We found ourselves smack in the centre of The Legend of Bum-bo’s Venn diagram (right in its bum crack, as Bum-bo would say). We love The Binding of Isaac, warts and all, and we also love a bit of Puzzle Quest and Gems of War. And that’s largely what The Legend of Bum-bo is: an unholy mash-up of match-four RPG and dungeon-crawler.
Coming directly from The Binding of Isaac’s designer Edmund McMillen and the development team at James Interactive, it’s a prequel of sorts. We’d be revealing too much if we told you how it connects (multiple endings offer a clue to how these pieces join up), but it’s clearly of the same universe. It’s as scatological and grossly juvenile as Isaac, and just as lo-fi, seemingly being presented from inside a cardboard box. What’s different here is the focus is on Bum-bo, a homicidal homeless man who has his coins stolen by a demon who nips down a trapdoor and through a dungeon.
Presentationally, it’s a bit scrappy, but we mostly like it. There’s a Tearaway tactility to everything, with enemies clearly cut out from paper and sellotaped onto sticks to be animated. There’s an Xbox Series X|S crispness to it all, so it doesn’t look bad, it just looks homemade. Still, it feels a little shy of The Binding of Isaac’s raw imagination: there are too many generic enemies like bats and cloaked wizards, and the lack of any colour takes its toll this time round. Everything just looks a wee bit bland.
If you’ve played Gems of War or Puzzle Quest, the gameplay of The Legend of Bum-bo will be faintly familiar. It might seem a bit retrograde for a designer like Edmund McMillen to make a game in these well-worn genres, until you remember that Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac were gleeful riffs on pre-existing genres too.
A grid of resources can be found in the bottom-left of the screen, and each row or column can be shifted with a jab of the right analogue stick. As you’d expect, there’s horrid stuff like boogers, poo and teeth, and none of your fancy Bejewelled gems or Candy Crush jelly beans. Match four resources and they pop, adding to your pool of resources.
Those resources can then be spent on little Bum-bo’s abilities. Each Bum-bo has a different set of default abilities (more on those Bum-bos in a moment), but there are opportunities to add to them every other room or so. A zombie dungeon-dweller offers you a choice of one of two abilities, both requiring the same resource type, and your roster begins to grow.
To add a spot of tension, everything is turn-based. You have a set number of ‘movement points’ per turn, which boils down to two or three matches before your enemy gets a pop at you. These enemies are presented opposite to Bum-bo’s match-four grid, and they sit rather precisely in three different columns. Match some teeth or bones, and you can choose a column to fire a volley down, dealing damage to the foremost of baddies. Match some poop and you can sandbag their attacks, while boogers stun the enemies into delaying their turns.
The aim of The Legend of Bum-bo, aside from recovering the few coins that poor Bum-bo initially had, is to reach the end of each dungeon by culling every enemy. Each dungeon floor has a boss on it, and there are four floors in total, should you manage to reach the end. After each floor, there’s an entertaining sidebar where you get to spend your cash in a myriad of ways: there’s a game of cups, as you gamble your gold on finding a perk for your team; there’s a wheel of fortune that buffs your Bum-bo in a random way; and there’s a shop for tailoring your abilities, upping their damage or reducing their costs. It does a good job of offering far more valuable benefits than you can possibly afford. It makes for difficult choices.
Reach the end of a full-blown dungeon, and a new Bum-bo unlock awaits you. They’re different personalities for the main character, offering up variants like Bum-bo the Empty and Bum-bo the Dead, who in turn have different stats and default abilities. Our favourite is Bum-bo the Weird, who has only one heart of life, but gains a movement point every time they kill something. Combined with a default ability that chucks the game’s tiles, quite literally, at an enemy, you can be attacking and resetting the board multiple times in a single turn. There’s little that’s more satisfying than decimating an enemy without them raising a poo-stained finger.
The cast of Bum-bos is fantastic – worth the £14.99 on its own. Each of them are fundamentally different to play, and mastering one and then moving onto the next is a progression track that really works. If you’re like us, you will find a favourite, and will soon learn the abilities that dovetail with that setup.
Unfortunately, the designers couldn’t leave things there. The Legend of Bum-bo comes with a frustrating game structure that does its best to get in the way. To unlock a Bum-bo, you have to complete the current dungeons with the previously gained Bum-bo. We don’t mind the Bum-bos being locked away in this manner, but locking the dungeons away too irks us. You can only play one dungeon floor with the first Bum-bo. You can only play two dungeon-floors with the second, three dungeons with the third, and so on. It galls because you can have a satisfying flow, a near-perfect stable of abilities, and the game simply stops you and says you can’t continue. These opening moments are The Legend of Bum-bo’s worst.
There’s still a nagging sense of something missing in the endgame, too. Outside of health and the status of the board, everything is reset from one dungeon to the next. Your resources are siphoned away, and you’re starting again. That’s not dissimilar to Puzzle Quest and Gems of War, but those games also had a kind of meta-structure, where you felt like you were building up to something more important. Quests were completed, and maps were cleared of enemies. With only one ability getting added every couple of levels, it never feels like you’re growing much in The Legend of Bum-bo. Games feel like they take place in isolation, rather than stacking up to make a bigger whole, which is appropriate for a game set within a cardboard box, we suppose.
And, being a roguelike strapped onto a Puzzle Quester, there’s a meeting of issues. Match-four games are always at the whims of randomness: one bad setup and you can be screwed, desperately back-pedalling to get some kind of traction in the battle. But here, if you find yourself in a bad situation, it can undermine half-an-hour’s worth of play. One bad layout, and you can be utterly clobbered, returning you to the start all over again. There’s not much in the way of safety nets here.
There’s no doubting that we’ll be returning to The Legend of Bum-bo. We love its cast of Bum-bos, with their cheeky, meta-bending takes on match-four puzzling. But we’ll still be cursing the designers as they gleefully take toys away from us, denying us progress, and offering only measly opportunities to build better Bum-bos. It’s a diverting, rude take on the Puzzle Quest formula, and a little less design intervention might have made it legendary.
You can buy The Legend of Bum-bo from the Xbox Store