Right now, the Fable series is in a little bit of turmoil. The franchise started strong on the Xbox, but as time went on, the reality of each entry in the series grew further and further apart from the grandiose promises of former Lionhead Studios maestro Peter Molyneux. Looking back, fan satisfaction peaked during Fable 2. For me and many others, moods plummeted at the end of that game to “angry Mass Effect fan” levels. In fact, I was so enraged by the ending of the second installment, that I didn’t even bother with the third entry.

To make matters worse, Molyneux openly decried Fable II as “rubbish” when talking up its sequel (only later to accept “personal failure” for the third title’s problems). A gruesome pattern was emerging and I got off the bandwagon. Now, beleaguered fans of the series have two options to get their fix, though neither resembles the game play that has brought people back to the table. E3 last year saw the introduction of the upcoming not-on-rails, Kinect-powered Fable: The Journey, but a little more immediate is the title on today’s menu: Fable Heroes.

Awwww... how cute!

This third installment in Microsoft’s Arcade NEXT promotion is a bit of an odd duck. It has a number of the emotional triggers that will tug at the nostalgia centers that lie dormant in the brains of Fable fans. However, it offers none of the depth of core entries and seems more designed for family play. What are you Fable Heroes? Are you supposed to be a gateway drug to the main entries? Are you really just a stealthy advertisement for Fable: The Journey (there certainly are enough connections between the two to make this plausible)? One thing is for sure, you are trying to mask shallow play with a beautiful, fun aesthetic.

At first glance, Fable Heroes was a joyful romp through my best memories of playing Lionhead’s games. You start with four of the puppets unlocked, each looking like one of the collectible dolls from the series. Eight are unlockable as you progress through the game, but you won’t have access to the final two until you connect with Fable: The Journey. You’ll also be able to transfer gold between the two games. As I discovered these things, I got a very significant Fable II Pub Games vibe. That’s not a great thing, by the way.

The gang's all here.

At the start, you’ll have access to the Hero, Hammer, Garth and Reaver, all recognizable characters that are well portrayed here. The game play is bland, side-scrolling beat ‘em up fare. Advance, encounter enemies, defeat them all so you can progress, break barrels and open chests. The Hero and Hammer are melee fighters with Garth and Reaver filling in the ranged roles. The problem is that the game is slanted toward fighting up close.

As you defeat enemies, they will drop coins, which are used to upgrade abilities. You will gain a small amount for hitting enemies, but the real money is in picking up the gold on the ground. By definition, those with sword and hammer are going to be closer to these drops than gunslingers and spell weavers. Ranged players will either need to stick to their proper position on the battlefield and remain poor or break character for cash. Neither is a good option, and the fact that the game forces it upon players is a fundamental failure of design. There is an option to share gold, but you need to choose the lowest difficulty for that. Forcing players to trade challenge for the way the game should work is silly.

I'm rich!

Worse, many games in this genre have measures in place to ensure that pickups stay accessible. Too often, coins bounced just beyond the playable space, leaving me helpless as they flickered out of existence. There is nothing worse than taking down a baddie, losing the loot and, in the process, wasting time trying to get at it as your comrades clean up the things that can be retrieved.

Want to know how old-school the action is? When enemies spring upon you, you will be unable to progress. Defeat them all and the word “GO!” will appear. It’s quaint, but gaming has progressed. Seeing that kind of throwback is odd in a series that always promised to be innovative and never reductive.

No matter how many human players you have on hand, there will always be four puppets on screen. The AI isn’t terribly bright, and you’ll often be the last person standing at some point during the level. If anything, they serve as acceptable damage sponges, allowing you to rake in the coins.

Snowball fight! (No, not really.)

Each character has a light, flourish and area attack. The latter requires you to spend one of your precious hearts to trigger. Replacements will drop from bad guys, allowing you to heal up and bring deceased friends back from the dead. Instead of disappearing from the battlefield, players that are severely wounded return as ghosts. Juicing up with a heart makes them corporeal once more. There are chests with power ups that can make you larger or small, speed you up or slow down time. The enhancements feel a bit “muddy.” It was never clear if being large made me stronger or just slower and easier to hit. Opening a chest was always a risk, with some pickups more annoying than beneficial. The chance for gold, multiplier boost or health usually was enough motivation to open them, though.

You’ll also have the chance to make good and evil decisions… by opening one of two chests. Choosing the low path can convey status debuffs to partners or start a game of lightning tag that makes players drop coins. Choosing the path of the just typically confers a random power up on one player. On one hand, it’s a cute nod to the source material. On the other, it bogs down the game when you can’t advance until things run their course.