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Fable Heroes Preview: Little Big Fable

Puppet masters.

It's rare to be surprised by anything these days. Microsoft's Spring Showcase in San Francisco promised a day of feigning astonishment as Playground's Forza was finally unveiled, and a skinny overview of what to expect from the next Halo was given (spoiler: it's got guns in it, and maybe a space marine or two).

The look of shock when presented with Fable Heroes, a four player beat 'em-up that presents a knit-work Albion by way of Castle Crashers, was genuine - as were the expressions of delight after playing what's shaping up to be an utterly charming off-shoot for Lionhead's fantasy series.

Fable Heroes is the product of one of Lionhead's creative days, an annual in-house meeting where the team throws around ideas. "The things that usually come out of it are a new piece of technology or a toolset," says Ted Timmins, formerly a quest designer on Fable 3 and now promoted to lead designer of Fable Heroes. "This is the first time that a videogame has come out of it, and it's great - it puts that extra bit of pressure on us because we won't get this opportunity again, and we want other people to have this opportunity."

Fable Heroes syncs up with The Journey, unlocking gold and avatars for the Kinect game.

The idea of Fable Heroes first came about last April following an idle canteen conversation about creating a Gauntlet-esque jaunt through Albion - and now, with the backing of Molyneux and a dedicated staff of 20, it's a dream that's coming close to completion.

It's an approach to development that has, of course, already proven itself over at Double Fine, where a series of quick-fire games has helped rejuvenate the studio. Lionhead itself didn't really need rejuvenating, but there's the possibility that its lead franchise Fable did, hamstrung by a third installment that all too clearly ran out of development time.

And whether that's the intention or not, Fable Heroes finds a way to breath new life into the series. It's disarmingly simple at first; you can choose from 12 characters picked from the universe, all rendered as sack puppets complete with a series of emotes that can be cycled through with the bumpers. Favourites such as Reaver and Hammer are joined by the likes of Fable: The Journey's Gabriel (and it's not the first crossover between those games - more on that later).

They each come with their own play styles, mapped out across a two-button combat system that's faithful to the mainline games, with simple attacks (a pistol shot for Reaver, for example, or a melee swipe from Hammer) being paired with a chargeable special attack. There's also a third option by way of the right trigger, which sparks off a wide-area attack at the expense of a little health.

Levels themselves present a familiar mix of enemies, from Hobbes to balverines and all the way through to screen-filling bosses, each of them exploding in a playful shower of coins when defeated. It's these coins that are the core currency of Fable Heroes, and the source of much of its mischief.

It's a score attack at heart, and one that comes alive with a series of nasty little quirks and twists that turn a simple button-basher into a frantic quest for gold. Chests are littered across levels, offering either a handful of gold or - more entertainingly - a power-up.

There are two worlds, offering eight levels each. The latter Dark World provides a more intense spin on earlier levels.

They vary in effect but are uniformly creative. There's one that enlarges your puppet, allowing you to crash through the enemy hordes; another grants a doppelganger that allows you to deal out twice as much damage and collect twice as much gold. The best ones - and there are around 15 in total - change the make-up of the game for everyone, depositing a coin-sapping cloud over one character that can be swapped over to another through contact, stopping everyone's progress as an all-encompassing game of tag breaks out.

Being a Fable game there are elements of choice - you can choose between good or evil chests, with the good offering gold while the bad sends misfortune another player's way. At the end of each level there's another choice, with players presented with the option of playing either a mini-game - kicking a squabble of explosive chickens or riding a mine cart to victory - or encountering a boss. In some ways it's more of a Fable experience than its brother The Journey, coming complete with a complex perk and upgrade system that unravels on Heroes' over-world, itself modelled after a board-game.

If that's all a little too competitive for an afternoon of family entertainment, it's possible to switch off individual scores and all work together to create a unified score. It's the kind of inclusiveness that's defined Traveller's Tales' Lego series - like them, Fable Heroes offers drop-in/drop-out combat and promises to be perfect family fodder. And like the Lego games, it's paired itself with a magical aesthetic that perfectly reflects the charm within.

It's a world of cotton and cloth that's obviously indebted to LittleBigPlanet, although no small amount of credit must be given to Lionhead for managing to weave the look into Albion itself - it is, if you'll pardon the pun, seamless. Levels unfurl in a succession of colour, and established locations such as Millfields, Bowerstone and Mist Peak all given a fresh and youthful charm.

Yet beneath the soft exterior and family friendly warmth is a game that's quick to get its teeth into players of all ages and abilities. It's telling that, in a showcase that sees what is arguably Microsoft's strongest ever line-up fronted by Halo 4, it's a small and unexpected XBLA game that leaves everyone wild-eyed with excitement. Fable Heroes is a surprise, and an utterly charming one at that.