One of my favorite trends in the video game industry in recent years has been independent game developers releasing games designed for an audience that major publishers seemed uninterested in catering to, for one reason or another. Bug Fables, an RPG developed by Moonsprout Games and published by DANGEN Entertainment, has the potential to fill a void for a fanbase that is less than happy with the current state of their favorite franchise: Paper Mario fans. Bug Fables takes its gameplay inspirations from the first two Paper Mario games, a style of gameplay fans of the Paper Mario series have been asking for Nintendo to return to for years. Does Bug Fables serve as a fine substitute for Nintendo’s beloved RPG franchise and stand as a good game in its own right?
This review is based on the v1.0.5 PC build of the game. Bug Fables is also available on the Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.
Booting up Bug Fables for the first time makes it immediately obvious why the game gets compared to Paper Mario so much. The art style is nearly identical, as the game takes place in a brightly colored low-poly 3D world occupied by characters who are all 2D sprites. Characters even turn around by flipping themselves, just like in Nintendo’s RPGs. The game’s environments are explored from a fixed perspective with a three-person party of playable characters, all of whom can jump and perform special actions in the field. This gives the game light elements of platforming and puzzle-solving. Bumping into an enemy while exploring triggers a turn-based battle, where the player will be asked to use timed button presses in order to maximize their damage output and minimize incoming damage from enemies. Collecting a certain amount of exp dropped by enemies allows you to give your entire party a permanent stat boost in one of three areas.
Initially I was a little disappointed to find out that this game borrows from its inspiration so heavily that it could be considered a blatant clone, as the core gameplay I described above also describes the Paper Mario series almost to a T. However, I would argue that there is value in copying this series specifically. Firstly, good traditional RPGs with action and platforming elements don’t come out very often. Secondly, even though the Paper Mario series is still alive today, in this reviewer’s opinion it has lost its identity and diminished in quality. Thirdly, even if a game is lacking in originality it can make up for it in execution. There is value in what Bug Fables is trying to accomplish, and it has quite a few strengths of its own.
As a story-driven RPG, much of a player’s time with this game will be spent engaging with the plot. Bug Fables is a lighthearted bug themed fantasy epic that takes place in the kingdom of Bugaria, a land founded by an ant queen due to the promise that it hides the legendary Everlasting Sapling which grants eternal life. Brave explorer bugs have been searching for artifacts that could point to its location for many years. This backstory is explained through a brief opening cutscene, afterwards the game wastes no time getting started and introduces the player to two of the three main characters. An energetic but immature young bee named Vi and a stoic and knowledgeable beetle named Kabbu form your initial two-person party at the start, and after a brief tutorial battle meant to prove their worth the two are accepted into an explorer’s guild and sent to investigate the game’s first dungeon. There they run into an enigmatic moth with amnesia named Leif, who becomes the third party member. I love the snappy pace of the game’s opening chapter; it only takes about an hour to end up in the depths of the game’s first dungeon with a full three-person party.
The three bugs who make up the roster of playable characters in the first dungeon stay together during the entire duration of the game, over the course of which they learn new skills and grow both as a team and as individuals. Vi, Kabbu, and Leif all have great contrasting personalities, which leads to a lot of charming dialogue and a fun party dynamic. I became more attached to these characters as the game progressed, especially once the game started to deliver some surprisingly emotional moments of character development. There were some scenes where I felt the party spent a bit too much time bantering, however. Often whenever the party is conversing with an NPC every one of the main characters needs to make a comment on the situation, which can lead to some scenes feeling longer than they needed to be. Despite this minor gripe I would say the dynamic shared by the three main characters is the story’s biggest strength.
