|Platforms||PC, Xbox One, PS4 (reviewed), Switch|
|Release Date||PC: November 21, 2019
Xbox One, PS4, Switch: May 28, 2020
If you read my review of Paper Mario: Color Splash, you may remember that I made a comment near the end about how I wish Intelligent Systems, the developer of the Paper Mario franchise, would spin off that style of gameplay into its own series and continue making Paper Mario games in the vein of the first two entries in the series. Well, if The Origami King is any indication, Intelligent Systems doesn’t seem to be interested in my suggestion. However, as if in answer, developer Moonsprout Games has granted us Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling, a game that seeks to accomplish what fans have been asking for ever since Super Paper Mario began the series’ slow departure from its classic RPG roots. I’ve been itching for a classic Paper Mario experience for a while now, and when I heard about this spiritual successor, I hoped—nay, yearned—that this would be the game Gotham both deserved and needed right now.
Spiritual Content: The story centers around finding various magical artifacts to open the way to the titular Everlasting Sapling, which is itself magical. The goddess Venus is a minor character, and one of the settlements worships her with a festival, though this boils down to a battle sequence and other festivities. One of the main characters uses ice magic as a main attack, and is very sensitive to any magic the party comes across in their journey.
Language: Words like “darn,” “heck,” and “geez” show up a few times throughout.
Other Negative Elements: One of the main characters shows a definite propensity toward greed and violence, demanding a reward from every character they help and eagerly challenging foes to battle. As the story progresses, she calms down and begins to see the error of her ways.
Positive Content: One of the main characters has a strong sense of justice and duty toward others, eagerly offering to help those in need, fighting reluctantly and only when he deems necessary, and chastising others for being greedy or too eager to fight.
ESRB Rating: E (Everyone)
The inspiration behind Bug Fables is pretty immediately apparent. The game opens with a story scene that weaves the backstory for the adventure, much in the same way the original Paper Mario did. Once the intro is over, we meet Kabbu, a young explorer who seeks a life of adventure and helping others. He’s paired up with Vi, a bee who just wants to prove herself to the world, and make some bank along the way. The two are tasked with exploring Snakemouth Den, a cave near the Ant Kingdom that has claimed the lives of many explorers.
Once you’re in control, it’s easy to see further inspiration in the game’s art style, featuring flat characters in a 3D world, much like a pop-up book. As I began exploring, I got fun flashbacks to my memories of exploring Rogueport in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. An interesting note to make here is that, much like many indie studio games, Bug Fables gives you a decent amount of control over your experience. You can tweak music, sound, and dialogue sound levels individually, you can change the method of input for attacks that involve rapidly pressing buttons if you’re not interested in channeling your inner jackhammer, and you can even tweak the weight of the outline on 3D objects in the world. I love this level of customization, even if I’ll use it once and forget about it. Just knowing it’s there is a comfort of sorts.
As the pair explores Snakemouth Den, they come across Leif, a moth who has been trapped by an enormous spider. After rescuing him, the three finish their exploration, defeat the spider once and for all, and escape. The explorer’s union dubs them Team Snakemouth, and they are commissioned by Queen Elizant II to search for various artifacts that will unlock the way to the Everlasting Sapling, a mystical tree that grants eternal youth to anyone who consumes its fruit.
That’s about all I’ll go into in regards to story, as story is naturally one of the driving forces of the game. All I’ll say is that the story is…nothing mind-blowing. It’s not nearly as simplistic as Color Splash, but it still hits many basic notes. There are some more emotional moments near the end, but they feel a little out of left field, rather than being hinted at throughout the story. There is one subplot that I wasn’t quite able to unravel in my playthrough that I’m interested in going back and finishing, so there’s definitely enough here to keep you hooked. Just…don’t expect Tolkein levels of world-building here.
The gameplay of Bug Fables strikes a nice balance of exploration and platforming, again taking clear inspiration from its main source material. Each of the three explorers has various skills they can use in the overworld to help explore. Vi has a Beemerang that she can hold to activate switches, Kabbu can knock blocks and frozen enemies around to activate pressure plates, and Leif can freeze said enemies and create a shield to walk across dangerous floors.
The game’s puzzles start out pretty simple, but some of the later ones really made me scratch my head. In fact, maybe they made me scratch my head a little too much. Given the game’s art style, it can be hard to judge where you’re landing or how a shot is going to line up. And when it came to some puzzles that involved backtracking two or three times, I found myself quickly growing frustrated. I never had to spend too much time on any particular challenge, and I appreciated the effort that went into making the times between battles, which are all too often the main focus of RPG gameplay, interesting.
So what about that battle system? Battle systems have been the bane of Paper Mario fans ever since Sticker Star’s release, so does Bug Fables seek to mend the sins of its predecessors? The answer to that is a resounding yes.
