Fable has never been the most serious or mature of RPG franchises. Players were as likely to save the kingdom and behave regally as they were to let one rip. After gong hands-on with the 4-player hack ‘n slash Fable Heroes at PAX East, though, it’s clear that Lionhead Studios has moved the series into more family-friendly territory than it has in the past. Up to four players take control of cutesy characters that look like marionettes and slash and spell cast their way through swaths of hobbes and other native baddies of Albion. You move in a linear path and mow down the monsters that flood the screen en route to a boss fight — a giant beetle that shoots projectiles and slams into the ground in the case of the PAX demo that several of us from XBLA Fans played in Boston this past weekend.

Oversized gold coins drop when enemies are overcome, which creates a near-constant scramble to get your hands on more than the other members of your party. The coins are used to buy upgrades in the time between stages, and they can also be transferred into Fable: The Journey. In addition, any of the 12 puppets that gamers can take control of in Heroes will pop up in their inventories in the forthcoming Kinect game.

The level we played through had a particularly vibrant color palette that was pleasing to look at as the four of us hammered away at the face buttons of our controllers to dish out damage to the nasty little hobbes and beetles on the offensive. The buggers tend to storm onto the screen in large numbers, which caused me to immediately lose sight of my character during the heat of the first battle and turn my eyes away from the pretty scenery as I scanned the battlefield for my puppet. I was quickly made aware of the ability to call up a spotlight that makes it a touch easier to get my bearings. Of course, it also called attention to the fact that I was the idiot running into the fence bordering our path and cluelessly swiping my scythe around at nothing in particular while the other members of the group dealt with our assailants and snatched up the gold they were dropping. Perfect.

Though that particular incident was a spot of unplanned clowning, Ted Timmins, Lionhead’s lead designer on the project, confirmed that fans can expect plenty of the usual hijinks the series is known for. “It’s got that comical style,” he said after our playthrough was over. “You’ve got Fable staples like kicking chickens and stuff like that. Obviously it’s no longer an adult game. “[That] doesn’t mean it’s not a hard game; we’ve got hard difficulty mode in there. So if you feel like ‘Oh, you know, this game’s a bit too easy,’ straight off the bat, you can play [on hard mode]… You’ve got harder enemies in there, less health as well.”

Although allies are impervious to damage from each other, Timmins explained and demonstrated a few other methods for screwing with teammates. Treasure chests are scattered throughout the adventure, some of them good and some of them bad. After he flipped open a bad one, a dark cloud hovered over the head of the designer’s character’s head and blasted him with lightning causing him to hemorrhage coins. Not wishing for that to continue, the trickster ran straight into a member of our team in the game and passed the cloud along. The four of us laughed as we ran about like children playing tag, passing the cloud around.

“You can do a lot of things to grief [your teammates],” replied Timmins when I asked why it’s not possible to directly damage each other. “If you’re on full health, somebody else needs health hearts, you can run over to the health heart — the area of effect attack costs health — so you just run up to it, hit it over the heart, you collect the heart, you’re still on full heart. They can’t get it.” Well, that doesn’t sound like a very sporting move. But it does sound hilarious.

Enemies attack from both the front and rear, so our crew kept getting drawn apart during our playtime in order to attend to both fronts. The camera continued to pull back to accommodate the distance between us as we moved. Eventually it stopped, preventing me from picking up a coin that I could see but couldn’t reach. “You can use [the camera] to grief your friends,” Timmins explained. “If you’ve got a guy who’s winning and he wants to go back and get some coins, everyone just goes to the front of the thing — crowds the camera. You’re literally right against the edge and there’s coins, but you just can’t grab them.” How rude.

I asked him if the camera would operate differently should players be teaming up strictly over Live rather than on the same Xbox. “One of the things we’re trying to avoid, you see, with a fixed camera is the tethering and stuff with that,” Timmins said. “See we’ve got a dynamic tether that’ll move in and out to keep everyone in the shot.” As mentioned previously, there is a limit, of course. On the bright side, it proved to be quite a generous limit. It was pleasantly surprising to see just how far off it was possible to wander from the other player-characters on the screen.

Speaking of characters, there are 12 of them to choose from, each of which has 40 possible upgrades. As mentioned, not all of the characters during a playthrough have to be human. Fable Heroes has the full suite of options for drop-in/drop-out co-op with online, offline and even AI players.

Our team of four human players only went through one level together, but we also got a glimpse of the overworld hub, which is reminiscent of classic Super Mario titles. Gamers will initially move in a linear fashion through the overworld, but Timmins said that there will be the ability to move about more freely when returning to areas that have already been completed. We also came to a branching path within the game and had to choose between moving left or right. It’s a choice that you’ll be faced with frequently when playing, we were told. While the road we took led us straight to the beetle boss, other paths will apparently toss players into minigames.

The numbered games in Lionhead’s flagship IP have allowed for the mixing of magic, ranged attacks and melee moves during combat. Heroes will force players into more defined roles, though. You either play a character that casts magic or one that relies on weapons. Although we didn’t actually get to see it during the PAX demo, there will be unlockables for both types of character to better prepare players for the myriad variations of baddies that will look to impede players’ progress.

Unlocking better equipment should also assist in the quest to outdo each other. Multipliers rack up when consecutive hits are landed and begin to drop off as damage is taken. I found a quicker way to get the big points, though: snagging a floating “4x” icon out of a chest. It propelled me past my colleagues, but still left me second on the pedestal, looking up at Timmins when all was said and done. The winner’s circle is a great time to emote and mock those you outdid. I noted that it felt a bit like LittleBigPlanet, but I was quickly, and rightfully, corrected that the Fable series has had those goofy emotional displays since before Media Molecule’s platformer came onto the scene.

Before we wrapped things up, I asked Timmins what the experience of developing Heroes in a small group isolated from the rest of Lionhead was like and if that resulted in individual voices being heard a little bit more than they would have during the production of a main Fable release. “It was pretty cool,” he said. “A lot of the people who worked on it — there’d been people who’d been working [at Lionhead] since [2001’s] Black & White.

“It differs as a process working on…a small team. Compared to — you’ve got like 150 people or whatever working on Fable 3 — we had like 20 guys working on this. So it’s a very different sort of vibe. It’s cool, but there’s also cool things to working [at] a big studio. They put the same sort of investment into some of those quests.”

He believes there is “some real love” and “passion” in Fable Heroes. Players can judge that for themselves by plunking down 800 Microsoft points on May 2. Timmins teased that those who don’t will miss out on something special. “If you’re a Fable fan [playing Heroes is] even better. There’s a lot of fan service in there. There’s one thing I can’t talk about, but it’s very awesome. But I’d just like to put a taste in there. [The] last level of the game is literally the coolest thing we could have done if you’re a Fable fan.” So much for not following in Peter Molyneux’s hype trail.

Nick DePetris, Perry Jackson and Andrew Crews contributed to this article.