Libra is our “first impressions” series. These are generally spoiler free, but may reveal some base plot points and mechanic details.
There is a name uttered in hushed tones here on SwitchRPG. It’s my name. Because I don’t like things. The other name, of course, is Paper Mario. The recent reveal of The Origami King has the internet in a (madame) flurry, looking at genre labels, fifteen-second combat clips, and other trivial game details in order to glean whether or not the game retains the DNA of the first two installments in the series: Paper Mario, and its sequel The Thousand Year Door. TTYD has a very special place in my heart as one of the first home console RPGs I ever owned and completed, which means it is one of the very few games I like. It’s also the reason I have begrudgingly suffered through Super Paper Mario and Sticker Star, and yes, for the sake of writing a longer and more in-depth article in the near future, the reason I went out and purchased a copy of Color Splash. It’s hard to see something you like become something you don’t like, but hey, we’ve already covered that territory in last year’s Pokemon Shield review.
When a developer goes out of their way, you can’t help but appreciate the effort, even if the execution feels a bit muddled. That’s why I’m choosing to share my initial thoughts on Moonsprout Games’ Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling. After playing for around fifteen hours, it is my duty to report on its similarities, strengths, and weaknesses in relation to the series it draws inspiration from. Is this the Paper Mario game you’ve been waiting for? Probably. Read on to find out why.
Bug Fables has you taking on the roles of Kabbu and Vi, a mismatched pair of explorers looking to make their name in the Ant Kingdom of Bugaria. Though explorer teams are usually comprised of two members, these two are able to plumb the depths of Snakemouth Den and discover the mysterious Lief, a moth with command of ice magic – a rarity in Bugaria. As Lief’s nature and purpose are directly interlinked with Queen Elizant II’s obsessive quest to obtain the Everlasting Sapling, he is able to join Kabbu and Vi on their journey as a member of Team Snakemouth.
I like calling Bug Fables “Paper Mario’s Hollow Knight,” not just because it focuses on a (much more colorful) kingdom of insects, but because its lore and characters are arguably just as rich as Team Cherry’s indie darling. There are many species of bugs that inhabit Bugaria, though what differentiates intelligent bugs and the lesser, mindless enemies is never explicitly stated. In any case, there are both savage and civilized creatures in this realm, and the writers do an excellent job at giving many of them fleshed-out (Shelled-out? Winged-out?) personalities. Bugaria might be a realm with many traditional RPG biome tropes, but its politics, characters, and structure are all rather unique and buggy. The good kind of buggy.
I was worried that Bug Fables would attempt to either ape the Treehouse-style localization of Paper Mario too heavily or break from its tone in order to create something more original, but its writing strikes an impressive balance of simplicity, cuteness, and depth all the same. It does feel very close to the Treehouse-localized Paper Mario, but manages to imbue a greater number of characters with dialogue and character. The main cast are all very endearing in their own ways, each featuring a unique questline to further deepen their relationship to the world.
If there’s one thing I would recommend to players of all shapes and sizes, it is to avoid equipping the early-game Hard Mode medal until a second playthrough. This is best suited for a veteran player familiar with the trappings and pacing of the combat system and medal distribution, respectively. Bug Fables does share a great deal of its DNA with Paper Mario, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to master its combat immediately. There are some questionable mechanics that one could argue enhance the strategic quality of the game, such as its two-tier perfect-block system and turn relay. In hard mode, there is no room for mistakes with perfect blocking – enemies deal increased damage and bosses escalate drastically as you whittle down their health. Turn relay is for purely defensive qualities, as damage decreases with a character’s subsequent attacks, which means spreading attack power across the party. Failing to understand these mechanics – and how your party can benefit from level-up stat increases – can put you at a severe disadvantage against powerful enemies in the long run.
What sticks out to me about the Hard Mode medal is that it is an additional layer of challenge atop a game where challenge is already a highly modifiable element. Level-up stat increases are a prime example of how both the first two Paper Mario titles and Bug Fables successfully implement variable difficulty. I’ve poured most of my level-up increases into medal and team-points, as access to powerful moves and modifiers are far more customizable modes of play. On the other hand, there is something to be said for being a massive HP sponge, as many of the enemies in Bug Fables tend to be. But when you factor in the opportunity to increase currency rewards and experience gains via Medals while simultaneously handicapping your team, you’ll realize that making Bug Fables an easy or more difficult experience for yourself has a variety of avenues. The Hard Mode medal is simply a difficulty blanket atop all the other statistic elements of the game, and its rewards – though impressive in some ways and largely boss-battle oriented – often don’t justify the means.
Bug Fables is more than just combat and narrative, however, and its the exploratory elements of the game that tend to draw the most ire. I’m not sure what is the most aggravating third of the team’s environmental manipulation mechanics: the 360 degree aiming of Vi’s beemerang, which switches back to its default x-axis position upon a second throw, Kabbu’s sluggish horn strike, which has a great deal of windup that makes striking enemies first and hitting switches a risk, or the disappointing utility of Lief’s freezing mechanic (among his later abilities, which are also highly specific). That these mechanics form the foundations of the puzzle-solving in the game’s first act is not a good first impression, and though newfound abilities make exploration, puzzle-solving, and movement much more fun in the long run, the dungeon navigation is the game’s weakest element. This largely has to do with the variety of shape and structure present in many of the environments, which are less prone to adopt the “diorama” design from the Paper Mario series, but suffer as a result.
There are a few other minor nitpicks I could mention, such as the game’s stingy currency yields in relation to its costly medals, inns, and items, though that once again has to do with the necessity to engage in consumables while wearing the Hard Mode medal. Similarly, enemies don’t follow patterns or behave in predictable manners, so you never get much of a reprieve from attacks and defeating a boss (again, on Hard Mode) can often amount to restarting it multiple times in order to get a favorable turn order. There are times when I feel as though I’ve survived an onslaught from sheer luck rather than intelligent play, which is a shame considering the amount of thought I’ve put into my character builds. With that said, the game is forgiving in these scenarios, allowing you to modify your medal loadout and use certain items immediately before challenging the boss again, and you won’t even have to “re-tattle” the boss in question.
- Strong world-building and character dialogue
- Strategic combat with some noteworthy twists
- Incredible character build variety
- Frustrating dungeon design
- Expensive currency balancing (Maybe a Hard Mode quirk?)
- Unpredictable and punishing enemy turns
There will never be another game like Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. Perhaps it is time I come to that conclusion in order to save myself from eternal disappointment. However, to say that Bug Fables stands tall next to it as a close second is probably some of the highest praise I can give – and maybe I have given – to any game, ever. Though there are a few elements that have negatively impacted my first playthrough, I am already eager to take this title on a second time, and I’m only about halfway through it. If that isn’t glowing enough praise from one of the most diehard Paper Mario fans out there, I’m not sure what is.
Keep your eyes out for our review of Bug Fables, soon to follow. Do you have any questions about the game’s design? I’ve also been heavily investing into quests, so feel free to ask about them in the comments below. Thanks for reading!