Bug Fables makes a grand return to the battle system seen in the first two Paper Mario games: a basic, turn-based system enhanced by medals and timing-based guards and attacks. It’s refreshing going back to this tried-and-true approach to battles. And what’s more, it includes an experience system to actually incentivize battling! What a concept!
This is honestly my favorite part of the game. I’ve always loved the battle system in the early PM games, and no other RPG has given me that same simple-but-fun satisfaction. My only complaint is that I wasn’t able to make good use of the medals in my playthrough. Medals are equippable items that give various buffs in and out of combat. To make best use of them, you need to use them in combination with each other, as some medals seem to give only negative effects, like disabling automatic healing from poison. However, when combined with medals that increase your attack and defense when poisoned, they can create a battle strategy that’s more in-depth than you could possibly get just casually playing the game. However, since I was mainly interested in finishing the story, I didn’t complete many of the side missions that gave me these medals, so I missed out on that aspect of the game, and that makes me feel like I missed out on a large part of the overall experience. But that’s on me, not the game.
Still, it’s not a perfect game. Certain elements of the presentation just…didn’t land well. The first thing I noticed was the music. The first track in the game is a somewhat grating MIDI arrangement that honestly sounds like it came from a game made a couple generations ago. Moonsprout Games is a two-man development team, so it’s an understandable choice, but as an initial experience, it was jarring. Thankfully, the music does improve as the game goes on, with some of the later tracks being surprisingly atmospheric and evocative. It almost feels like the composer wrote the soundtrack in the order the tracks would be heard and didn’t revise any of the earlier tracks.
The environments, too, didn’t quite do the trick for me. The dangerous thing about drawing so clear an inspiration from an established series is that people will inevitably compare your game to its spiritual predecessor. I’ve tried to remove that comparison from my mind, and yet the environments, on their own, nearly fell flat. They’re well designed and interesting enough, but as the game progresses, they tend to blend together into a series of grassy or sandy expanses with enemies littered throughout. Again, though, like the music, the atmosphere improves exponentially near the end of the game. It even gets legitimately oppressive and eerie in the final chapter, and saves the overall design from truly failing.
One moment in chapter three helps to redeem the environments. You’re high above the land in a beehive, and you’re able to glance out and see the entirety of Bugaria. And…it’s a backyard. That vast desert that seemed unnavigable? It was a sandbox. That vast sea that sailors were charging extortionate prices to cross? A leaky sprinkler system. This moment of perspective brought a genuine smile to my face, as each of the environments up till that point had really felt like untamed wilderness. Re-establishing that I was indeed controlling a team of tiny insects exploring a human world took me off guard in the best way.
In fact, that moment above perfectly encapsulates what ultimately kept pushing me to keep exploring. Because, if I’m perfectly honest, Bug Fables is a bit of a puzzlement for me. None of the aspects on their own, such as the battle system, art style, environments, dialogue and story, or side missions, are particularly mind-blowing or groundbreaking. They’re good, yes, but no single one caught my attention. And yet, there’s something about the combination of all these things that made me want to continue to experience what this little game had to offer. And I think that’s a testament to what Bug Fables nailed best in taking inspiration from Paper Mario: charm.
I hesitate using words like “charm” because they’re inherently unquantifiable. I can’t give you a cutscene that gave the game charm, nor can I point to a gameplay mechanic that nailed the charm of the game. The game just has it. It’s fun and cute and just…full of charm. It’s something many games strive for, but very few actually achieve with any sort of success, and I think that’s because charm isn’t something you can intentionally develop. It comes from a developer with a passion for what they’re making, putting everything they’ve got into a project. And I’m happy to say that Bug Fables is full of charm.
Bug Fables took me by surprise. When I first started out on my journey with Kabbu, Vi, and Leif, I was thrown off by the strange music, somewhat clunky platforming, and samey environments. But I kept playing, and as I did, it grew on me. The characters each have distinct ways of speaking and reacting. I wanted to hear what they had to say about where they found themselves or who they were talking to. The side missions let me meet more characters with unique designs and fun personalities, and I want to go back and do more of those. In fact, I want to start over and do another complete playthrough and really take my time to comb Bugaria for every treasure I can find.
No, it’s not perfect. I wouldn’t say it’s a replacement for the series that has brought me so many good memories. But instead of being a replacement, Bug Fables helped me create some new memories, and helped me meet some new characters that I love. And what’s more, it’s only $25, less than half the price of AAA titles. If you’re not a previous fan of Paper Mario, you might not be able to get past the issues I’ve mentioned above. But for anyone who’s been itching for a return to form, Bug Fables hits that indescribable charm that it so desperately needed to. As for me, I think it’ll be a game I keep returning to for a long while.
The Bottom Line
Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is an extremely endearing homage to a much-beloved series, though it suffers from some clunky platforming and a lack of inventive locations.