Basically Fable: Heroes is a simplified Castle Crashers with board game mechanics and a puppet Fable skin. That's the easiest way to describe Lionhead's latest effort on Xbox Live Arcade.
And to be honest it's not a terrible concept. The art style is lovely and endearing and were it not for far too simplistic and rather crude mechanics Fable: Heroes could have been a game you'd be glad to turn on when you have a few friends over for a bit of gaming and beers.
The entire game is played out in a board game version of Albion where your four puppets (local or online co-op) hack and slash their way through linear levels that present you with the choice of a boss fight or a mini game at the end. Mini games include predictable things like kicking chickens, and sled rides and the boss fights take place in similar arenas even if the boss mechanics are somewhat different from each other (not hugely different as it's mainly cosmetic).
Your objective is to collect as many coins as possible as these let you buy abilities on a separate board in between levels. You roll your dice and hope it lands on a square where you have yet to purchase abilities and you can afford those available. More coins give extra rolls. In single player you actually roll the dice for each of the characters so you level up your local cast which is nice for when you invite over friends so they're not completely handicapped. This secondary board isn't ideally designed and it could have given players more tactical options. It can also be rather boring to wait for the choices of other players while playing online.
Collecting coins is slightly competitive as bonus coins drops all over the place and the one to wade in first gets the cash. It's easy to see how greedy players are going to dodge roll all over the place to get coins while their friends are fighting off the enemy.
Combat is where the problems begins. It's simply too repetitive. Sure you unlock kicks and improve your attacks on the ability board, but largely once you've played one level of the game you know exactly what to expect. There are four characters to begin with, the sword wielding "Hero", the hammer wielding girl called "Hammer", the pistol man "Reaver" and the fire ball shooting "Garth". You unlock more on the secondary abilities board, and we would recommend you switching characters as much as possible to fend off boredom.
One thing in place to give the game a bit of variation are the power up chests found near almost every enemy encounter. These chests can only be activated by one player and give boosts like extra speed, giant size, extra multiplier, or negative things like turning you into a miniature hero or revealing a "chesty" enemy. In each level there is a "good or bad" chest as well where you can decide whether to give a randomly awarded benefit or drawback to one player in the team. Chests can only be opened by one player so this is also an area where you can choose to compete for it or to divide the chests equally.
There are just under ten levels or so on the Albion board and once you've played through the credits (nice bit of Lionhead humour), you unlock the slightly harder (and more beautiful) Dark Albion version of the board. But as you can expect this game is really about going from start to finish and killing the final boss. It's more about gaining abilities and unlocking stuff while competing and co-operating with your friends in a style we're familiar with from other board game themed titles.
For the sake of this review I had to play the game in single player quite a bit due to very few players getting on Xbox Live pre-release, and it's obvious that this game is made for playing with friends. The AI is rather rudimentary, and I suppose it does its job okay, but it picks up hearts at inoppurtune times and it sometimes makes rather daft choices. Overall they AI players are fairly passive with ranged characters keeping back and none of them opening chests. Playing with anonymous players online is equally unsatisfying. No, this is a game that's meant to be played locally with three friends or online with three friends. It's not very good then either, but this is where the game has its moments.
Fable: Heroes is played in a 3D world, with a camera that moves around giving us slightly different perspectives for different encounters. It works out decently, but there are times where the camera prevents you from getting power ups, hearts or coins, and coins can also be stuck behind pieces of the scenery. It gives off a slightly unfinished feel to the game that at its core is so simple that one would have thought such things could have been avoided.
At 800 Microsoft Points Fable: Heroes isn't a massive investment, and if you're the kind of player who regularly gets friends over to play light hearted games while having a drink (alcoholic or otherwise is up to you) and some snacks, then there is no harm in picking up Fable: Heroes. But with a more rewarding basic mechanic and a more developed board game concept this could have been a definite hit at any gamer's party.