Fable video games are supposed to operate around a promise. The three role-playing games spearheaded by former Lionhead boss Peter Molyneux dangled themes of changeable appearance, persistent consequence and pledge-keeping to pique players' interest. And, yeah, the knock on the Fable games is that they tend to overpromise and under-deliver. However, to my mind, it's always been better that they reached for something.
But Fable Heroes harbors no discernable promise. It doesn't dare to dream and suffers greatly for it.
Lionhead's latest effort looks adorable at first. You control one of four puppet warriors as they hack and slash through a half-dozen levels of a shrunken Albion. Players start off with four characters—two for melee and two for ranged attacks—and can unlock more skins with gold coins that they earn by smashing barrels and enemies.
There's no real strategy to the button-mashing combat. It's quick attack, flourish (heavy attack) and dodge/roll all the way. You can die in Heroes—and that happens mostly when you get lost in the on-screen chaos—but all it does is turn you into a ghost that can't pick up coins. Picking up a heart turns your puppet corporeal again and lets him or her get back to amassing wealth.
Grabbing gold is key to Heroes, since the Xbox 360 exclusive title operates on a competitive co-op template. You and your puppet party all fight bad guys but constantly hustle for coins to grab the top spot at end-of-level leaderboards. In addition, when the Kinect title Fable: The Journey comes out, you'll be able to siphon off gold from that game into Heroes. Coins also play into the mini board game where you roll dice to buy abilities. The board game is a nice idea initially but, after several rounds of it, I found myself frustrated at not being able to level up the specific character traits. If a dice roll turned out poorly for me, I was stuck waiting until the end of the next level before I could beef up the abilities geared towards assault strength, speed or enemy-specific attacks.
Heroes shares the cutesy toy-chest sensibility of LittleBigPlanet or Costume Quest but with much less charm than either of those games. The constant jockeying for position also reminded me of Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One, only without the tandem attacks and clever weaponry of Insomniac's most recent outing.
Worse still, Heroes really lacks the essence of the mainline Fable games. The British strain of broad humor never shows up and its moments of choice-centered gameplay feel inconsequential. Heroes' treasure chests hold good and bad power-ups like rewards that turn you into a giant hero or a chest that's actually a growly monster. Others—like a miniature rain cloud that zaps coins away your puppet—let you grief your party members by bumping into them and passing on the annoyance. None of these things feel momentous, though.
Branching paths represent another small modicum of choice. Go to the sled race mini-game or the boss battle? Pick up the good treasure or the bad one? But these features don't impact the gameworld in any lasting way. And maybe they shouldn't in a pick-up-and-play game seemingly aimed at younger audiences. But, it ultimately feels like Lionhead watered down the defining qualities of Fable just for the sake of releasing a multiplayer variant of the studio's best-known creation.
Finishing off Fable Heroes unlocks Dark Albion, a New Game + mode with tougher difficulty. I guess you're supposed to revisit the game to grind for coins, unlock new puppets and fill out the repertoire of skills.
The multiplayer time I've logged so far has ranged from spastic, muddled sessions to outings with a few stutters. At its worst, great big hiccups hobble the collision detection to a ridiculous degree. It's gotten to the point where combat and coin-collecting—the main pillars of Fable Heroes—are unplayable. I sat locked in one arena for a few minutes as the game refused to acknowledge we'd beaten all the area's enemies. But even when things run smoothly, the same lack of design intent plaguing the offline portion makes Heroes terribly bland.
The game's supposed to feel like a mash-up of party game and action romp but none of those elements really shines through. As pretty as its cartoony visuals are, Fable Heroes doesn't glow with enough ambition to make it worth anyone's time. As flawed as Fable 1, 2 or 3 may have been, you could hunt through them looking for fragments of the ideas that Peter Molyneux said would be in there. There's no big inspiration to root out in Fable Heroes. It doesn't let you be really good or really bad, which just makes it really bland.