Timewasters was supplied a copy of Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling by Dangen Entertainment for the purposes of this review.
Bug Fables, a game so positively received by the mainstream critics that you'd almost think it was an Activision title... But it is it infallible? Does the adorable Paper Mario-esque RPG deliver an epic, heart warming, turn based adventure all in one tiny bug-sized package? This review will explore my experience playing Bug Fables at a time where I was previously engaging in a string of fast-paced, AAA action games. It's a tale of frustration, laughs, rewarding challenges and head scratching moments of peril. Without further adieu, let's take a look at a unilaterally loved turn-based RPG through the lens of a gamer who may have just enough patience to appreciate it for what it really is.
Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling was developed by Moonsprout Games and published by Dangen Entertainment originally for PC in November of 2019 and just recently made its console debut on Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 on May 28th of this year. Bug Fables takes heavy inspiration from the Paper Mario series; it could really be considered a spiritual successor, but it's also doing its own thing.
Enter freely, there are no spoilers here.
The game's title - simple as it may be - describes the plot perfectly. Enter Bugaria; a world of bugs... There are bustling towns of villagers, castles kept by royal queens, full-scale industrial cities and high tech civilizations to be explored. Numerous bugs dwell in kingdoms spread across a brightly colored and curiously small-scaled world. There are bugs everywhere, good and bad ones, short and tall ones.... well you get it. There are also adventurers (like you) who will stop at nothing to bring justice to their lands and will encounter countless dangerous adventures in order to do so. The actual plot of The Everlasting Sapling is not necessarily ground-breaking, but in the unique context of a world of bugs, it turns out to be a compelling one. Elizant, Queen of the Ant Kingdom has tasked 3 worthy adventurers with fetching three ancient artifacts that will ultimately lead her to the Everlasting Sapling; an ancient artifact rumored to harness the power of immortality. Her purposes for attaining this artifact are hardly obvious and although uncovered later in the story, are not super essential to the plot. What you do need to know is that there are a TON of baddies between you and that Sapling. Getting to it will not be easy. Surely a curious world with a compelling story like Bugaria needs some engaging protagonists to experience it through. Worry not, Bug Fables is cast with the perfect characters for the job.
When going after an ancient artifact of legendary power, you'll naturally need a band of powerful adventurers. Enter Vi, Leif and Kabbu; meeting under unlikely circumstances, these 3 bugs will learn to work together in order to summon the strength necessary to meet their queen's demands.
Kabbu - A Scarab Beetle from the North. Level-headed, chivalrous to a fault and extremely loyal. Kabbu takes a knightly approach to his missions, never sacrificing his code of ethics in the face of adversity. His generosity and loyalty are often hilariously contrasted by Vi's selfish actions and sarcastic comments. This makes for some really great dialogue in heated moments. Kabbu attacks with his Beetle horn, and is essential against enemies with high defense ratings.
Leif - A Moth from....? Leif is your most mysterious party member, from first meeting it seems apparent that his consciousness is plural, speaking always with "We" instead of "I". Leif is tortured by fragmented memories of his past yet still maintains a very level-headed demeanor. He is also very intelligent and commands the power of Ice, effectively making him the Mage of your party. Leif's intelligent characteristics are counter-balanced by a tendency of complete ignorance to people's feelings. He often makes brash comments that lead to some pretty hilarious moments with the NPC's of Bugaria.
"An overworld is...an area within a video game that interconnects all its levels or locations." - Wikipedia.org
Much like the Paper Mario series, Final Fantasy, or Pokémon, Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is played in two main sequences; Overworld Exploration and Turn-based Combat.
In the Overworld, you explore Bugaria led by an interchangeable party member while the rest of your party trails behind much like in Pokémon Yellow. In the Overworld you command a Jump, Party switch, and character specific Abilities as well as 360 degree joystick movement. Camera angles are automatic and change dynamically as you traverse the different areas of Bugaria. This is done very intentionally as to disguise hidden items behind grasses, buildings and other objects from your screen. The camera did a great job of panning to unfold areas as I explored, creating a cinematic kind of feel.
