In an industry whose frontline is so reliant on spectacle, it’s tough not to conflate evolution with cynicism. More than any other form of entertainment, AAA game development is relentless with casting away mechanics that are no longer at the forefront of technological advancement. On a large production scale, game development rarely has an affinity for its own history. It all too eagerly molds longstanding genres and IPs around trends instead of holding past triumphs and current expectations in balance.
This is all to say that turn-based gameplay does not have as much of a hold on the RPG genre as it used to. It utilizes little of the fluidity that improved graphical fidelity lends itself to and though credit must be given to the Persona franchise and the occasional new IP like Octopath Traveller, a growing impatience has crept into contemporary Final Fantasy and Paper Mario entries. The former has found success bypassing turn-based gameplay entirely but the latter has still failed to reach the heights of its first two games, overtly simplifying its combat system at the expense of the franchise’s core identity.
In recent years, control of the genre’s legacy has ceded to independent studios who see its constraints as a starting point instead of a relic. Success stories ranging from LISA: The Painful to the Divinity: Original Sin series have illustrated ways for the role-playing genre to advance without abandoning its roots, and Moonsprout Games’ Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling aims its aspirations at a specific archetype. The aesthetic and strategic features of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door practically serve as a genre unto itself and Bug Fables largely operates within it, preserving its charms and often making outright improvements.
Such an unapologetic reference point does inherit a degree of skepticism. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door remains such a singular, renowned title that merely matching its technical qualities sixteen years down the line sets your title up against a reputation that may be undefeatable. Bug Fables doesn’t fully cultivate an aesthetic that is separable from Paper Mario either, as cutely and competently as its story is told. Yet consistently through its 20-hour campaign, it does imprint its own strategic inclinations onto the player preventing Bug Fables from feeling like a mere fangame.
The distinguishing factor at Bug Fables’s center is its attachment to a designated three-character ensemble. Bug Fables builds its gameplay around co-protagonists Vi, Kabbu, and Leif, as opposed to Mario and whatever ally you choose. If it’s a concession to players, it doesn’t negate the skill with which you will have to juggle their distinct abilities and it lets you bear witness to tangible growth in their powers throughout the game. By focusing in on these characters, there’s no weak link in the group with each character proving useful in combat and integral to respective puzzles. There are of course the requisite checks-and-balances amongst each character’s health, attack range, and strength against respective enemies, but the dilemma at hand is not which characters to use, but how to use them all.
In combat, you can gift extra turns to other characters at the expense of your turn (Vi for example is the only character who can knock enemies out of the air), but you can also rotate character order mid-battle. Bug Fables provides numerous avenues for ensuring a turn isn’t wasted because your character is incidentally not of use. The game as a whole avoids kneecapping players through arbitrary design choices. Challenge and conflict manifest naturally without archaic structure intercepting. Advances are made analytically, determining the weak points of various enemies and committing them to memory, not through sheer luck of having the right character order. Bug Fables establishes early on that it’s playing a fair game, making the nuanced strategy it asks of its players largely rewarding.
In its purest form, Bug Fables‘s combat system upholds the same rhythm as Paper Mario‘s. The player rotates through their character ensemble deploying an attack of their choosing from each character and timing their input to maximize its effect. Special attacks are tailored to each character but revolve around one currency system so much that 4 “Teamwork Points” (“TP”) allocated to one character’s special move means 4 points taken from everyone else. Depending on the enemy you’re facing, certain special attacks range from being indispensable to entirely useless. The starting Tornado Toss skill especially saved me multiple times and otherwise rained notifications of “zero damage dealt” across my screen, losing me 3 “TP” points all the while.
With Bug Fables’ controlled allocation of “TP” points, earned by picking up or purchasing various inventory items and also by leveling up through combat, using special attacks conservatively is a mainstay in combat. Points deplete deceptively quickly and the game makes it a point to incrementally reduce damage dealt by a special attack if you are just using the same one repeatedly. Bug Fables’ ability to get around player exploits is bolstered by the shrewd attention paid to diversified enemy design. Early on in the game, a go-to strategy of mine was to place Leif with his freeze-powered attacks at the back of my roster and then use a special attack to freeze an enemy right before it was their turn to attack. Bug Fables will gratify such a demand, but not across the board. If you don’t internalize which enemies are not receptive to such an attack, you’ll find yourself spending your points and doing every input correctly, but only doing meager damage to the aggressor.