Another major strength in the game’s plot is a constant sense that you, as the player, are missing a part of the big picture. The game introduces many mysteries related to the titular Everlasting Sapling, the lost civilization that once guarded it, the history of the ant kingdom and the backstories of the main cast. The answers to the many questions the game raised made for a compelling reason to keep me playing, and sometimes the payoff for these mysteries would genuinely surprise me. Bug Fables also has a strong cast of recurring NPCs, many of whom have their own smaller story arcs the main cast can take part in. These recurring NPCs can be very memorable, thanks in no small part to their very distinct and cute bug-themed character designs. My only major complaint about the game’s plot are that the villains can feel very one-dimensional, especially the main villain. Encounters with this character often don’t feel as impactful as they should because of this.
In terms of gameplay, Bug Fables' strongest aspect is the battle system. This is the one area of the game where I feel the developers were able to take ideas from Paper Mario and truly expand on them to make something that exceeds Nintendo’s series in terms of quality. As I mentioned earlier, the battle system is a turn-based affair, with any commands the player gives to their party members requiring them to perform timed button presses in order to do as much damage as possible. When it’s the enemy’s turn to attack, the player will have the opportunity to reduce incoming damage by blocking with good timing. More powerful attacks or other special techniques can be performed by draining the party’s Teamwork Point, or TP, gauge, although these techniques will require more complex button combinations to pull off.
The combination of strategically commanding characters and managing resources like in a traditional RPG with elements from action games works just as brilliantly in Bug Fables as it does in Paper Mario. Not only does this make the game more accessible and appealing to players who spend more time playing action games than RPGs, it also makes every encounter more engaging. Even encounters with weak enemies will require the player to at least pay enough attention to what’s happening to perform timed button presses properly. It also gives the player something to do when it’s the enemy’s turn to attack. Where Bug Fables expands on this concept, however, is through complexity.
For example, the three playable characters in Bug Fables all have different kinds of attacks that are more effective against different enemies. Kabbu has a horn attack that can flip over heavily armored enemies, Vi has a “beemerang” that can strike airborne enemies, and Leif uses ice magic that works well on plant and fungus based enemies or enemies buried underground. As early as the first dungeon Bug Fables begins to mix together enemies in encounters that are vulnerable to or need to be struck by specific kinds of attacks, and these encounters and enemy behaviors only increase in complexity as the game progresses. Every encounter had me trying to find the most efficient way to deal damage using my party member’s varied skills. I never had to worry about RNG messing up my strategies, as attacks from my party and enemies always did consistent amounts of damage unless I messed up the button combinations.
Players will have plenty of options in terms of customising their party to suit their playstyle using the game’s medal system. This works identically to Paper Mario’s badge system, giving the player the ability to equip their party with medals that provide beneficial passive effects in battle. As the player levels up, they’ll be given the option to increase the number of medals they can equip. Bug Fables offers many opportunities to find synergy with these medals. Some medals have very situational effects that are meant to be used in conjunction with certain items, character abilities, or other medals. This gives the player more options in terms of creating a more personalised or effective party build.
Bug Fables also has a few unique battle mechanics to call its own. A “turn relay” feature allows one party member to give up their turn in favor of having another party member act twice or even three times in battle. Any party member acting during an extra turn is temporarily put in an exhausted state where they do less damage, so this mechanic needs to be used carefully. On top of the standard block for reducing damage, Bug Fables introduces the super block. The timing window for blocking attacks normally is fairly generous, but if the player blocks just as an attack lands damage is reduced even further. This adds an extra risk versus reward dynamic to avoiding damage that players who love getting the most out of battle systems should enjoy.
With so many different variables to contend with in Bug Fables’ battle system, its easy to see why it remained so entertaining for me throughout the entire game’s duration. Battles are also more challenging in general than in the Paper Mario series, although I wouldn’t call this a difficult RPG. The difficulty falls into a nice middle ground where its difficult enough that fans who grew up playing the Paper Mario games should find it satisfying, but not so difficult that players who don’t play a lot of RPGs will find it too difficult to get into. Players who are afraid they might find the game to be too easy will be glad to know that its possible to acquire a medal right at the start of the game that makes every encounter harder, in exchange for greater rewards from battle.
