Lionhead thought it would be a good idea to combine board games and action RPGs for the latest Fable. They were disastrously wrong.
The franchise has been fairly reliable in delivering solid action RPGs to the Xbox 360, however Fable Heroes takes a path slightly off to the side. It is a more family-friendly party game that's mixed in with action RPG mechanics. Unfortunately, neither walk away unscathed.
The party game elements are immediately notable. To start off, players pick one of four puppets, while the other three are controlled by AI or other players accompanying you. There are three difficulty modes: Family - which divvies the coins up evenly, Normal - where whomever grabs the coins gets them, and Challenging - the hard mode which has fewer lives and power ups. Family is ideal for preventing in-fighting amongst players - be them siblings, or drunk friends - while normal and challenging present a more competitive environment (see who can get the most coins).
Fable Heroes' levels play out virtually the same: the team runs from arena to arena killing hobbes, smashing barrels, fighting the occasional boss, and collecting coins. The latter forms the basis of the levelling system. After each level, the four puppets play a board game using the coins collected throughout the game to buy character upgrades - extra speed, longer weapon range - the more you have, the more you can buy.
When it comes to combat, Fable Heroes is a repetitive, button-mashing mess. The player controls either one of the ranged or the melee puppets. Unfortunately, neither feels as though they have an advantage or involve any kind of strategy - using puppets to attack is as mindless as running around tapping X as fast as you can. In addition to their main attacks, the puppets have powerful attacks that damage them almost as much as the enemy.
After each level the team returns to the board game upgrade screen. To upgrade the puppets, players take turns rolling a die and buying an upgrade from the square they land on. In some cases, your puppet will end up on a square which hasn't been unlocked and continue without buying anything. While Lionhead attempted to make upgrading a character a game in itself, it comes off as needlessly convoluted instead.
Chests scattered throughout each level contain power ups such as invisibility and time slowing effects. However, power-ups aren't all the chests may conceal; some hobbes disguise themselves as chests and if you get one in a boss fight it won't offer you much of an advantage. If a puppet falls in battle, they simply ghost out until they can pick up a heart to return to corporeal form.
Heroes' primary modes are for multiplayer - on and offline - in which up to four players can take on the short levels and boss battles. Aside from not having to deal with the AI as much, you can collect more coins for upgrades, or for transferring to the upcoming Fable: The Journey. That said, multiplayer is let down by a lack of character definition - you could rush through levels with any random strangers and it wouldn't matter.
The Fable series' fantasy theme translates well to the board game style look of Heroes, and levels have a decent variety of themes including lava stages, mine shafts, and even a credit stage. Unfortunately the levels are short and linear. Save a few path choices later on, Heroes' levels are short enough that they can be finished in a few minutes. You are only held up by boss battles - although that's not to say the boss battles are good. The bosses take a while to kill only because they have a lot of health - there's no strategy to defeating them.
Fable Heroes is a strange mash up of party game and action RPG title that doesn't do either well. However, it will be useful to Fable: The Journey owners because of their compatibility. Unfortunately, on its own, Fable Heroes fails to provide a solid singleplayer or multiplayer title.