It would be foolish of me to say that this review for Bug Fables will border on being overlong and self-indulgent, but my personal gaming history and the path leading me to this site specifically had its true “beginning” with Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. Though there had been other games before it in my childhood, the sequel to the Nintendo 64’s rebranding of the Super Mario RPG concept (what a winding set of qualifiers) was not just my favorite game at the time – it is a game I return to and play just about every two years. Its approach to combat, exposition, and environmental design are so deeply ingrained in me that I know nearly each of its diorama-designed rooms by heart, and play through the game with minimal item and healing options because of how briskly-paced the experience has become.
For a long, long time, all I have wanted is a game like The Thousand Year Door. And for a long time, Nintendo and Intelligent Systems have refused to give me that, choosing to iterate on the staples of the first two Paper Mario titles in ways that range from bizarre gimmicks to novel-yet-problematic game design decisions. I can’t fault Nintendo for wanting to do something bold with a more niche property. As the years have dragged on, however, and one-time use attacks, cookie-cutter enemy and NPC design, and a seeming lack of self-awareness as to what fans desire from the series have become the norm, I had just about lost hope.
Then, came Bug Fables.
Bug Fables is an action-command, turn-based RPG that plays out over seven chapters in the land of Bugaria. You’ll use a core cast of three characters to gradually explore, battle, and come to understand the nature of the world and the central quest. The most important element of Bug Fables’ gameplay is its combat, which manages to provide some worthwhile twists on traditional Paper Mario mechanics, though never separating itself wholly from its source of inspiration. Each playable character has a basic attack option utilizing a simple action command, a certain input execution that must be performed in order to deal the basic amount of damage. If you should misinput or fail to execute these action commands, you’ll deal a reduced amount of damage, which can prolong enemy encounters. When on the defensive, your only option is to block incoming attacks. There are two tiers of blocks in Bug Fables, with a tight window for “perfectly” blocking an incoming attack and reducing even more damage. This system works with the slightly inflated enemy HP and offensive stats in the game, but it also punishes a player for not carefully reading enemy behavior. You can attempt to perform a pre-emptive strike on enemies in the field using Kabbu the beetle’s horn strike or Vi the bee’s beemerang, which will grant the current leader an additional turn at the start of battle.
The amount of turns a specific character can utilize is an essential feature of Bug Fables, as a special function known as “Turn Relay” allows a party member with unused actions the opportunity to pass their turn off to another member. While this does offer some fun possibilities, it comes with a consequence in fatigue, as any consecutive offensive options will diminish in power across multiple turns. Couple this with the offensive and defense buffs that come with party formation (last-position characters taking and giving less damage, while front row characters deal and take higher amounts), and there’s plenty of strategy that factors into the passing of a single turn.
With the impressive variety of enemy types on display in Bug Fables, it is fortunate that players can create a wide variety of builds using the game’s three-pronged level-up system. A daring player will forego HP increases (which are themselves somewhat diminutive, only offering a single hit point increase per character) in favor of either Team Point or Medal Point increases. The former will deepen the shared pool of mana your party utilizes in order to access their special skills – a number of these will unlock as your explorer rank (i.e. level) rises. You can also add new skills and traits to your characters using Medal Points, which allow the party access to equipment that enhances their particular strengths or new viable options, such as increased status infliction, resistance, the power to regain HP and TP upon defeating enemies, and much more.
The final piece of Bug Fables’ puzzle is environmental exploration, a concept that expands as the game progresses. At certain points in the narrative, the three main party members will unlock new abilities that will assist in connecting and expanding the world of Bugaria. Though limited at first, these abilities will eventually range from forming force fields to burrowing underground in order to avoid enemies and bypass environmental hazards. Though the early-game puzzles utilizing exploration skills are by far the more tedious and frustrating, later dungeons use more environmental elements and inventive abilities that make discovery and traversal more enjoyable. This is a result of the game’s environmental and puzzle design, which favors a more open format at the cost of feeling difficult to control and ambiguous at times.
With the narrative taking place in a kingdom of seasoned bugs, there are some immediate questions that the setting raises, but the game does an excellent job of establishing its world and the nature of its denizens, particularly how they have extended lives and characteristics that conflict with our usual understanding of insects. Likewise, an overarching quest in the game revolves around gathering Lore Books, which can be accessed via the library and cover a myriad of subjects. This method of establishing enjoyable and fascinating depth behind a relatively simple premise enables Bug Fables to be a game that offers plenty of worthwhile lore behind a straightforward, central narrative.
Speaking of which, although one of the three main party members has their backstory settled earlier on in the narrative, each of the playable cast possesses their own, unique backstory and personality that become clearer as the story progresses. I was initially worried by some of the earlier dialogue and scenarios, but Bug Fables manages to achieve its own, clear voice by focusing on elements of personality and world-building that its predecessor Paper Mario only dabbled with. Many more NPCs have more storied histories and flavor text than one might initially expect, reacting to events that occur throughout the narrative and appearing in many different scenarios. Quests manage to introduce new citizens and enemies whose motives aren’t always nuanced but offer a great deal of variety, allowing for a game capable of various locales and encounters.
