The recent reveal of Paper Mario: The Origami King has me craving some classic Paper Mario! I’m optimistic about this new entry, but the series was just never the same for me after The Thousand-Year-Door. That’s where Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling comes in. Calling this bug-based RPG from Moonsprout Games “inspired” by Paper Mario would be a huge understatement. It wears its influences so proudly on its sleeves that it could easily pass as a polished ROM hack of the GameCube adventure. But is it a wonderful homage, or a cheap rip-off? I went hands-on with a review copy provided by publisher Dangen Entertainment to find out.
The world of Bug Fables
Bug Fables kicks off with a simple-but-effective narrative. You’re playing as a diverse trio of bugs with aspirations of becoming professional adventurers. The Ant Queen is always recruiting new thrillseekers to quest for relics, and the ultimate goal is the Everlasting Sapling, a mythical plant said to grant eternal life. This journey sends you across the lands of Bugaria to the kingdoms of the Ants, Termites, Bees, and more.
The game features a papercraft aesthetic without much explanation beyond the obvious nostalgia factor. While Paper Mario treated the world almost as if it was popping out of a book, Bug Fables just kind of looks that way for the fun of it. That’s not to say there’s little thought put into the design, or that it relies on nostalgia alone. Setting the game in the world of bugs allows for fun ideas like a gumball machine that’s been converted into a bank for ants. From this shrunken perspective, a puddle can be a lake, and a sandbox a desert.
The world is massive with plenty to do, including a seemingly never-ending supply of optional content. It can be a bit overwhelming at times, but everything becomes more accessible as you unlock fast travels and shortcuts. The game also rewards you for uncovering important locations in Bugaria. These are marked off on a “Discoveries” list, and every fifth one nets you a reward.
Platforming and puzzle-solving are also big factors in exploring the world of Bug Fables. Each of your party members will unlock overworld abilities as you progress, such as Kabbu’s ability to smash rocks or Vi’s “Beemerang.” There’s a good amount of creativity in the puzzles, but sometimes the controls can be just a bit imprecise, and the fixed camera occasionally created clumsy platforming situations. I had my fair share of frustrated sighs over a botched jump or a slightly misaligned boomerang throw. The game also froze a handful of times, though never for more than a couple of seconds. Oddly, this only ever happened at the very end of the final chapter. Given the size of the game, these incidents were too few and far between to slow me down or damper my enthusiasm.
Familiar yet fresh
Anyone who has played classic Paper Mario will feel right at home minutes into Bug Fables. Beyond a similar aesthetic, the battle system is nearly identical too…at least at first. Combat is turn-based, and you’ll have access to regular attacks and special attacks that require TP (Team Points), as well as items. Each attack is an interactive experience, with timing-based button inputs that keep you engaged. A well-timed button press can also reduce the damage you take while defending. If you’re up for a real challenge, you get an equipable medal (akin to Paper Mario‘s badges) early on that makes battles tougher but grants you better rewards.
One of the new battle mechanics is an ability called “Turn Relay.” With this, one of your party members can forfeit their turn to give someone else an extra turn. This will get you out of a lot of tricky situations, but it comes at the cost of reduced attack power for the second attack. You can also decide (and change mid-battle) which party member is standing first in line. They’ll have the first attack as a default (though you can change this too), and enemies are more likely to target them. All of these small additions add up to a more robust strategic experience.
All of the classic Paper Mario battle mechanics have an equivalent, except for Star Power moves, which were Mario’s strongest attacks. There are also fewer items that deal massive damage or heal generous amounts of HP. In general, there are fewer battle shortcuts. I appreciated the challenge, and I always enjoyed it when a battle came right down to the wire. On the flip side, there were moments when battles felt a bit tedious with fewer strong options available. It’s a bit of a tradeoff, but I was satisfied overall.
A focused and fleshed out party
The biggest change to battles is that you’re fielding a team of three. Instead of having one Mario-esque main character with a bunch of swappable partners, Bug Fables has three equal protagonists who stay together for the whole adventure. This gives the battle system a bit more of a traditional JRPG feel, with each character serving a unique, complementary role. Late in the game, you can even team up for three-person (or three-bug) combo attacks, ala Chrono Trigger.
Speaking of partners, the decision to stick with a core group of three is a big win for character development. Classic Paper Mario games had you swapping between seven or eight partners, only ever using one at a time. Keeping the same party of three together makes it a lot easier to get fully invested in each character’s personality, and the game gives all of them meaningful backstory-related quests. It might be the most important twist that Bug Fables puts on the classic formula.
So much content
When you’re not busy with the RPG’s main story missions, you can enjoy tons of optional content and mini-games. Townspeople are always looking to reward you for your services, and there’s a whole separate quest category for tough boss fights. Those fighting skills will also come in handy when you’re putting on an action-packed show at the local theater. If you’re sick of fighting, you can also try your hand at a deck-building card game, spend some tokens at the arcade, or help the best chefs in the land create their own masterpiece recipes.
One of my favorite features is the addition of a traveling singer. As you encounter background music in the game, you can pay her to memorize it. Shen then essentially serves as a living, traveling jukebox that can set the mood for whatever town you’re in. There are over 60 tracks to unlock, and they perfectly capture the tone of classic Paper Mario tunes, despite being original songs.
After logging more than 50 hours, I’ve still got optional content left to explore. If you’re looking for a more streamlined experience you can stick to the main quest, but you may find yourself a bit short on cash. Plus, checking off sidequests can often result in rare items or even shortcuts on the overworld. You’ll also uncover Lore Books as you play, each one fleshing out more of the history and culture of Bugaria. All of this makes exploration a rewarding experience that will keep you invested in the game world.