Version tested: Xbox 360
If you think about it, Fable's an unusual choice for a spin-off. It's a game that covers so much ground - its myriad distractions ranging from rhythm action to town building, from gambling to Sims-style housekeeping and socialising - that it would seem to leave little room for any further asides.
Yet here is Fable Heroes, a four-player brawler spawned from Lionhead's annual Creative Day (an event that, in typical Lionhead fashion, actually lasts 48 hours). The idea is pretty straightforward: you and up to three chums - playing as Fable's hero dolls dressed up as familiar characters - romp around a puppet-theatre take on Albion. Your job is to whack hobbes, balverines, beetles and the like, collecting the money they drop when they drop. At the end of each level you choose a fork in the path, fight a boss or play a mini-game, the coins are tallied up, and the winner stands proud atop a wooden podium while the loser's played off by the sad trombone.
Fable's moral choices are represented by a pair of adjacent 'good' and 'evil' treasure chests in each level. Pick the former and a random party member will benefit from a new temporary power, such as a cloud that hovers above them, regularly dropping coins. Choose the latter, and the cloud may instead zap them with lightning - at least until they tag another player to transfer the curse. Standard chests scattered more liberally throughout the levels convey various other transient abilities to the player who collects them. You can grow or shrink, receive the assistance of a doppelganger, become invisible, or you may just find some cash or a score multiplier instead.
The money you earn is spent on upgrading your abilities between levels. This takes the form of a board game: you roll a number of dice (based on your score tally for the previous stage), with each square offering three different types of upgrade. Some offer additional power, weapon upgrades, movement or attack speed, while other spaces are enemy-specific buffs - like the ability to perform finishing flourishes on hollow men or to kick mini-hobbes in the air.
Once you've earned all the abilities for a puppet on the outer board, an inner square with better rewards is unlocked. Good luck getting there; the caprice of the dice means you can spend dozens of turns trying to land on the right spaces for the last couple of abilities you need. It hardly helps that reminding yourself of those you're missing (there are 39 abilities per character, so it's easy to forget) requires you to scroll through the entire list looking for the ones which don't have ticks next to their names. In the meantime, you'll have earned so much money from repeat plays that it essentially becomes meaningless. Sound familiar?
At least here you can save it up, ready to transfer across to Fable: The Journey when it launches. Alternatively, you can gift money to give other puppets the cash to upgrade quicker, though as your dice rolls are still limited (and don't carry over after each stage) you'll have to go through the same laborious upgrade process all over again.
In truth, it's hardly worth the bother of unlocking the lot, because Fable Heroes is a fairly easy game. That's not to say it isn't frustrating, however. At the outset, your character is both feeble and sluggish, blows land without any real force, and there's no real connection with the world. Familiar Albion locales look cute in this form, but the sub-HD fuzz of the visuals is a disappointment, as are the bugs and glitches. I've witnessed characters getting stuck on scenery and music and sound effects sporadically cutting out. On one occasion, a boss leapt into the air but didn't come down, leaving two melee characters unable to hit it and the gun-toting AI puppets apparently unwilling to finish the job.
Albion itself, meanwhile, is lacking something. At first, it's hard to define; familiar settings are lovingly recreated here, and Fable fans are sure to delight in seeing the likes of Bowerstone, Mistpeak and Millfields again. After a while, it suddenly dawns that what Fable Heroes is missing is people.
There's no great joy to playing as Hammer, Reaver, Garth, Ben Finn or Sir Walter because they're not the real thing. You might as well be playing as generic hero dolls - at least that way you might have the opportunity to customise them. Without their voice actors, they're shorn of all character. And while your interactions with Albion's residents may have been simplistic and artificial, their lack of presence here makes the place feel empty. In short, there's no real benefit to the Fable licence.
But it turns out not to matter too much. The people you need to enjoy Fable Heroes aren't made of cloth and buttons but of flesh and blood. With the full complement of human players, whether you're playing locally or online, the issues that grate so much when you're alone - the floaty movement, the weightless combat, the glitches - barely register.
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What makes Fable Heroes tick is the simple joy of competition: the races for piles of money, or the malicious glee of picking the evil chest and watching your fellow man suffer. Smashing a boss to bits is not only more efficient with four human players, it's more fun. Suddenly you're finding fresh joy in the mid-stage 'break time' sections (apparently inspired by Street Fighter's car-smashing interludes) that see you attack giant objects for cascades of coins. Or the mini-games that see you racing down rapids by mashing the buttons that appear over your avatar's head, or trying to survive the longest while kicking explosive pumpkins at your rivals.
Lionhead saves some of its most creative touches for the game's second half, as, after a playable credits sequence, Dark Albion is unlocked. It's much more inventive than the name might suggest: Gravestone, so dim in Albion, is much brighter here, while the parched deserts of Aurora are replaced by verdant forests. Enemies change, too - hobbes appear wearing dog masks or riding wolves, while hollow men rock up in Santa hats. Sliding down Mistpeak's slopes on a sled is now a race across lava where the job is to press any button except the one that's above your head.
By turns clumsy and clever, annoying and addictive, Fable Heroes isn't as different from the series that inspired it as it initially seems to be. It turns out one of the golden rules of being Albion's king also applies here: surround yourself with good people and you'll enjoy yourself all the more.
6 / 10