Keystone combines elements of roulette and craps, both visually and in terms of the required betting strategy
There has always been a slight problem with gambling video games, in that they take a real-world vice and invariably remove the most important ingredient: the chance to win or lose large sums of cash. Without any sense of risk - or the chance to get rich quick - most games are reduced to a hollow experience that gets dull pretty quickly. Where is the thrill in hitting a royal flush in poker if your winnings are paid out in pretend money? It's not like you can blow it all on pretend hookers, pretend cocaine and pretend fast cars.
Fable II: Pub Games neatly sidesteps this problem; in fact, it turns the whole situation to its advantage. The title serves up three neat little gambling games with the idea being to accumulate gold and other prizes ahead of the release of the full-blown Fable II. Once that comes out, you'll be able to merge your Pub Games profile with your newly-created adventurer... and Hey Presto! Suddenly your hero will find his pockets stuffed with filthy lucre which can then be spent on hookers (possibly), cocaine (doubtful) and fast cars (definitely not).
It's a sly move indeed from Lionhead, who supervised the development team at Carbonated Games. People who would have bought Fable II anyway will enjoy the mini-games and get all fired up ahead of October's release, building anticipation for the launch. Meanwhile, undecided shoppers who give Pub Games a go will discover a powerful incentive to buy the full title - what else will you do with all that hoarded gold? And what about the magic apple pie you just won - don't you want to see what that will look like in-game?
In fairness to the developers, we'll wager that there will be far more people in the former category than in the latter. It's also worth pointing out that several retailers are giving away Pub Games for free to people who pre-order the main title. Happily, as we're about to explain, this is actually a pretty decent little set of diversions - so if you're definitely set on getting Fable II, it's worth ferreting out one of these deals.
'While Spinnerbox feels a bit aimless, Keystone and Tower of Fortune prove to be surprisingly addictive.'
Without further ado, let's talk about the Pub Games themselves. First we have Tower of Fortune, a card game that feels like a strange hybrid of blackjack and Deal or No Deal. The principle is that the player bets upon numbered cards laid in rows of increasing length, arranged in a pyramid shape. When a row has been revealed, the dealer will offer you a cash sum equivalent to the value of the cards shown. You can either take this and walk away, or hold out for another, longer row which is likely to give you a better total. The catch is that if any card matches the value of those directly above it - creating a vertical pair - then the game busts, and you get nothing.
Players are given a couple of lifelines to escape this result. The first vertical pair you draw is ignored, and each deck contains four special hero cards which make their row immune from a bust. As mentioned, your offer from the dealer tends to increase as the rows get longer - and if you can manage to get all the way down to eight rows without busting, you'll pick up a massive jackpot. The challenge is therefore to hold on for as long as you can, which can make for some tense moments.
The second game, Spinnerbox, is essentially a fruit machine in all but name. A series of discs are spun at random; if two or more matching symbols are revealed, it results in a payout. The player's only real input is to control the size of their bet, making this the least skilful - and therefore the least interesting - of the three games on offer.
Far more diverting is Keystone, a dice-based affair that blends elements of both craps and roulette. Here we are presented with a playing surface with two distinct areas: the outer section consists of a semi-circle of stones numbered 3 to 18, while the inner part has a selection of boxes relating to different bets available to the player. Three dice are then rolled, and the stone corresponding to their total is removed from play. This keeps going until either stones 10 and 11 have been removed, or until one of the end stones (3 or 18) go, ending the round. Players can bet on which stones will fall, or on a selection of other criteria relating to the numbers or the dice.
While Spinnerbox feels a bit aimless, Keystone and Tower of Fortune prove to be surprisingly addictive. Aside from the chance to win gold, dedicated playing unlocks concept art and access to more complicated variations of the three main games, through the levelling up of your gambler. You can also join tournaments against AI opponents in the hope of winning items that can be used to kit out your future Fable II hero. These prizes come in pretty weird shapes - from haircuts to new tricks for your pet dog - but there are some fairly tasty-looking special items at the higher levels.
There is one small flaw to these tournaments, in that those pitched at beginners are free to enter - in other words, they offer you a chance to win for nothing. This feature was presumably included to help people climb their way out of debt, but it seems unusually generous. The Spinnerbox tournament seems particularly problematic; spamming the A button is enough to get you through the whole event in a matter of minutes - and if you don't win anything, you can always have another go. While this will get boring very quickly, it's also a sure-fire way to hoard cash - never a good thing for a gambling game.
On the whole, however, this is a minor flaw in what is otherwise a polished package. Pub Games does exactly what it's supposed to do and it does it in a fairly charming way. The background music and the graphics are quietly stylish with the occasional flourish - the way the hero cards spring to life in Tower of Fortune is a neat touch - but it's thoughtful design that makes the games worthwhile. If you're not planning on buying Fable II then Pub Games is a questionable use of 800 Microsoft Points; if you are then it's certainly something to check out - especially if you can get it for free.
VideoGamer.com Score8 Score out of 10
- An innovative way to prepare for Fable II
- Lots of content to unlock
- Well designed, addictive games
- Spinnerbox lacks any real depth