Bugaria is divided into interlinked areas, each of which usually having multiple enter/exit points that warp your characters into the adjoining area. This sort of jigsaw puzzle segmentation of the game world can be hard to keep track of. You really do have to constantly stumble between areas until you build a mental map of the world, as the Bugaria Map you carry is misleading at best and can't be trusted for actual directions... I suggest making mental notes and doing a few laps of each new area you discover because you will be revisiting these places frequently! Bugaria may not be open world in the way that say Skyrim is, which allows you to explore as far as the eye can see - but it is bright, interesting and full of life. Also unlike Skyrim, Bug Fables is never bogged down by loading screens.
Each city of Bugaria has its own unique theme and music track that really allows it to come alive. The cities are built from a combination of obviously Bug-built structures and repurposed human objects like cardboard boxes or Straws. Ever so often you'll explore a wild area and almost forget the scale of Bugaria, only to come across a cleverly placed shovel or eraser from the human world. Placed nonchalantly, these serve as a subtle reminder of the simultaneously co-existing Human World that the entirety of Bugaria takes up just a tiny part of. There is even a vantage point in the Bee Kingdom from which you can see the "vastness" of Bugaria, and even where it sits in relation to the Human World... but I'll leave that up to you to discover.
Upon accepting a sidequest, this bug condescendingly cheers you on, "You're taking that one? Alright, do your best!"
The overworld is also full of colorful characters to interact with, secret areas to be uncovered and even a few mini-games to conquer. Players of Bug Fables; The Everlasting Sapling can expect to embark on dozens of sidequests in between chasing their main mission which consists of 7 chapters. Sidequests can be taken directly from job boards scattered around Bugaria, or randomly encountered in the overworld and I highly recommend prioritizing these missions before progressing too far in the story (but more on that later). You can also expect to find all of your RPG staple NPCs while traversing Bugaria including;
You'll encounter a ton of other types of NPC's along the way, some offering surprising rewards or quests upon interacting and others delivering entertaining quips or bits of lore. Some will even casually leak cryptic clues to hidden areas or items. Over all, talking to NPCs is pleasant and most of these interactions manage to maintain their luster even upon return visits. BF employs an Animal Crossing-style high-pitched bug voice that mumbles in step with the dialogue. Voices also fit the characters. For instance; speaking with a Mosquito NPC sounds exactly like the unsettling whine of an approaching 6-legged bloodsucker in the real world. This is actually much more endearing than you would think.
Using the B button (for Xbox), you can read through dialogue at your own pace. Some Main story cutscenes for example can last upwards of 5 minutes if not sped up; I found myself enjoying the experience much more when speed reading at my own cadence. Now, there is definitely some quality writing in this game, I want to emphasize that. The work Moonsprout Games has done using Vi, Kabbu and Leif's individual personalities to create entertaining dialogue throughout the story is really quite refreshing. There are some seriously tense moments between your party and other characters that are brilliantly interrupted by a sarcastic quip from Vi or completely undermined by a side conversation between two by-standing bugs. It's fresh and tasteful, but you really need to slow down to enjoy it.
Now that we've painted a clear picture of BF's Overworld, it's time to get down to the nitty-gritty. As eluded in the intro, my experience with Bug Fables wasn't all light hearted adventure and endearing moments. There were bouts of frustration that were admittedly fueled by a lack of patience, more than anything. Before my playthrough of Bug Fables, I had been binging fast paced action RPGs like Assassin's Creed Odyssey, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and Nier Automata. BF is a massive change of pace from those titles, and I want to make sure that is taken into consideration. Historically, I've not been allergic to turn based RPGs by any means; I've been a frequenter of the Pokémon series, Final Fantasy (When it was actually turn based), and dabbled in Paper Mario on the GameCube. That being said, here's what bugged me about BF's overworld.
