"Instead of being just a cardboard cutout copy of its roots, Bug Fables embellishes that established template with its own style and flair while improving things where need be..."
It baffles me that we haven't had more Paper Mario-inspired video games over the years, but in 2019, Moonsprout Games took a page out of the plumber's book to bring us Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling. With a small-but-dedicated fanbase behind it, the game is now coming to consoles, and it absolutely deserves to have a bigger following. While inspired by the aesthetic of Nintendo's popular RPG series, Bug Fables forgoes the paper-style mechanics and tropes of those games, perfects the gameplay, and crafts a world brimming with love and care that's hard not to fall in love with.
Bug Fables' story isn't anything you haven't heard before, nor does it need to be. It follows the adventures of three friends as they search for the Everlasting Sapling, a mythical plant that is said to grant immortality. These three friends are Vi, a bee who has run away from her home to become an adventurer; Kabbu, a beetle who has just recently moved from the north to start anew; and Leif, an amnesiac moth who was rescued from a cave by Vi and Kabbu.
It's the characters that make Bug Fables so memorable to me. The cast's development happens so naturally throughout the course of the game, either through the main events or the sidequests you pick up along the way. Each of them has at least one story chapter, and one major sidequest, dedicated to their character. Leif's in particular hit hard: as he attempts to regain his memories and find the origins of his ice magic, the game goes to some very dark places that stunned me. These moments are so well written because while the story can get dark and each character has some hardship, they don't dwell on the more emotional elements for too long and manage to pepper some lighthearted humour throughout, making the shocks that much more powerful.
Where Paper Mario uses its paper-themed aesthetic to poke fun at Mario's history as a franchise, Bug Fables creates a brand new world that feels so alive and far more interesting than anything Paper Mario has ever done. It's the many named NPCs that really help bring this world to life. So much care and attention has gone into these characters, and they all have distinctive personalities. Many of them get as much development as the main trio, and a lot of these characters are fleshed out via the sidequests you pick up throughout the game. Almost all of these sidequests have good rewards, and all of them are really fun, varied, and teach you about the game's mechanics.
A few of the quests show you how to use the cooking system to create better healing items, and knowing which foods heal more than others, or which ones provide good buffs, is vital for the endgame. There are also quests that unlock new, optional areas for you to explore. You can play arcade games or go to the Underground Tavern and play card games for as long as you like too. My biggest issue with the sidequests and the game as a whole though, is that the menus are quite basic and can get overloaded. All of the active and completed sidequests are stored on the same page, and if you have a big bunch of sidequests on hand at once, they're displayed in the order acquired, forcing you to scroll down to check what the next hint is. This can get pretty annoying when you're at the end of the game.
The combat is one other area where Bug Fables borrows from Paper Mario. Each character has their own set of skills, and their attacks are activated by completing a little minigame, such as stopping a counter in the green area or holding down on the control stick until a big symbol lights up to deal the most damage. But the game also adds another layer of strategy that makes combat truly unique and fun. At the start of your party's turn, you can change the order your characters are lined up in or even select who attacks first. So if a heavily guarded enemy is your first opponent, for example, you can put Kabbu in the front so he can break their defence. Alternatively, if a party member at the front of the line is low on health, you might want to move them to the back so they take less damage.
Being able to swap your party order is just the tip of the iceberg. You have to manage your Team Points (TP) to use skills effectively and equip the right medals on each character (think stickers) to give them boosts; both of these systems are really easy to use, but they're also very effective. I swapped my loadout multiple times. Sometimes I used Vi as the main damage dealer in areas that were full of flying enemies; other times I gave Kabbu status resistances so he could take the brunt of the damage from the front. Bug Fables' combat is not too different from its inspiration, but I also don't think it needed to be fixed or overcomplicated. It works, and what's more, it all knits together so well to create something fun.
The land of Bugaria gets the same love and attention as everything else. Every location is visually distinct, full of bursts of colour and interesting landscapes that are so much fun to explore. The Golden Hills' warm autumnal tones and the Far Grasslands' verdant, lush, and overgrown scenery are going to stick in my mind for a long time. Accompanied by a bopping, upbeat soundtrack by French composer Tristan Alric, I loved humming along to the music as I ventured across the land. There were times where the game slowed down significantly for me, particularly in heavily populated towns and towards the end of the game. Sometimes things even froze entirely for a few seconds, but this was fairly infrequent and never took away from the joy of uncovering new secrets, and sometimes even horrors.
And there's a lot of fun to be had while you're exploring! Throughout the game's many locations, there's usually a puzzle or two blocking the way forward or a hidden treasure. To solve these, you need to swap between characters on the field, and use their specific field actions in order to progress. If you see a crank in the distance, use Vi's beemerang skill to activate it and keep it spinning in place to rotate a platform. Or use Leif's ice magic to freeze water and create platforms. All of these puzzles are easy enough to figure out, but some get really clever, and it feels rewarding to solve them and move forward.
This is really the only time the 2D paper aesthetic gets in the way of the game. Aiming Vi's beemerang can get really finicky at times, as you can't tell whether you're facing diagonally, to the right, or towards the screen. Some platforming sections and narrow walkways also suffer a bit because it's harder to tell what way your character is facing, or if you're going to miss a jump or fall off a ledge. I had similar problems with the older Paper Mario games too. Fortunately, Bug Fables is one of the better examples of puzzles and platforming in an RPG in recent memory.
It's been a while since I've been so pleasantly surprised with a game. Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling takes inspiration from one of Nintendo's most popular RPG series, but it doesn't rely on the tropes and humour that made those games so beloved. All of the meticulous detail and care that's gone into the world, characters, and mechanics is on display here. Instead of being just a cardboard cutout copy of its roots, Bug Fables embellishes that established template with its own style and flair while improving things where need be, and as a result, it's one of the best and most honest tributes I've ever played.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.