Once Upon a Time…
The Fable series is one that, after enjoying some quality time in the limelight with its first two releases, suffered from disappointing fan reception with its third iteration. With fans having received a crushing letdown at the hands of Fable III, it was no surprise that the upcoming fourth game in the canon, Fable: The Journey, has been met with more than mild caution and anticipatory raised eyebrows everywhere. After all, the game’s vaunted Kinect functionality has many thinking of awkward combat mechanics and soulless mini-game collections; what fans have been waiting for is a return to a hard-hitting, engrossing RPG epic cut from the same cloth that the series’ initial offerings were.
All of this makes it all the harder to fathom the reasoning behind Fable Heroes, the series’ new side-scrolling beat-’em-up tie-in game squarely aimed at younger gamers.
Fable Heroes is clearly the franchise’s strange, odd-smelling cousin twice removed. It is packed full of cues from the main series, but is presented in an overly-cutesy, Saturday-morning-cartoon way. Enemy types and heroes alike are based on familiar creatures found in the Fable universe, like Hobbes, Hollow Men, and the return of Chesty, with player avatars being represented as Hero Dolls, familiar to series veterans.
Players must explore the world of Albion, visiting familiar locales like Gravestone, Mistpeak, Aurora and Bowerstone by traversing a simple world map. At each village or town the heroes stop, you’ll enter a side-scrolling stage where you’ll do battle for coins and upgrades. The party always travels as a group of four, with up to three friends joining you via Xbox LIVE, and the remainder being controlled by the AI. Throughout each level, you’ll encounter waves of enemies which must be cleared out, leaving all four players in a mad dash to pick up as many coins as they each can, to purchase upgrades in between stages. At the end of each level, you’ll have to choose at a fork in the road where to go next; sometimes you may walk into a boss fight, other times you’ll engage in mini-games like Minecart Racing or Chicken Kickin’, where you’ll need to kick more chickens into your goal than your opponents do to win.
From Hero to Zero
There are only seven unique levels, with one being an ‘Ending Credits’ stage where you battle while the developers’ names are displayed in the level, plus one unlockable stage you can access once you’ve earned an obscene amount of gold. The goal here is that players will play levels multiple times (as each has two different ending paths to choose from), and to keep amassing more and more gold. Complete all seven stages, and you’ll gain access to the realm of Dark Albion, which features (slightly) more challenging versions of all the same levels.
Large stockpiles of gold are further necessary to upgrade your character for the journey. Fable Heroes uses a Monopoly-esque board game between stages in place of talent trees. You are awarded a certain number of die rolls depending on your performance within each level. Rolling the die will move your character along the game board in a clockwise direction; land on a space to choose an upgrade to purchase. For example, landing on the ‘Gold Tile’ space will give you the choice of buying various gold multipliers to increase your riches in the future. The upgrade board consists of two tracks – an outer track and an inner track, which contains more powerful upgrades. The outer track is available from the get-go, with the inner track being filled in square by square through in-game accomplishments and completion of the outer track.
To give you some idea of the amount of replay necessary to delve into the game’s upper tier rewards: after completing a full run-through of the game’s normal levels, I still only had three of the upgrade board’s twelve inner track spaces unlocked. I have a hard time imagining that any gamer, especially the young audiences this game will be aimed at, will have the patience to replay the game to the degree necessary to access a lot of this content.
In my search for a tangible reason why I found the game impossible to enjoy, I could cite the fact that there just wasn’t much variety to its content, with only seven levels to play through, and each one being “more of the same” as the last one; I could bemoan the awkward movement, with my character just seeming to lumber about looking for something – anything – to slash at; I could even throw a tantrum over the watered-down tone the whole game had – the music was banal and rage-inducingly repetitive and cartoony; the combat was a boring affair of spamming the same button over and over again; and the difficulty was non-existent. When a character’s health reached zero, they would then turn into ghostly versions of themselves…and continue to fight. That’s right! There was no penalty for dying, the rest of the team didn’t suddenly find itself one man down. Your character could still move around as normal, cast spells and perform attacks just as always. The only drawback was that you couldn’t pick up any further coins in your ghostly state. That’s it. One would think that, if your ghostly form was too immaterial to pick up valuable coin, then your blade too would pass right through an enemy. One would be wrong. In fact, if you happened to pick up a heart that an enemy dropped, you’d come back to life again, negating any reason for caution or strategy. Just stand still and spam that attack button. And when one considers that missing out on gold as a ghost only meant you had less to earn upgrades with later, given the game’s insistence that you keep replaying indefinitely anyway, the whole concept of death just became utterly meaningless.
The Final Verdict
What amazes me about Fable Heroes is that it features connections to the upcoming Fable: The Journey, with items and awards being unlocked in one game to use in the other. There is even a ‘Gold Transfer’ option in-game, which lets you send funds collected in Fable Heroes to your character in Journey. Cross-game connectivity isn’t unheard of, but the target demographics for these two titles couldn’t be any more different, with Journey seemingly being aimed at the 18+ demographic like its forebears. I just can’t fathom any potential players of one sticking with the other enough to benefit from these cross-promotions.
But most of all, the developers just missed the pure and simple sense of fun that this game so badly needed. While the Fable series has traditionally been geared at adults wanting an adult adventure, there’s no reason why a Fable Jr. game couldn’t succeed, as long as it hit that sweet spot of enjoyment that this game seems to miss by a mile. When all was said and done, I longingly awaited the final ‘End Credits’ level, if only for the sweetness of being able to close the Fable Heroes chapter of my life and move on to something else…you know, something fun.