With our present knowledge of how well puzzles mix together with dragons, it's almost tragic that it took gaming so long to bring the two together. Fortunately, if there's one thing the video game business is good at, it's making up for lost time. The brilliant mash-up of puzzle and RPG in Puzzle Quest was pounded into a more specific shape by Puzzle & Dragons [Free], and with that game's success, the floodgates opened. Generally, games following that blueprint tend to come in with either a variation or replacement of the puzzle element, or an interesting new theme. Occasionally, you get a game that does both. Fable Age [Free], from Blue Tea Games, brings a bunch of new twists to the sub-genre, but the most prominent one is cosmetic. Instead of the "mythology plus Batman, Angry Birds, and whatever other cross-overs we can swing" approach of P&D or going with wholly original characters like Brave Frontier [Free], this game uses characters from fables such as Goldilocks or King Midas.
Provided you're familiar with the developer, that might not come as much of a surprise. After all, Blue Tea Games has thrived on fairy tale settings with its Dark Parables series of hidden object games. The take on the characters is a bit more whimsical and light here compared to that Fables-inspired franchise, but you will see many of the same famous characters. Right from the beginning, when you are faced with the now-traditional choice of three starters, you get to pick between Robin Hood, Snow White, or Lancelot. Like most games of this type, each one is associated with an element that is strong versus one element and weak against another. You'll then play through a tutorial that teaches you the basic ins and outs of the game, but if you've played any games like this before, you'll catch on fast.
Basically, it's the same loop as usual. You make your team, enter a multi-battle stage, do some puzzle gameplay to deal damage or heal while charging up special moves, gain some gold and items, power up the team members you want to keep, and sell off the ones you don't want to keep. Every once in a while you'll be able to pull a new character from a random draw, with weaker characters available pretty regularly from friend points, and stronger ones only available when you gather five rare stones. Of course, proper named characters are uncommon, so most of your pulls are going to be generic guardsmen, wizards, and such. It hews very closely to the genre standards, but there are a few key differences that are noteworthy.
The most obvious difference is that unlike most games of this type, you don't raise the levels of your characters by feeding other characters to them. Instead, you feed them experience books that drop in battle. It seems like a small thing, but I found that it greatly reduced my desire to even bother with pulling from the common machine. More often than not, I end up selling almost anything it offers, and while the gold earned from doing that can be used to buy experience books to level your guys up, it just feels less exciting. Adding to that is that you really have no chance of pulling anything worthwhile at all from that machine. Other games at least give you a tiny chance of pulling something cool, but this game is very upfront about that machine only containing fodder. Evolve materials are also kind of rare outside of specific daily dungeons which means, when combined with the relatively high level caps of useful characters, you're not going to be experiencing the thrill of evolving your troops terribly often either.
I really like the fable theme of the characters, and I also like how the quests themselves tie into those fables. You aren't going into "Generic Fire Dungeon", you're helping Aladdin fight the 40 Thieves, or assisting Prince Charming in his quest to rescue a princess. Each character's story can be read by tapping a button in their profile, which makes for great flavor text. There are also no team costs, which kind of chucks balance out the window, but at least means you can field all of your best guys as soon as you get them. You do need to pay attention to character alignments, since some buffs are only effective on similarly aligned characters. So, while I feel like the team-building part of the game is a little boring compared to other games in the sub-genre, Fable Age does have some sort of a hook outside of the puzzle battles. It's considerably simpler than Puzzle & Dragons, which is going to be a plus for some and a minus for others.
In combat, the playfield has pieces that correspond with the three elements along with heart pieces. Matching at least two of the same-colored piece will cause party members sharing the corresponding element to attack. Matching heart pieces will restore your life bar. There's a link system, seemingly Fable Age's main unique element in battle, that allows you to chain together groups of different-colored stones provided you have enough points in your link gauge. You can restore your link gauge in battle by putting together combos of matches. If you manage to connect your match back around to your first piece, all of the attacks contained in the linked chain will be changed into area attacks that hit every enemy on the field. Each of your characters also has a special ability that can be used when their gauge fills, but it fills so slowly you'll only get to use them once in most of the stages.
It's not a bad battle system as these things go, but it's very plain. There are no special stones to match as in Spirit Stones [Free], and with only three elements, it's not only easy to keep enough teams to stack your deck for each fight, but also to make big combos, since the odds of the right pieces falling into the field for extra matches are quite high. The linking system is neat, but it also allows you to ignore the layout of the field, since you can always link your way to whichever pieces you need to match as long as you aren't totally careless. It's certainly engaging enough from moment to moment, but it lacks sizzle, something that describes Fable Age overall outside of its charming theme.
That theme is easily the chief strength of the game, with nice character designs and a strong, colorful look. It's not a bright or chipper game, but it's not afraid to use the whole palette either. Plus, I have to tip my hat to anyone who can make Snow White look bad-ass. It's quite light on animation, though that's kind of usual for this genre. I suppose I've been a little spoiled by Brave Frontier in that regard. The music is decent but not particularly memorable. I quite enjoyed the little scraps of writing and story here and there, at least. Games like this usually completely dispense with the story or have some very iffy writing quality, but Fable Age's text is interesting and enjoyable to read.
In terms of IAP and monetization, if you've played games like this before, you should know what to expect. There's a stamina meter that refills with time and is consumed every time you attempt a stage. Magic diamonds are used for pulling rare characters, restoring your stamina meter, increasing your character inventory, or continuing if you fail a stage. They are given out fairly generously but can also be purchased for the standard price. You can enlist your friends with a referral code to earn a very powerful character, and you can use the leader of anyone on your friend list to help you out in battle.
I guess my biggest problem with Fable Age is that it doesn't do enough to distinguish itself from its peers in any respect beyond its unique theme. The little ways it does differ make for a more straightforward, if a bit less deep, experience, something that likely has appeal for some while turning away others. I think if you're interested in trying a game of this genre, Fable Age isn't a bad choice, especially if the theme works for you. I doubt it's going to steal away many players from Puzzle & Dragons or Brave Frontier, but it's certainly a competent, if not all that exciting, entry into the ranks.
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