Games becoming genres has happened a handful of times in video game history, with names like Metroidvania and roguelike transcending their origins. It’s a compliment of the highest order for those progenitors, and though those particular examples have seen countless send-ups, there’s always been a sense of knowing when you’ve got something truly special on your hands.
It’s in that same way that Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is truly special, as it captures the essence of Paper Mario so splendidly you’d swear you could see the cardstock. As a bonafide Papery, or Paperlike, or whatever it may be called, it seemingly understands its inspiration more than certain sticker-coated and paint-smeared entries do. Though it isn’t a perfect tracing, and it has original ideas of its own, it’s nonetheless a delight of a game for RPG fans.
Bug Fables’ insectoid world introduces itself to you with a story of the Ant Kingdom and its Queen, as well as the Everlasting Sapling itself. It’s then that we meet Kabbu, a well meaning and somewhat withholding beetle who has traveled to the kingdom and is attempting a dangerous excursion for a related artifact. Soon he meets the excitable young bee Vi and a mysterious and magical moth called Lief as they venture through the land of Bugaria.
If you strip away the chitinous outer layer, it’s a fairly typical setup for a RPG. The writing is most reminiscent of the first Paper Mario, being a beginner-friendly entry in the genre — but not without its cleverness and fun. The trio of leads are all likable in different ways, and despite the lack of voice acting it’s always clear who’s speaking based on those characterizations. With the theming in mind though, there are added layers of wordplay and visual flair that makes you wonder what you might see next, pushing you onward to more battles and exploration.
Those battles are equally as reminiscent of Paper Mario, though it’s in this area of the game where some key additions have been made. For one, you’re a party of three rather than two, giving you more actions in a turn. Each character has their own unique techniques earned over time, and specialize in taking on certain enemies. Vi, for example, uses a boomerang to target faraway or airborne foes, while Kabbu can flip over sturdier enemies with his horn — but only the closest one in their formation. It brings a sense of strategy and balance to commanding the party. Enemy positions and conditions can change based on one members actions, impacting what’s possible for who acts next.
Sometimes you might find a character is effectively useless for a fight at hand. Rather than swap them out (as all three are participating together), you can instead transfer that character’s actions to another member, though with successive attacks becoming weaker. If an enemy is extremely durable but weak to magic, you can have Kabbu and Vi give up their actions so that Lief can cast three times total instead rather than do minimal or no damage. It’s a nice addition that furthers your strategic options in fights.
Other elements include the fact your “lead” character gets a slight boost in combat, meaning party formation is something to consider. There are also techniques and passives granted by Medals (Bug Fables’ badges) and the ability to Spy (read Tattle) on enemies with any party member. Timed Hits are here as well, offering bonus damage and effects for pulling off techniques’ button presses spot on. It does lack the audience and stylish moves that were added with Thousand Year Door, for fans of those specific features, but things still felt comfortable and familiar in the best of ways.
Team Snakemouth (as our group is eventually christened) don’t just differ in combat, as they each have their own overworld techniques. These come into play with some light puzzle-solving, both for mandatory progress and optional rewards. This might be the area of Bug Fables that felt weakest to me, as while the scenery captures the tiny perspective of this inch-high insect world, it can be tedious always swapping through the characters as needed.
In a given dungeon or map section you’ll cycle through the trio several times. Lief is the only one who can freeze ice to make blocks, but moving those blocks involves swapping to Kabbu for his horn. As thematically sensical it is, it feels a little repetitive and tedious to do over and over again throughout the game.
There’s also the matter of hitting enemies in the overworld to get an extra hit in battle, though it felt like only Vi could do this reliably for me — even if she isn’t always the best bet for that particular enemy. I couldn’t help but feel it was sometimes at the game’s expense, even if it emphasizes each characters’ specialties.
As for game’s visuals, they follow Paper Mario rules — regarding 2D characters and objects in 3D environments — though the game lacks the texturing that’s become commonplace in the style, as well as a certain sense of polish. Holding it to that standard, especially as this is an indie homage, wouldn’t be fair, but anyone seeing all these comparisons and then expecting Origami King visuals would be mistaken and disappointed. Rather, it rests comfortably in its own exoskeleton, particularly its more colorful and vibrant areas.
Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling may not carry the polish or characters of its revered predecessor, but it successfully holds pretty much everything else that made those games great. From smaller features (cooking!) to its plot structure, there’s no distancing this one from its pulpy roots. Yet in being such a thoughtful emulation, it still finds its own identity in the characters and world it’s put together — while also making some interesting additions. If you can’t wait for Origami King or just want to revisit some N64 nostalgia, Bug Fables is up to the task and is available today.
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