Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is a love letter to the Paper Mario series, which I previously reviewed and greatly enjoyed. It has the same papercraft art style and gameplay centered around action commands, but offers several new ideas of its own, such as a setting full of adorable bug people and non-silent protagonists.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t live up to the hype. On its own merits, it’s… okay? But it does not live up to its inspiration. I liked some of the gameplay changes but disliked others, and the writing is a mess.
So, gameplay first. There are several things I liked: You have a party of three instead of two, allowing for more complex strategies. (There’s also a mechanic that lets you influence who’s most likely to be targeted, which I’m always grateful for in large parties.) There’s a system where you can substitute one character’s turn for another’s, extremely useful when there are so many enemies who can only be hit by one character. There is also a hard mode that makes the game actually hard, and forced me not only to use my items but to think about which ones to buy and craft, unlike in Paper Mario where I only really did the cooking minigame for completion’s sake.
However, I find the balance choices absolutely baffling in many cases. Most notably, unlike in Paper Mario where your attack stat improves periodically over the course of the story, here your attack power improves… never. You can only boost it with specific pieces of equipment, which cost a ton of points, are exceedingly rare, and frequently come with downsides. For example, in Paper Mario, the badges that exchange your stats (+1 Attack/ -1 Defense or vice versa) cost 2 badge points. Here, they cost 5, only 1 less than the Paper Mario badges that increased your stats with no strings attached (which don’t exist at all here). There are badges that slightly improve one character’s special attacks… but also increase their TP cost in addition to the badges themselves costing a whole level-up’s worth of badge points, which is just so incredibly not worth it.
Unfortunately, for some reason the game seems to be balanced as if you were getting stronger over time, because enemies keep gaining more and more health while you plink away at them for the same two points of damage each attack. Battles quickly became tedious and frustrating by the mid-game, where I effectively had to burn through my entire TP if I didn’t want to wage a war of attrition — one I would inevitably lose, because HP growth is also exceedingly slow — made worse by the fact you don’t get heart or TP drops after battle like in Paper Mario. It also made enemies with even 1 point of defense an absolute nightmare to deal with; unlike in Paper Mario where your dedicated armor-piercing character ignores defense completely, here he only ignores 1 point, and your other characters can do diddly squat if they don’t want to burn TP on stronger moves. Paper Mario’s flipping mechanic let you nullify the defense of almost every armored enemy, but here it’s an afterthought only applied to a few enemies. (Possibly one reason for this is because hard mode adds 1 defense to enemies that don’t normally have it, so it wouldn’t make sense to have them be flippable in normal mode… but, honestly, that just means it was a bad idea in general.)
And on the character level, Kabbu really gets the short end of the stick and Leif seems to get a lot of favoritism. To begin with, Kabbu is clearly meant to be the tank of the party, but he has no defense or health bonuses that make him any better at taking hits than the others. Kabbu’s first skill does +2 damage for 3 TP; Leif’s first skill costs the same and does the same amount of damage, but also inflicts freezing and can target anyone. Kabbu’s AoE costs 5 TP and can only hit grounded enemies; Leif’s AoE costs 4 TP, can hit anything, grounds fliers, and inflicts freezing. Leif also gets an absolutely bonkers game-breaking attack as his final skill that easily does at least twice the damage of everyone else’s best skills.
Also, the character progression just felt kinda… disappointing? In Paper Mario, I loved finding out my new companions’ abilities because they were all so different and wacky. It was like I was constantly discovering new gameplay mechanics with each one. Here… what you see is what you get, really. You’re stuck with the same three characters the whole game, and none of them get any particularly surprising or interesting powerups, not even the magic-user.
Of course, this was an intentional decision made to correct the main flaw in Paper Mario’s story: Lack of character focus and development. Unfortunately, Bug Fables also has this flaw, just told over three times as many words.
Like I said, this game makes the radical decision to feature non-silent protagonists. Unfortunately, they’re so annoying they make me miss the days of controlling a silent blob. Every conversation goes on just a little too long, often so that every character can chime in to either state the obvious or beat a joke into the ground. Making all the tattles conversations between three characters could have been interesting, but instead I find myself nostalgic for only having to listen to one character’s thoughts on every building, person, and air molecule. Goombario somehow manages to have more personality in his tattles than all three of these heroes put together; while so many of his tattles featured worldbuilding or character details or genuinely funny jokes, Team Snakemouth’s tattles rarely tell me anything I don’t already know when they’re not spoiling the solution to an already-simple puzzle.
