Sentiment has been decidedly split about the prospect of Fable Legends. As the first big new Fable game in several years, it’s exciting to think about returning to Albion for another trip through the whimsical fantasy world. At the same time, Lionhead’s choice to explore a multiplayer-focused experience takes the game away from the single-player role-playing roots that helped establish the franchise. We took the new game for a spin at Microsoft’s E3 booth, and found a number of clever ideas – even if we still have some doubts about how much the new game still feels like a its part of the wider series.
Fable Legends feels like a dungeon crawler at its core, focused on discrete missions through a winding series of rooms (both inside and outside), while the players work together to confront a host of enemies and traps. Four players each choose a character to play – a named individual with their own look and powers. Lionhead tells me they’re aiming for around a dozen distinct heroes to choose between for the final game. The game is playable solo, but if you choose to do so, you’ll always have a party of AI companions join you for your adventures.
The characters begin in the hub town of Brightlodge, which I'm told includes many of the trappings of a traditional RPG city, like merchants and quest givers. With a mission chosen, a fresco-style cutscene akin to those in the other Fable games is used to transition players to a mission/dungeon area, and the four cooperating players are off to take down some bad guys.
The twist is the presence of a fifth player (or AI, with fewer players) who is the villain. Like a particularly mean-spirited dungeon master in a game of Dungeons & Dragons, the villain player controls the monsters and traps of the mission area through which the players must move. He or she spawns enemies, flings out artillery blasts, and does everything possible to slow or halt the progress of the heroes, and eventually kill them.
In my playthrough, I took on the role of a mage named Winter, whose magical specialty is an appropriate match to her name – mostly cold spells. Like all the hero characters, Winter has a distinct set of abilities that set her apart, and also help to suggest how she should contribute to the battle. Her most important ability is to send out a chilling blast of cold that slows down enemies and eventually freezes them in place, at which point another hero can rush in and smash the unfortunate creature. Other heroes onscreen during my playthrough included a heavy-damage ranged archer and a tank-like melee warrior who taunts and holds the attention of the enemies. These stratified party roles aren’t anything new to longtime gamers (especially those with an MMO background), but I found that the way the roles are presented in Fable Legends to be simple and easy to grasp, while still requiring focused cooperation from the whole team.
As we wander and take damage, health does not naturally regenerate, and precious health potions are few and far between. Move ahead too fast or get separated from the group, and it’s easy to get knocked out. Another player can then revive you, but you’ll now have a lower maximum health. After all, the villain needs to have their own chance to win the scenario.
Though your moveset is prescribed by your choice of hero, the feel of combat is close to what players are familiar with from previous Fable games – mobility-focused third-person action that is relatively forgiving, but often demanding that you handle multiple foes at once.
As my team moved forward through a sun-dappled forest, enemy minions regularly assault our position, and the villain player makes a point to fling out blasts of damaging fire into areas where we might have gathered too closely. In particular, reviving a fallen comrade can be tricky, as that spot on the map becomes an easy space for the villain to blast you.
The demo ends with a fight against a hulking ogre-like beast, and while it was a close call, we managed to cinch the win. By the end of my playtime, I found that I really enjoyed the cooperative vibe of combat, and the need to combine powers from different heroes to truly succeed. At the same time, the short section of gameplay I witnessed didn’t help to reassure me that Fable’s funny and lighthearted narrative structure has survived the transition into a new gameplay style. However, to be fair, I also didn’t get to see the town hub, or learn where this mission fits into the game’s larger campaign.
Fable Legends takes us back in time within the Fable universe, to an era before the founding of the heroes guild. The game is one of a few at this year’s E3 that are exploring interesting twists on mixing cooperative and competitive play, and I’m interested to see how the full experience comes together. As a fan of the Fable series, I can’t help but feel a little frustrated that we aren’t getting a new single-player epic anytime soon. But I will say that if you’re in that same camp, I’d encourage you to hold off judgment until we see how the game turns out. A lot of fun ideas are present here – it may not be the Fable we thought we wanted, but that doesn’t mean it won’t provide its own brand of fun.