Overworld Puzzles are frequent in Bugaria and require your party's unique Skills to solve. Much like Pokémon's HM Moves, Skills are both used in battle and in the overworld, and are unlocked as you progress through the game. This means that paths to new areas are often blocked by seemingly impassable circumstances; A gap too far to jump, a physical obstruction like a fence or a body of water. Naturally, you'll be revisiting areas as you gain new skills, in order to traverse those previously unreachable spots and discover what lies beyond them. There are a few issues with this. The first is that platforming puzzles involve navigating your 2D characters through a 3D world. This can feel a little clunky. I was often finding myself unable to judge gaps between ledges due to the camera angle and falling to my death unnecessarily. Respawning after an overworld death is fairly forgiving however, sometimes dropping you all the way at the beginning and other times dropping you at a useful checkpoint, but respawning never drains your health which is a huge plus.
The second issue is that your party's skills such as Leif's freeze or Vi's Beemerang toss are inconsistent and just not quite responsive enough to pull off some of the puzzle challenges with any amount of grace. This can leave the player feeling unnecessarily disabled when they are facing a dynamic platforming puzzle that requires quick decisions and agility. To be clear, I think platforming should be challenging, but should be challenging for the right reasons. If you've ever played Mega Man 2 on the NES, your first impression of a stage was probably "This is impossible, why would they make a level like this?" but after a second and third attempt, you start to see where you need to make improvements. You can instinctively feel that by sharpening jumps and movements (assuming your controller isn't wrecked) that it can in fact be done. This feels like learning a skill and is quite rewarding. Conversely, BF platforming puzzles can punish you senselessly and feel difficult without reason.
BF's combat is widely praised for being reminiscent of Paper Mario which is a huge fan favorite and carries a cult following on its own. Surely in the vacuum that Paper Mario has created by being absent since 2016's installment; Color Splash for the Wii U, fans have been chomping at the bit for some quality turn based action. Despite BF's "NICE" timing to fill an under served niche, does its combat hold up on its own merit? Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling cleverly combines a number of popular turn based mechanics and presents them in a not-too-serious package that achieves a nice balance of challenge and fun. These mechanics include;
Progression relies on an Experience point based system called "Exploration Points". Exploration points are earned only in combat and are scaled to match your Team's rank. Fighting weaker enemies will usually result in collecting 1 exploration point, while fighting tough enemies and bosses can net you up to 30 in a battle. Upon filling your Exp Points, your team Ranks up, allowing you to increase either Max Health, Medals or Team Points by 1.
Your team's base attack and defense can only be buffed by Medals, with the exception of a few one-of-a-kind items that permanently increase those stats. New skills can be learned by ranking up, or completing quests. At its best, the combat and progression in Bug Fables is well balanced and rewarding. It can be very challenging without punishing you in a senseless way. Difficulty scaling is a subtle and delicate balance but BF definitely achieves that IF you play it correctly. And that's a big IF. Let's unpack that...
When I first picked up Bug Fables, I aimed myself at the main story line and set off in a sprint. I was desperate to get that Sapling, I turned down side quests, left areas unexplored and walked by NPCs that weren't on my direct route to the finish line. I rarely play games like this. Much more often, you can catch me taking my sweet time with a new RPG; dilly-dallying across the world, leaving no corner un-traversed, no bunch of grass un-cleaved, no NPC uninterrupted... But as I mentioned before, this was a different time. I gunned for the main plot with the plan of addressing the side quests and extras after the fact, not realizing what a pinch I was actually putting myself in. You may be saying, "Well you rushed it, that's your fault." - and you're correct. Although I also uncovered something very true about BF that every player who wants to get the best out of their playthrough really needs to know. And that thing is essentially this;
Wherever your Chapter Quest is pointing you, go everywhere else first, exhaust every other option before continuing on. And don't turn off Hard Mode!
Please make a conscientious effort to play the game this way, you can avoid a ton of the pain points that I did along the way. Otherwise you may miss out on key items and experience any of the following;
Weak bugs are automatically defeated upon contact when you enable the "Bug me Not" medal.
