Announced at the Microsoft Xbox Spring Showcase in San Francisco, Fable Heroes is one of two entries in the Fable series set to be released in 2012.

Much less contentious than Kinect title Fable: The Journey, Fable Heroes is an Xbox Live-exclusive love letter to the franchise. It is permeated with throwbacks to old-school gaming.

Especially surprising is that development has been kept completely under wraps since December 2010, and that the material on display at the Xbox Summer Showcase is a first look at an essentially finished game.

The gameplay style is a significant departure from the typical Fable role-playing experience. Other than a few familiar yet cursory elements thrown in for fun, Heroes is more in the spirit of the hack and slash genre. It owes more to the style of Gauntlet than anything Lionhead lead and series overseer Peter Molyneux has produced thus far.

The game sports four-player drop-in co-op, which can be a mix of online players as well as those in the same room. Players can choose between a variety of characters from the Fable games, and the eight levels and six mini-games are all based on original Fable levels.

In talking to lead designer Ted Timmins, he noted the game is the first product to be released that was a part of Lionhead Studios' creative day, where members of the company are able to showcase mods, technology demos and other miscellaneous creative projects they worked on in their spare time. After the project caught the eye of Molyneux, the game was green-lit with a small development team of 15.

There are plenty of fun throwbacks. A mushroom beat-em-up akin to smashing a car in Street Fighter 2, a big head mode and a nod to Streets of Rage with special moves costing a single heart for each execution. For those who beat the game, there is also an extremely difficult dark world mode where the same levels are replayed at night with added enemies and improved AI.

There is also that famous Fable element of choice, where it becomes necessary to select between good and evil power-ups; a light-hearted spin on the crux of the entire franchise.

There are also other unorthodox and interesting additions, like Xbox Live Achievements having tangible effects in the gameplay, as well as the online leaderboard being able to unlock the secret cloud level not just for individual players, but for everyone else involved in the game as well.

Due for release before Fable: The Journey, Heroes will allow players to start amassing gold which can be transferred to Journey upon its release. Though unable to disclose the exact number of Microsoft Points Heroes will retail for, Timmins assures that the price has been kept relatively low.

In the short time afforded to the media for hands-on, it's clear the game is charmingly fast-paced, goofy and sports a distinctive visual look somewhere between puppets, board games and train sets. It plays great, feels fast and is definitely intended to be played with a large group.

Fable Heroes looks to be a solid supporting cast member to the immersive and sprawling core Fable titles, harkening back to a simpler time in gaming.