Monday, June 29, 2020

Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling (PS4, NSW, XB1, PC) Review

SuperPhillip Central ramps up the reviews even more as we inch(worm) closer to the end of June(bug) with another new review. If you can't tell already by the awful insect-related puns of this opener, I'm reviewing Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling, newly available on the PlayStation 4 (which this review is based off of), the Nintendo Switch, and Xbox One. (Note: Bug Fables launched last year on PC.)

Move over, Paper Mario. The bugs are here to claim your former throne.

Paper Mario and its GameCube sequel, The Thousand-Year Door, are darlings within the Nintendo community, and for good reason--they're funny, charming, and well designed RPGs with a clever gameplay hook. Since Sticker Star, however, the series has gone off the rails in a direction less than satisfying for many fans. Where Nintendo and Intelligent Systems have strayed from their winning formula, developer Moonsprout games has moved in to deliver an original take on the gameplay systems found in the early Paper Mario games with Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling. Thankfully, these bugs and their fables aren't ones you'll need to call an exterminator for, as the game pleasantly ended up being both a refreshing and familiar take on the Paper Mario formula.

Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling sees a trio of unlikely teammates: Vi the Bee, Kabbu the Beetle, and Leif the Moth (aka Team Snakemouth) on a quest to recover three magical and mysterious artifacts for the Queen Ant. The goal of this quest is to use these artifacts to find the location of the titular Everlasting Sapling. The first three chapters show our heroes' hunt for the mystical artifacts while the latter four chapters involve some complications from third parties that make this quest much more difficult, to say the least!

Like its clear inspiration, Bug Fables features charming characters with amusing personalities and occasionally humorous dialogue to go along with all that in spades. Though like Paper Mario as well, sometimes I did find that even with all of the clever lines and funny flourishes given to the dialogue, I wished that the characters would just get to the point. Certain story segments just ran on a touch too long for my personal attention.

Explore lands far and wide in the kingdom of Bugaria.
It's hard not to compare Bug Fables to Paper Mario's first two entries, especially when the developer Moonsprout Games made the intentional decision to make the type of game that Nintendo refuses to nowadays. That said, Bug Fables does bring a lot new to the table when it concerns combat, particularly its battle system. There aren't any partners that join up with our trio of heroes in the game. Instead, the three teammates are what you're ultimately working with the entire game. Battles feature context and timing-sensitive button presses to attack enemies as well as lessen or full-on nullify damage taken from foes.

Vi, Kabbu, and Leif line up one after the other, and this order can be alternated with the press of a button, and it's oftentimes important and strategic to do so. After all, the party member up front will deliver more damage while the character in the back will deal the least. A bonus, however, for being in the back is that they won't be targeted as much as the character leading the lineup. A fun twist on the Paper Mario formula, indeed, as is the ability to perform what the game calls a "Turn Relay". This allows a party member to surrender their turn and essentially donate it to another character who has already taken their turn. While this party member will get a second turn to attack, heal, or whatnot, their damage output will be lessened substantially. Then, there are special moves that require special consumable points to use, which offer devastating attacks and healing moves for Team Snakemouth to use, but also require more complex button combinations, timing, and reflexes to pull off.

Time your inputs correctly to deal the most damage to your target or, in some cases, targets!
All three members of Team Snakemouth have their own positives and negatives in battle. Vi's boomerang is perfect for picking off enemies in the air, and bringing them down to the ground for other members of the team to deal out damage on. Kabbu is great for smacking some sense into shielded enemies, and Leif can deliver more attack damage to plant-based enemies and reach underground foes, as well.

The fact of the matter is that with Bug Fables, you're actively engaged in each battle, regardless of how strong or weak an enemy encounter is. That's because if you don't properly time your button presses, battles will drag out longer than they otherwise would--and you'll take a lot more damage as well, thus resulting in requiring you to heal your team more often. And if a battle becomes too easy that you don't wish to waste the time to battle a particular normal, everyday encounter, equipping a special item called the "Bug Me Not" medal, automatically eliminates a foe you bump into on the field or in a dungeon. This is assuming you're at a high enough level compared to the group of enemies you bump into, of course.

Ooh. Things aren't looking too good for Team Snakemouth.
Speaking of medals, these are the Bug Fables substitute of the Paper Mario series's badges. They're found all around Bugaria--hidden in secret areas, rewarded for completing quests, and found in shops, ripe for purchasing. These bestow unique abilities when equipped to the party or a specific party member. Things like preventing status ailments, strengthening a party member's attack while slightly lowering their defense, or raising their max HP, are just some of the things that medals do when equipped. However, each medal has a point value attached to it, and you can't equip more medals than you have points available to you. Fortunately, when you level up, you can increase this amount as one of the three choices available to you as an upgrade. The other two include increasing the max HP of each party member or upping the amount of move points you have.

Medals are found all over Bugaria. Can you collect them all?
If somehow Bug Fables isn't challenging enough for you, almost immediately when you gain control of your party, you're gifted a hard mode medal, which makes enemy encounters much more difficult. While using items, dodging well, making limited mistakes in battle, and being overall smart in your combat strategy are all important in the base game, in hard mode, the need for all this is increased exponentially. Hard mode can be deselected at any time in the inventory menu by taking off the medal associated with it, and I found myself having to do this as the game gets quite hard! Still, there's a nice, stiff challenge here waiting for players who wish to up the stakes more.

When you're not thorax deep in battle, you're exploring colorful landscapes and vistas, performing plentiful platforming and puzzle solving. The former doesn't have the tightest implementation around, with a fair amount of my jumps resulting in near misses and mild frustration, but overall, it gets the job done. Vi, Kabbu, and Leif possess their combat abilities outside of battle to aid in puzzle solving and exploration, such as using Vi's boomerang to hit far-off switches, Kabbu's ability to dig underground to reach otherwise inaccessible areas, and Leif's ability to freeze foes and use them as platforms to access higher places.

Outside of following along with the main story, Bug Fables features a hefty amount of optional content, whether it be that of side quests (most are throwaway, but some do shine, offering new areas to explore and providing a deeper understanding of Team Snakemouth's individual members) or special bosses to tackle. This brings about one of my main issues with moving around Bugaria, and that's the means of fast travel, which is through various ant tunnels. So many quests require you to move back and forth from location to location through the means of these aforementioned tunnels. It gets rather tedious to backtrack repeatedly ad nauseum, and this was really the main point of contention I have with the game. It made doing multiple side quests more of a chore than something fun and rewarding.

Still, though, Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling takes the ball that Nintendo and the Paper Mario series dropped and absolutely runs with it to amazing levels. The game is polished well, full of fun secrets to discover in its colorful worlds, complete with a superb script (though one that occasionally drags on during some scenes), and features a sublime take on Paper Mario's heralded battle system. It's easy to dismiss Bug Fables as a mere clone, but the game does so much differently and dare I say sometimes better than its clear inspiration that it's hard to even care. On "paper", Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is a great game inspired by a Nintendo classic. In execution... well, it's still a great game inspired by a Nintendo classic!

[SPC Says: A-]

Dangan Entertainment provided a code for the purpose of this review.

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