Indie games have done some incredible things over the years. They’ve told stories in unconventional ways, or explored themes that you don’t often see in big budget triple A titles. One of my favorite things to see from an indie game is when they’re able to capture a sense of nostalgia for something you haven’t experienced in a long time. It’s definitely tricky to make a brand new game while wearing those rose tinted glasses, but Moonsprout Games has managed to pull it off quite nicely. They’ve captured the look and feel of classic Paper Mario titles in their indie RPG title, Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling.
Bug Fables originally came out for PC in late 2019, but now that the game has finally made its way to consoles, this game about bugs is creating quite the buzz. Bug Fables tells the tale of three insect heroes who set out on a quest to collect artifacts for the queen of the ant kingdom, that may unlock the secrets of the Everlasting Sapling. The three main heroes in Bug Fables are Kabbu, a heroic beetle who has his own reasons for fighting and bringing peace. Vi, an adorable little bee who is just super immature and greedy and I love her. And the duo quickly meets Leif, a moth they rescued from a spider’s web who has apparently been frozen in time for decades. Unfortunately he has amnesia, but you’ll learn about all the character’s origins and motivations as the story progresses.
Like I mentioned earlier, Bug Fables' gameplay is heavily inspired by Nintendo’s early Paper Mario titles, right down to the 2D aesthetics. Each character has unique overworld abilities that will improve and grow over the course of the game. Kabbu can use his horn to break rocks and move certain objects. Vi has a boomerang that can be used as a range attack. And Leif has access to ice magic that can freeze water to help create platforms. These field abilities will improve throughout Bug Fables allowing for more creative puzzle solving, like Vi gaining the ability to hold her boomerang in place after throwing it.
Combat is a turn based system that, again, feels like classic Paper Mario. The three characters each have a basic attack that requires a unique input to pull off. If you execute the attack correctly, you’ll do more damage. When an enemy attacks you, pressing the A button at the right time will result in a block that could result in you taking less damage. It’s a well built system, and even does a couple of things that help it stand out from the series it takes inspiration from. For example, there are actually two different types of blocks. If an enemy would normally do two damage, a standard block will bring it down to one, but if you time it perfectly, you might be able to negate getting hurt entirely.
Each character’s attacks also work best against different types of enemies, so there’s a good balance to choosing what order the characters should attack in. Only Vi can hit flying enemies, so it helps to knock them down before letting Kabbu attack with his horn. Some enemies will burrow underground when they’re being attacked, and only Leif’s magic can hit them there. So even if it’s Leif’s turn, it might help to let Kabbu attack first to get them underground and then let Leif take over. One great mechanic that I was a big fan of is called Turn Relay. This allows you to sacrifice one character’s turn, to give another character two turns. So for example, if there are two flying enemies you want to knock down with Vi, you can have Kabbu give his turn to Vi so she can knock them both down. The trade-off with this mechanic is that every extra attack a character gets lowers their attack power by one, so it’s important to know when the best time to use it is.
Another thing Bug Fables borrows from the Paper Mario series are the badges, but in this game they’re called medals. You can find these while exploring dungeons or get some of them for completing sidequests, of which there are a lot. The medals can really change how you approach your strategies in this game, and shake things up in interesting ways. I got one medal that lowers the defense of the bug who equipped it by one, but anytime that bug is attacked, the other two members will get plus one damage on their next attack. I gave this medal to Kabbu since he has the most health of the three, and it proved to be a really helpful strategy against tougher bosses.
The story of Bug Fables and the lore of the entire kingdom gets fleshed out the more you’re willing to do. One of the sidequests specifically involves finding books filled with history and returning them to the library, where you can read them if it’s something you’d like to know more about. The dialogue is incredibly charming, and all three party members have great chemistry together. Even all of the NPCs are a delight to listen to, and each character’s text has different sound effects that do a good job lending a “voice” to each character, even in a game with no recorded dialogue to speak of.
The only place where I think Bug Fables falls a little bit short is in its dungeons. None of them really stood out to me as engaging or interesting, and some of the puzzles you have to do to get through them aren’t very fun. Something you’ll commonly have to do is have Leif freeze a falling drop of water, that you have to time just right, and then use Kabbu to awkwardly punt it to where you can use it as a platform. Chapter two was loaded with switches that needed to be activated by having Vi hold her boomerang in place on the switch itself. Some of these were tough enough to activate, but then to try and do complex platforming, in a game where platforming isn’t its strong suit, while holding down the boomerang button never felt particularly great.
But that is the weak link in an otherwise hearty chain. The combat is fantastic and has a lot of variety. The story is well told, with fantastic characters that help keep the momentum strong. The graphics are charming with lots of well designed insects and great use of colors. But most importantly, it did a perfect job capturing so much of what made classic Paper Mario such a joy to play, which is what Moonsprout Games set out to do. When you’ve got Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling, you don’t even need Origami King…but I’m still excited for Origami King.
John reviewed Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling on Nintendo Switch. The game is also available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.