Fable Heroes was developed by Lionhead Studios and published by Microsoft Studios. It was released May 2, 2012 for 800 MSP. A copy was provided for review purposes.

Action-RPG series Fable first landed on the original Xbox back in 2004. It’s had two sequels released since then for the Xbox 360 with another two on the way including the Kinect exclusive, Fable: The Journey. Lionhead have already proved to be fans of the spin-off genre with Fable Pub Games released for XBLA in conjunction with Fable II and the Kingmaker mobile phone game for Fable III. However while those have proved to have been little more than amusing ways to earn money for the main retail game, Fable Heroes looks a little more promising.

The gameplay sees up to four players, online or offline, taking on the role of one of 12 cute hero dolls. The merry band are then challenged with hacking and slashing their way through hordes of familiar critters throughout the towns of Albion. Collecting oversized coins along the way that can either be spent on upgrades or transferred over to the upcoming Fable: The Journey. Each level has a crossroads where one path will lead to a fun mini game but the other leads to a dreaded boss. At the end of each round it’s time to count up the cash and name the winner, and after a bit of gloating we’re whisked off to the ability board where coins translate to rolls of the dice. Land on the right square to level up you character and add new abilities or get a fancy new weapon. Land on the wrong one and curse the bad luck sign you were born under.

Here’s what we liked:

It’s Fable – You might wonder what a cutesy board game, hack n slash has to do with the classic Fable series, but rest assured fans will have fun spotting all the references from the existing Fable universe. Players face the likes Hobbes and Hollowmen in Bowerstone and beyond and can still have fun kicking a few chickens along the way. Each location now has bright, cartoony sheen and a gorgeously vivid color palate, but all are instantly recognizable as the charming locations we’ve grown to love. Even the score has a quaint Fable feel to it. The presentation is as highly polished as we would expect from a Lionhead game, and the graphics are impressive right down to the board game style world map, with it’s miniature representations of each location’s landmarks. There’s also some of that cheeky Fable humor still showing through, but it’s strictly child friendly this time. No diseases to catch here.

Not dead yet – The most interesting game mechanic of Fable Heroes is that when a character dies, rather than dropping out of the game as is the norm, they are able to continue on playing as a ghost. Ghost players are able to attack, loot chests and even collect hearts that will bring them back to life, but are not able collect any coins. While some hardcore gamers may scoff, this ability is a real game changer. Firstly here is a game we can allow our non-gamer friends to join us on and we are no longer punished for their lack of ability. When someone dies, they can still help out and we are not left struggling to revive them in some way or forced to battle through the rest of the level alone with limited resources. Similarly the unfortunate ones are not left sitting twiddling their thumbs looking glum while you show off your mad “skillz”.

This also adds a new layer to the game because as previously stated, there is still some punishment for dying in that you cannot win the game or buy new abilities without being alive to pick up coins. Now here is the dilemma, do you let your friend collect life giving hearts, or do you snatch them up beforehand keeping those coins all to yourself?

Bots are back in town – There are too many games these days that are designed for cooperative play but do not account for players who may not have a gold account or have other people in their household available to play offline with, as and when they please. Fable Heroes however is a game that is designed for four players, and will always have four players, thanks to the included AI. Whilst the AI in the game does not offer up much competition other than during the racing type events, it’s better than trying to struggle through on your lonesome ownsome (sniff). Even better though is that the bots are able to bank their gold at the end of each level allowing you to purchase upgrades for these characters on the abilities board. In essence, playing through with one character actually allows you to level up all four at the same time. You can even switch which characters you and the AI will use between levels.

Here’s what we didn’t like:

Over already?Fable Heroes is pretty short. Clocking in at around two hours including a tea break for the first playthrough was a little surprising. Granted each level has two different endings so you need to play each level twice to actually complete the game. Also on your first playthrough you will unlock Dark Albion. This is essentially the same as regular Albion but–well, a bit darker and with a slight increase in difficulty. Again Dark Albion will require two playthroughs for you to see all levels. However despite this being potentially an eight hour game, the differences between dark and regular was so small it left you feeling disappointed. The game is obviously designed for multiple replays, with so many characters to unlock and upgrade, but there is risk you’ll tire of the same scenery long before. There is however an extra level in the game called The Cloud which was locked at the time of review and will be unlocked through community involvement, but how much this will add to the game is not yet known.

Brawler Lite – The Fable franchise has never been known for it’s complexity, however Fable Heroes ranks as a solid “easy peasy” on the difficulty scale. On Normal it’s pretty hard to die unless you play as the fairly useless Reaver, so the Hard difficulty may be the more suitable mode for most. Here each player only has 3 hearts of health and at least one player must be alive to continue. If you’ve not reached school age yet or you really can’t handle losing, then you might like to try the “everyone’s a winner” casual level, where gold is shared equally regardless of how badly you do.

The actual brawler action is fairly basic too and the controls can be frustratingly slow at times at least until your character’s attack abilities are leveled up. The heavy Y attack or “Flourish” is often too slow to be useful and simply bashing the X button at regular intervals seems to be the best way forward. It’s also quite easy to lose your character in the crowded screen. Hit the LT button to have your name appear above your head and find yourself again, but more often than not you see you’ve actually been aimlessly attacking a fence post instead of the onscreen enemies, but still winning regardless.

Fable Heroes has been marketed as a four player co-op brawler, and comparisons to the likes of Castle Crashers or even the old school Gauntlet have already been made. However underneath the button bashing action actually lies the beating heart of a classic board game dying to pop out. Not just because of the world map and ability boards where you do actually roll a dice to see what you can upgrade, but because the whole thing feels like it was designed for rainy day family fun. If you’re after a deep hack n slash experience, then this isn’t it, but if you like messy, chaotic, leave your brain at the door fun then take a look at Fable Heroes. It’s like Hungry Hippos for the console generation, except you can spend your marbles on upgrades.

Score: Buy It