Bug Fables rewards curious exploration and is definitely a game for the patient completionist. I've always respected games that offer an incredible reward to those who are willing to relentlessly grind and put in the time. Take Ultima Weapons from Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts for example. These require tons of item farming, repetitive battling and running around to obtain. However, when a player embarks on one of these quests, they know full well what they're getting into and are rewarded as such. My complaint with BF isn't that they include such optional tasks and rewards, but rather that they don't plot the more important ones directly along the main story arc. Medals that majorly assist in overworld travel and puzzles should be encountered in such a way. Some of the most valuable quality of life type unlocks I encountered were only discovered late game, at the point where they weren't useful anymore. To draw an example, The Bug Me Not medal automatically defeats enemies upon contact who are too weak to earn the party any EXP. Without it, you are frequently subjected to unwanted encounters with enemies while trying to complete puzzles or just simply traverse an old area and your only options are to complete the fight or Flee which costs you berries each time. This medal is acquired after approaching an inconspicuous Bee and purchasing a home in the Ant Kingdom, then climbing atop its roof. I didn't get around to doing this until Chapter 6 and only was only able to enjoy its benefits for a few hours. If only I had discovered this Medal 10 hours in, instead of 30! Inversely, one example where BF gets things right would be with its fast travel system. Paying an ant to clear tunnels between the Ant Kingdom and each of the cities of Bugaria is a clever way of allowing fast travel while staying consistent with the game world.
Inside the Ant Mines, Bugaria's central hub of underground travel.
Another confusing detail of combat was that enemies would inexplicably raise their defense upon being hit a second time in the same turn. There was never a combat mechanic explained for this, but essentially if you attacked an enemy with a party member, then attacked that same enemy again with another party member, that enemy would raise its defense and completely absorb the second blow. This was incredibly frustrating when fighting relatively weak enemies who should be no problem to defeat. The game offered no reward for a well choreographed strike on an unsuspecting enemy. This didn't happen all of the time however, it was inconsistent, which actually made it worse. I suspect that spending a lot more time power leveling via side quests and unlocking more items could offer workaround strategies to this, but I was never able to find them. Let me know in the comments below if you have the solution!
Bug Fables's main story arc can be completed in 30 hours or less. In fact if you left all side quests behind entirely and had a great strategy for the final boss fight, like this one, you could do it in less. But if you're looking to 100% this one, you've got a lot of work to do. There are dozens of side quests, several super tough, optional bosses, a full Bestiary, Spy Cards, Discoveries log, and Recipe list to complete. Beyond that there are also Crystal Berries and Lore Books scattered across Bugaria to collect, not to mention all of the Medals and Skills to learn. To 100% Bug Fables, expect to set aside 45-50 hours
The critics didn't get it wrong, Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is great game. It's a refreshing take on a popular RPG format that arrived on the scene at a perfect time for the genre. They may not be doing anything super inventive with gameplay here but BF's characters do a lot to drive this story forward in a compelling way that can make you laugh and warm your heart at the same time. The game world is endearing and pretty in an effortless way, it's not trying too hard and it knows it. The plot is always entertaining, especially when discovering the pasts of your party members later in the game. I won't spoil anything here, but it makes for some pretty nice moments. Your party members actually develop in an authentic way and although they might not progress their attack stats... they do grow as bugs, which is rewarding in its own right. I don't think Bug Fables is for everyone, I think it requires you to slow down and smell the roses, so to speak. If you do, expect to enjoy a heart-warming, epic turn-based adventure not easily forgotten. If you're not an RPG person, you probably aren't reading this review anyways, but I would still warn that if you're looking for a past paced thrill ride, look elsewhere. This is an adventure meant to be slowly sipped. I also think a lot of its endearing appeal can be easily smeared by a lack of quality of life improvements at key stages in the game. Avoid these pitfalls by exhausting sidequests, exploring everything and playing only in Hard Mode. If you do, time spent playing Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is certainly time well spent!
Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling was reviewed by Maki on Xbox One. It is also available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Steam. If you are a Windows user, head to Bug Fables' official website to download a free demo!
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