in Heroes’ big brothers, each character can be upgraded and customized with around 40 unique abilities. There’s a style for everyone, but it takes a well-balanced team to get the most out of each stage.
What would a Fable game be without choice and mischief? Each main area offers branching paths that must be unanimously agreed upon in order for a party to proceed. It’s all for one, or none at all. Where the paths go is a mystery the first time through. I played the demo twice to see both outcomes. One path took my crew to a boss fight with a large queen beetle, the other to a mini-game with some exploding chickens.
Treasure boxes fill the landscape and force players to race each other for the bonuses within, such as combat multipliers and gold. In an especially cruel twist, certain areas contain good and evil chests. Players can only open one, but when they do, one of the four players is selected at random to receive the reward or punishment. These can range from coin bonuses to being cursed with a storm cloud that causes one to drop his or her hard-earned money, free for the taking, until the effect wears off.
There seems to be a lot of replayability to Heroes. Those who need a holdover until Fable: The Journey arrives later this year will be able to transfer gold earned here into that upcoming Kinect title. If you tend to find Fable games on the easy side, you’re in luck: beyond the three base difficulties, there is an extra Dark Albion mode that should offer the challenge that many fans have asked for.
Fable: Heroes caught me by surprise. The series has always been by far my favorite Xbox 360 exclusive, with Fable II ruling as king. But Heroes’ cute visuals, wrapped in a beat-’em-up package and garnished with an sprinkle of RPG goodness, might well make it my go-to Fable experience.