Before getting started, let’s get this out of the way, Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling comes across as very much like the first two Paper Mario titles. If that’s what you are looking for, you will be very pleased with Bug Fables. In fact, I urge you to have a look even if that’s not what you’re looking for, as beneath the inspiration lies a wonderfully fun and charming RPG with surprising depth. Maybe it’s more like Paper Mario than I thought.
The game opens with Kabbu, a rainbow scarab beetle, as he attempts to get granted the role of an explorer on behalf of the queen. Unfortunately, he can’t do it alone and must have a partner to be granted that position. Luckily Vi, a plucky and stubborn young bee, is looking to do the same. You are awarded permission as a team and must take your first steps toward the adventure. There are many duos throughout the vast continent of Bugaria, all with different roles and accomplishing different quests, but the highest of all, handed down by a long-gone queen, is to find the Everlasting Sapling. Eating just one of its leaves is said to grant immortality. The only way of finding it is to collect relics, decipher them and find out where it resides.
After making your way to your first destination, you meet Leif, another adventurer with a mysterious past, and all three of you set out to complete your goals. The story itself is intriguing but also simple – just what a game of this calibre should try to do. It’s rewarding but accessible enough for younger gamers to enjoy. There is, of course, much more to this story, but this is the basis of the information you need and you’ll get here within an hour or so of gameplay.
What makes the story really shine are the characters. All of your main party (and practically all side characters) are well-defined with their own strengths and flaws. Not only that but they all have their different reasons for completing this quest; Leif wants to find out about his past, Kabbu does it for honour and Vi is heading out for fame and glory. The way these characters develop and change is surprisingly nuanced and clever, and that goes for the entirety of Bug Fables; it all has a subtle cleverness to it. For instance, the themes of immortality and mortality contrast against our main character Kabbu given the history and myths around the scarab beetle. This is one of a multitude of small insights and clever ideas Bug Fables offers you. What makes this so great is that it isn’t pushed in your face, opting to instead add more nuance to something that can be entirely missed.
This nuance could be applied to the visuals and music. The art takes direct inspiration from Paper Mario, opting for a 2.5D paper style. It works wonderfully with little intricacies like the character flipping when turning or how enemies are redesigned to fit the style. It’s not entirely consistent, with little backgrounds and enemies not quite matching up, but the majority of it is great. The music is wonderfully fitting too, feeling directly inspired by those kid-friendly games of yesteryear. Each area has unique themes and the music is designed intelligently around that. Close your eyes and listen to any track and you probably have a decent idea of what the area is. The battle themes are interesting too – as they need to be given how much you fight in Bug Fables.
Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling acts much like a traditional turn-based RPG but offers a bit more complexity to your choices, as there are small changes you can make to affect the efficiency of attacks. In the short term, these might only affect one or two HP but can often be the difference between life and death, particularly when going up against a hard boss. Each character has unique moves that are effective against certain types of combatants which gives you a nice sense of tacticality as you swap from character to character to best use your limited moves. It doesn’t get much deeper than this but does add new skills and medals to change up your playstyle.
The medals are pieces of equipment for your character that give various buffs or changes to the formula. These can increase defence while poisoned, increase HP or even unlock the hard mode, making enemies and bosses tougher in return for more rewards. Each boss beaten on hard mode gives you new equipment with various effects. The base game is relatively easy so the hard badge gives a nice challenge, if that’s your thing.
Bug Fables also has a level-up system in the form of ranks. Much like Paper Mario, after collecting enough points you can choose one of three stats to upgrade; your equipment load, HP or friend points (essentially your mana). This system is fun at the start but doesn’t make levelling up feel particularly special, considering the time it takes to rank up. They don’t make a huge difference and often aren’t worth your time to grind enemies.
Although there are some slight downsides to combat, the general atmosphere of Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling on Xbox One is phenomenal. The art style is downright lovely and the music feels like something made by Nintendo. “Defiant Root” could be a desert theme from Super Mario, and that’s a great thing. Unfortunately, its biggest downsides are possibly the most unique things about Paper Mario, and perhaps Bug Fables would have been even greater if it took a few more risks. Despite this, Bug Fables is a wonderful, child-friendly RPG with a solid story, great music, and lovely visuals. If you’re looking for something to bring you back to your childhood, this is a must-play.