The enemies of Bug Fables often deal vast damage once it is their turn to strike, but the game distributes save points generously and even lets you re-organize your roster when backed into a corner by a boss battle. As is common in turn-based RPGs, towering bosses punctuate the end of each chapter as a culmination of the enemy grind that got you there. At the mercy of monolithic beasts ranging from the Wasp King to a sentient glob of honey, the sturdy responsiveness of the controls and elaborate list of attack options fully shine.
Throughout the campaign, players obtain medals that modify health, number of TP points, and more. The use of these medals operate on their point system ensuring that you cannot equip so many at once as to be unstoppable. The exception to this is the “hard mode” medal available from the start of the game that successfully rebalances the game (at any point when it’s equipped) to make enemies more difficult, but also offer a line of special medals rewarding your efforts. Bug Fables without hard mode toggled is a rock-solid introduction to turn-based RPG gameplay with enough urgency to keep players from being on autopilot. With hard mode on, Bug Fables is a formidable challenge that is still well-balanced weighing all obstacles against the strategy of the player.
As the landscape broadens out chapter-by-chapter, weaving new empires into unforeseen locations, the distribution of each connected area remains coherent though the absence of some navigation features does start to become an issue. Noticeably, Bug Fables lacks a map as well as a fast-travel feature. NPCs always give you guidance in the form of cardinal directions, which on an isometric map leaves no doubt as to which direction is north, but destinations are mentioned by name without any visual notation. A fair amount of time will be wasted figuring out how far northeast you need to travel.
This does however readily feed into the benefits you gain from meandering through town. Outside of its elaborate campaign (which even manages to integrate mandatory stealth successfully), Bug Fables is not lacking in side quests. These range from conventional but painless fetch quests to… more Bug Fables combat, but the rewards for your participation are handsome. More medals and skills than you may know what to do with are offered here and as low as the stakes are, they allow the game to become more playful, introducing an intuitive battle card game that mirrors the reward of the core combat.
Where Bug Fables often compelled me the most is its main-game environment puzzles. It first does wonders in pacing out the turn-based combat. At their most prominent I did occasionally flee repeat encounters with respawned enemies just to avoid prevailing tedium. Alongside combat, the puzzles justify the game’s reliance on three core characters by evolving their distinct traits and testing them across various temple-like contraptions. The common need to freeze enemies and use them as weights before they melt makes for speedy and cerebral hurdles on your way to a dungeon’s treasures. Elsewhere, Vi’s boomerang and Kabbu’s ability to cut through shrubbery gives players an arsenal to logically unearth collectibles and make ever so satisfying progress.
Few of my hang-ups with Bug Fables rest with the quality of its gameplay. It truly does improve on Paper Mario in the balance of its combat, and it otherwise preserves a sorely missed approach to turn-based combat. It’s ultimately in presentation where Bug Fables approximates Paper Mario more than it does expand it. Its admiration for paper-like fields treads very closely to Paper Mario’s main domain and looks slightly less lush than Thousand-Year Door. The environment variety is laudable but not too out of the box for similarly quaint RPGs and platformers. The Honey Factory goes the farthest in distinguishing the game’s setting though it still doesn’t quite carve a unique aesthetic for the game.
The story handles character motivations very steadily but boasts a surprisingly muted sense of humor given the colorful ensemble. I did find myself missing the lunacy of Thousand-Year Door amidst a story that resembles a pretty traditional hero’s quest. Characters make their mark within the story but don’t necessarily leave you with many memorable quips or idiosyncrasies. Bug Fables obviously cares about its characters but where the effort is observable, distinct charm is not always apparent. Credit must be given however to the at once sweeping and zany OST which infuses a fair amount of spark (and MIDI upright bass) into the presentation.
As perhaps foretold by its immediate impression, Bug Fables’ ambitions of being the second-coming of Paper Mario are a bit of a double-edged sword. Its presentation and narrative comfortably slots into RPG norms more often than not, making for an astute tribute but not an origin that stands on its own. However, Bug Fables makes meaningful improvements to the efficiency of old school turn-based combat and paces its gameplay deftly enough to let combat and puzzles reciprocally delight. My lasting connection with Bug Fables’ mechanics usurped my distance from its story. Its ancestors may be obvious but Bug Fables performs like a whole new breed.
This review is based on the PS4 version of the game. A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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