Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling tells the saga of a misfit gang of three bugs with a huge adventure in front of them. Using the traditional Paper Mario visual style and fighting mechanics, it manages to both replicate the classic game and tell its own story.
In the curious case of Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling, I have a conundrum. On one hand, there’s the severely declining formula of Paper Mario that Nintendo seems to keep straying further and further from the original design with each iteration. On the other, there’s a new developer that is using Paper Mario’s famous paper style, its excellent combat system, and wrapping their own heroes and storyline around that core formula. I hate to be that guy, but not only does it work, but it manages to exceed the fun and joy from the latest Paper Mario games in the series in many ways.
The primary quest in Bug Fables is that of three bugs on a quest to bring the queen ant from the Ant Kingdom the Everlasting Sapling; a sapling that is rumored to provide a veritable fountain of youth. A bee named Vi, a scarab beetle named Kabbu and a moth named Leif seek out to find this rare artifact for the queen and answer some questions about their own past along the way.
Almost everything about this game borrows from Paper Mario, from the character’s movement to the weapon and item system, but it does abandon the necessity for everything to be constructed from paper, and instead, offers a miniature bug-sized world with more of a cel-shaded aesthetic. The characters, buildings, items, and enemies all pop off of their backgrounds due to the vibrant colors that are quite reminiscent of the vivid palette that Nintendo tends to use. Animations are expressive and help lend to the natural humor that exudes from the game, which is mostly found in each of the conversations between the main character Vi and literally anyone she comes across.
Vi is one of those characters that you either love or hate and is a very sarcastic, sometimes bordering whiny individual. Not only is she loud and arrogant, but at the same time will become cowardly and run from trivial situations. Her sarcastic overtones permeate nearly every response and that kind of sass gives each conversation a particular dark-humored tinge. I personally think she’s a riot, but she might not be your cup of tea.
Each of the characters in Bug Fables has a basic attack that is built upon as you level up and explore. Vi’s ‘Beemerang’ allows her to hit flying enemies and enemies in further rows in battle and also hit hard-to-reach switches and pick up distant items in the field. Kabbu’s horn also allows him to hit switches, but can also cut bushes to reveal hidden items and pathways. Leif’s ice magic can freeze water to make ice cubes for switches and as platforms to reach higher areas, but also can freeze enemies in battle, stopping them cold in their tracks. Being able to switch between the three characters on the overworld allows unique puzzle-solving opportunities, plus it gives you the ability to switch to whoever you favor, as they will attack first.
Combat is served in a turn-based fashion, and you can alter attack orders with a first-attack if you stun enemies first before running into them on the field. Your trio on their turns is able to attack, use skills or items, or pass a turn to another bug, which gives them two actions, where the second action isn’t as powerful. Vi and Leif offer ranged attacks, but Kabbu can only attack the closest enemy to him. Additionally, Leif can target enemies whose skills allow them to dig underground for defense or perhaps charge up an attack. These three varied styles are simple in practice but used together can create combinations of their attacks to really rack up some damage.
Each enemy has a bevy of information to learn about them if you use the Spy command. You can reveal their hit points and weaknesses, and then proceed to use that to plan your battle strategy. Knowing the HP of each enemy is a great bit of knowledge to have and any time you face those creatures again, it will automatically show their stats to you. It’s also worth noting that Spy tells you an interesting anecdote or story about each one, which further adds to the depth and charm of the game.
Timing is everything in combat, though, and it’ll take learning the patterns and being on top of the timing of each hit to maximize your attacks and skills. You are required to do a timed-press on each attack to guarantee maximum damage or efficiency and it keeps you engaged instead of simply pressing an attack button and watching the pretty battle unfold. Defense works the same way when your characters are attacked in that you can press the action button to block at the exact moment the attack would land, which severely reduces damage and sometimes can reduce it to nothing. The ebb and flow of these timed button mashes are what made the combat work so well in Paper Mario and it does wonders here, as well.
Beyond the main quest and combat encounters, there’s plenty of other activities to keep you busy on the adventure. There are job listings for little side quests here and there for random villagers needing you to help them with things and mini-games in this bug-filled world. A dungeon crawler and decently deep card game offer up rewards for your patience and there are even bosses you can hunt down for unique perks as well. There’s plenty here to keep you busy beyond the lengthy quest that encompasses the central storyline.
Everything in Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling has a certain charm to it, from the dialogue and care taken to make sure each bug had a unique personality and voice to them, to the cute, colorful graphics that make up its sprawling world. With Mario’s papercraft adventures straying further from the source with each new game, its refreshing to see a love letter written so well to a game that deserves proper, fulfilling sequels, even if it features lovable bugs instead of hammer-wielding plumbers. Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is a worthy RPG to convince even the most jaded fan of the genre, and will certainly bring joy to anyone who gives it a try, regardless of their wary expectations.