The dialogue is also just… off in a way that’s hard to describe. It’s not, like, terrible? But it just gives me the niggling sense of being… Terminally Online is maybe the most accurate description? Everyone sounds like they have not had in-person conversations for a year. Characters talk very stiltedly — like, there’s a whole sequence where the characters act out a play, and the obviously-parodic dialogue barely sounds any more stilted than how they usually talk. Kabbu’s entire schtick is having extremely bad and corny dialogue followed by the other characters winking at the camera and saying “See, we know it’s corny!” as if that makes up for having to read it in the first place. Characters also seem to have no sense of boundaries, tact, or emotional self-control; Kabbu and Leif constantly complain about how childish Vi is, but they’re hardly any better themselves with how often they go off on histrionic mood swings. Leif, in particular, is the extremely awkward “author mistakes verbal abuse for funny snark” archetype.
I wonder if part of the problem is that the story speeds through the group’s introductions to one another, and after that there’s just nowhere for the group dynamic to go. Once you’ve declared they’re Bestest Friends Forever after knowing each other for five minutes, no more tension or character development is possible. Even the characters’ legitimate flaws that logically should create conflict are passed off with little more than an “Oh, you!” from the others. Like, you’d think maybe Kabbu the knight in shining armor might have some long-lasting friction with Vi the selfish greedy mercenary, especially after she, oh, leaves him to die in the very first dungeon, but no, he immediately declares all is forgiven. You’d think that maybe Vi’s selfishness and only helping others for the promise of a reward is a character flaw she’s supposed to grow out of, but no, it’s just a hilarious thing for her to say every single quest (followed by Kabbu chastising her and getting rudely blown off every single time).
The whole story just seems allergic to the idea of intra-group strife, and it kneecaps basically every attempt it makes at doing anything halfway interesting with the characters. Vi’s subplot gets close, but the others fall over themselves to forgive and help her way too quickly. I’m particularly irked by Leif having a Big Awful Secret constantly dangled in front of us the whole game with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, only for the reveal to be… completely meaningless to everyone involved. Kabbu literally says, “This doesn’t change anything!”
Essentially, the story bases its entire premise on a group dynamic that it just can’t seem to get right. They’re written as if they already know each other and have had a long time to smooth over their rough edges. And I can understand that — it’s nice to have a group of friends who get along with each other rather than a dysfunctional pack of wolves constantly tearing at each others’ throats. It’s also more interesting to have an ideologically diverse group of protagonists rather than clones who always agree with each other. But you can’t have both of those things and also say they met five minutes ago.
Even the parts of the plot that aren’t character-related are extremely cliche and regressive. The villain is a street urchin who usurped the rightful monarch, because it’s important we remember poor people are the real evil. Immortality is bad because the fact a few people might abuse it means everyone else deserves to wither and die. I found myself really missing how Paper Mario was just a silly adventure romp instead of trying to say anything profound.
Finally, the worldbuilding is… very slapdash. Hollow Knight set the bar too high for me with how much it embraced how truly weird insects are, I suppose. The most unusual part of the world is some species are eusocial, but even they’re nearly indistinguishable from a normal human society, right down to being called “Kingdoms” despite the fact they shouldn’t even have a concept of a king. (“Queendom” is a word, fantasy authors! Please use it!) Male is still the assumed default gender and most NPCs are male even though the country is ruled by an all-female eusocial hive. Worker bees reference having boyfriends even though in real life workers are sterile, which could imply that eusocial bugs have some kind of medical advancement that allows them to break free of their normal sex roles, but this is never explained. There are a few brief mentions of eusocial bugs having a caste system, but it’s very inconsistent, and it doesn’t have any influence on Vi leaving her hive to be an individual even though you’d think it would be pretty relevant!
So, overall, I was left very disappointed. It made a very earnest effort to carry Paper Mario’s torch, but it just didn’t have the strength to bear the weight. I can only hope it inspires more developers with fresh ideas to try their hand at the concept.
“Abombination” was a genuinely good pun, though.