What's the defining feature of a Fable game? Character customisation? Moral conundrums? Property administration? If Fable Heroes is anything to go by, the answer's a lot more fundamental. Above all else, Fable games never like to take themselves too seriously. That's why the standalone adventures can send you up against highway bandits who complain about how close to retirement they are as you run them through with sabres, and why a downloadable offshoot like this can transform a complex solo RPG into a simple multiplayer brawler, without losing any personality along the way.
So while Heroes sends you back to Albion to fight monsters and gather riches, there's little narrative tying the campaign together, and few choices weightier than which perk to unlock, and which branching path to follow at the end of a level. The landscape's been reinvented as a primitive cel-shaded playground of fat little trees, glittering sands and battle arenas, and your intrepid warrior has been joined by three allies and reduced to a perky ragdoll with buttons for eyes. There's no dog management to get in the way of the action, and no bartending mini-games to break up the flow. This time, in other words, it's all about the combat.
Heroes owes more to arcade games like Gauntlet or Castle Crashers than it does to any previous Lionhead title, and although the combat isn't deep, it's still very satisfying. With three friends in tow either online or locally, all you'll need in order to cut a swathe through the game's itinerary of familiar Albion landmarks is a light attack, a heavier flourish, and a few optional extras for when things get tight.
There's a defensive roll that you'll only use when you start to explore the tougher difficulty settings, for example, and a knockback that carves chunks through enemies but takes a nice bite out of your own health in return. Beyond that, although the game's storied cast of heroes may encompass everything from swordfighters and hammer-swingers to spell-casters and even gunslingers, whether you're a ranged or melee specialist, the end result is almost always straightforward buttonbashing stuff, with no combos to remember, and little time for genuine strategising.
Levels are fiercely linear as you move from one spawn point to another, and when things get really hectic it can be pleasantly difficult to tell who's who, as friend and foe come together in a huge good-natured muddle in the centre of the screen. Rather than imposing a little more structure on the fighting, additional complications merely add to the churn. Downed enemies spill coins that you can then vacuum up, bringing a greedy touch of competition to the standard co-operative battling, while chests offer treats, such as speed boosts and points multipliers, or tricks, like a shrinking spell.
Fight and magic
Everywhere you look, things have been streamlined. Boss battles tend to involve nothing more complex than piling on the hurt while dodging a few area attacks, and death sees you fighting as a ghost, meaning you can still deal out punishment even if you can't then reap any monetary rewards. Levelling up, meanwhile, takes the form of an end-of-chapter board game, as you roll dice to move from one strain of perks to the next, then spend your winnings on upgrades. Everything from prettier weaponry to enemy-specific finishers are available, and while the system's fairly grindy, it's ultimately more of a lighthearted palate cleanser than a genuine RPG skill tree.