Aside from exploring and fighting, Bug Fables will also ask the player to do a bit of platforming and puzzle-solving. Vi, Kabbu, and Leif all have unique abilities that can be performed outside of battle in order to circumvent obstacles. Kabbu’s horn can move objects and cut grass, Vi’s beemerang can hit distant switches and grab items, and Leif’s ice magic can freeze water droplets and enemies to create platforms or movable blocks. Over the course of the game every character will learn new field actions, and puzzles will become more complex as a result of the player’s expanded options. I enjoyed many of the puzzles in later dungeons, they would frequently leave me scratching my head for a bit before the solution would occur to me, like a good puzzle should.
Not every puzzle mechanic won me over though. Early on Vi acquires the ability to have her beemerang spin in place to continuously turn cranks in the environment. This move felt very finicky to use, as the beemerang can only spin in place after it’s thrown a fixed distance. Puzzles that required the use of this mechanic demanded very precise placement of the party, and it would often take me a few attempts to find the exact place I needed to stand to ensure the beemerang would spin where I wanted it. An early dungeon that makes heavy use of this mechanic was easily the game’s lowest point for me. Platforming can also feel awkward because of the fixed camera angle. There were a few instances where I had trouble telling specifically where a platform was whenever I was required to jump away from or towards the camera. The platforming and puzzle solving in Bug Fables was still an enjoyable change of pace for the most part, this part of the game just doesn’t shine as brightly as the combat.
Bug Fables’ main story offers plenty of fun dialogue, well designed dungeons to explore, and enemies to fight, but if a player only focussed on the main story they would miss a huge chunk of this game’s content. After completing the first dungeon Bug Fables opens up a bit and gives the player the option to start various side quests. Many side quests are simply fetch quests, but some flesh out characters you meet during the main story, give you access to new areas or areas from later in the game early, or even lead to optional dungeons and bosses. There are even side quests tied to one of those in-universe collectible card games that are all the rage these days. My favorite dungeon and character moments in the entire game were part of a side quest. Having so much effort put into side content is not something you often see in RPGs like this, and it helps Bug Fables stand out.
Another prominent side activity a player can take part in is cooking, and unfortunately, it’s the only part of the game I would consider a major flaw. On paper it sounds like a great idea. Players can cook using either one or two consumable items with the help of various chef NPCs in order to fill in a huge recipe book and acquire food that provides helpful effects in battle. It’s an extra checklist for completionists to fill in and encourages experimentation with the consumable items a player will collect while playing the game. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a fan of how this system is implemented. Consumable items dropped by enemies or bought from stores aren’t as effective as they are in other RPGs, its best to think of them like ingredients. The only way to stock up on useful healing items is through cooking, which can only be done at specific locations. Items need to be cooked one at a time, and the player is forced to engage in a brief conversation and then watch a brief cutscene for every item they want to cook. This means stocking up on healing items is a much more time-consuming process than it is in other RPGs, and I would always dread having to do it.
The last thing in Bug Fables that stood out to me is the music. It has a very “bouncy” sound to it, with some standout tracks like the main town theme getting stuck in my head for days after I finished playing the game. The composer went the extra mile to create unique tunes for every major boss you encounter over the course of the game’s story. These boss themes also stood out to me, as they have a lot of energy and convey a sense of danger without feeling too dramatic. Every track suits this game’s tone perfectly.
With only one major flaw I can think of, it’s safe to say Bug Fables accomplishes what it sets out to do. Although I will always have a deeper appreciation for games with original concepts and gameplay, sometimes you just need something safe and comfortable to play. Taken on its own, Bug Fables is an RPG with a great cast of characters, lots of side content, and an excellent turn-based battle system. I can’t see any fan of the Paper Mario series looking to play this as a substitute coming away from it disappointed, and any fan of RPGs with great battle systems should play it as well. The new Paper Mario game coming out in July now has a very high benchmark to meet, and I’m curious to see how both of these games will compare.