The story presents a satisfying amount of intrigue both on a small and larger scale, as the relationships between certain characters, political powers, and even the land of Bugaria and its place in the larger human environment are explored. There was a specific bit of flavor text and interaction that squarely placed the events of the game into a human-sized perspective, and I was both impressed and shocked to see how far the developers were willing to delve into the world-building for their game.
While there’s little that unites the denizens of Bugaria, you’ll find a few species of bugs that share a species and unite under specific “kingdoms.” Ants, Bees, and Wasps are the primary bug species, though you’ll also find a number of aphids, beetles, and other critters with multiple appearances throughout. It’s fascinating to see the number of bug species represented, as well as how many variations on the archetypal depiction you’ll find. Although many bugs can be classified as a certain species, there are so many diverse designs that it rarely feels like there was a “default” character model here.
Though I absolutely adore the number of unique models on display, I have found that the core cast is a bit lackluster in comparison with the swaths of other designs. Vi in particular is a female bee with a nice, furry mane around her neck, but there are other bee characters that have more endearing traits and fun characteristics. There are a number of moths you’ll spot throughout your playthrough, but Lief’s design doesn’t quite seem representative of the species. Kabbu is a green beetle without an eye. There’s a traveling beetle with just as neat a design as his, if not more so. If the point is to make these heroes unassuming, the developers have certainly done the job, especially when a number of other adventurers are really quite awesome.
The environment manages to achieve the Pikmin-like quality of representing a small-scale environment close up. A number of large grass stalks and discarded, human-sized items can be spotted throughout environments, though the small brush that Kabbu can cut down with his horn is a bit short in comparison and muddles the aesthetic somewhat. Still, the joy of spotting a giant plastic gardening tool in a sandbox or a repurposed cardboard box is hard to ignore. I was also impressed to hear a soundtrack that near-perfectly captures the MIDI soundscape utilized by The Thousand Year Door – the differences in instrumentation are so slight that the environmental tunes still evoke the GameCube title very well. Even though it sounds similar, the number of infectiously enjoyable tracks is hard to ignore. You’ll spend more time in towns than out in dungeons, so the developers have wisely purposed some of the more relaxing tunes for that purpose. All in all, aesthetics and sound design combine to make an experience that is very much Thousand-Year Door-like.
Impressions and Conclusion
Bug Fables has made think long and hard about what I wanted from Paper Mario. Was a true, faithful sequel to the mechanics of the GameCube title? Well, not really. Bug Fables is very different, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it “better.” It replaces mechanics with new ideas, crafts a wholly unique narrative, and gives a healthy and enjoyable alternative to what The Thousand-Year Door crafted back in 2004. That an independent title can stand toe-to-toe with a full-retail release from that era is incredibly impressive, and very much worthy of praise. But to answer the question at hand: does Bug Fables do anything better than Paper Mario?
Yes. Its world is far more interconnected, its side quests are better structured and telegraphed, its difficulty options are immensely nuanced. You can choose to limit your longevity or the amount of skills at your disposal, or you can equip the Hard Mode badge for a teeth-kicking HP, attack, and defense buff for just about all enemies. Bug Fables features a deck-based minigame that is arguably just as deep as some fundamental gameplay mechanics featured in other games, and it’s all in service of a semi-arbitrary side quest.
There’s an attention to detail, a passion for the product here that is not easily found in many other titles, though the closest equivalent I could find in my head and library is perhaps Cosmic Star Heroine. The same question that I considered with that title rings true here: is it good enough to create a product that stands toe-to-toe with the classics of a bygone era? Is it fair to ever equate a subsequent release with what has already come?
In the case of titles such as bug Fables, it feels like a simultaneous disservice and compliment. The developers clearly crafted a product based on their love of classic Paper Mario titles. They made a game that not only embraces most of the best parts of Paper Mario, but offers heart, innovation, and unique elements all in itself. It may not be perfect – dungeon exploration can be a chore, and experience accrual slopes off a bit too fast for my personal liking. The miniscule health-point gains don’t necessarily sit right with me, but I understand the reasoning behind their implementation. All in all, I feel that Bug Fables is somewhat too slavishly faithful to its inspiration. But if I were to say that I didn’t enjoy playing a satisfying action-command RPG for the first time since… well, another game, but that’s a story for another time – I’d be lying.
Maybe I’m just plumb dumb enough to enjoy action-command combat enough to forgive any game of its flaws. But hey, if you wanted to hear an unabashed Paper Mario fan glower over a faithfully recreated concept, you could watch a number of other YouTube videos. What I will say is this: Bug Fables is a title that manages to surpass its predecessors in some ways while offering impressive side-steps in terms of progress in others, resulting in a game that could very well usurp The Thousand-Year Door in my eyes. But it’s not as stylish, and for that, I must regretfully say that the GameCube original is still the best. While it’s nigh impossible to play that version on anything but a GCN or Nintendo Wii, we’ll all have to settle for the next best thing – and fortunately, Bug Fables is as close as theoretically possible to that.