Bug Fables is weaponized nostalgia. Moonsprout Games set out to make a game that would bring you back to the mid-90s and early-2000s, and if you played RPGs back on the SNES or N64, then this is going to unleash all the tingly feelings of your childhood stored at the back of your brain.
This will especially be the case if you're a fan of the first Paper Mario game or its sequel Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. Bug Fables does everything in its power to be a spiritual successor to those games, and it comes insanely close to being a complete success.
A Kingdom Smaller Than A Mushroom
Obviously, the team at Moonsprout Game couldn't get Nintendo to give them Mario, so they went and created their own tiny world. Bug Fables takes place in a kingdom of various bugs, who by order of the queen of the ants - naturally named Elizant - are searching for an ancient relic known as the Everlasting Sapling which can grant its owner eternal life.
You play as a team of three bugs who join the Explorers Guild in order to find the Sapling and gain fortune and glory. There's the chivalrous, good-natured beetle, Kabbu; the overzealous, money-hungry bee, Vi; and the mysterious, amnesiac moth, Leif (because every RPG needs someone with amnesia.) Through fate, these three are bonded together and venture through the various lands of Bugaria, hunting down artifacts that will hopefully reveal the location of the Everlasting Sapling.
While the story itself isn't breaking any new ground, the world that Bug Fables takes place in is incredibly charming. The three characters grow on you as the game progresses, and while the dialogue isn't exactly hilarious, it's amusing, well-written, full of bug-related puns, and walks the fine line between straight-laced fantasy and fourth-wall-breaking humor. It takes a little while for the plot to get rolling, but once it picks up, it becomes an excellent throwback to RPG narratives of the 16 and 32-bit era.
Pure Unfiltered Nostalgia
When I say this game aspires to be Paper Mario, I'm not talking about a few little touches here and there. From the second you load up Bug Fables, you will know that this is a Paper Mario game in practically every way except the name. Each character is a flat 2D model with big fat black outlines walking around a 3D world. The art style looks simplistic, as if it was drawn by a crayon-wielding kindergarten class, yet it's bursting with life and personality. Even the music evokes the soundtracks of Nintendo's games, with songs that reminded me of Final Fantasy games, Donkey Kong Country, Earthbound, and of course, the Paper Mario series.
The combat is the most obvious example of Bug Fables borrowing liberally from Mario's roleplaying adventures. The way you attack enemies is dependent upon different timing sequences and button presses. Moves will require stopping an arrow inside of a meter or timing an attack by holding down the joystick until the right moment, and enemy attacks can be blocked by hitting the A button just as they hit you to reduce the damage you suffer. It's all very derivative, but excellent, and Bug Fables throws in enough of its own flair so it doesn't feel like a complete imitation.
In between battles, your party of three will travel to various locations that will require some platforming and puzzle-solving to obtain the next artifact. Each character has a special ability that can be used to get past hazards and giant gaps. Vi's "Beemerang" can be thrown to activate switches and cranks as well as gather items that are out of reach. Kabbu can use his horn to move objects and cut through grass. Leif can use his ice magic to freeze water and enemies so they can be used as platforms. Figuring out which abilities need to be combined to traverse Bugaria's harsh landscape was never very challenging, but it still managed to be a fun part of the game.
As for the party management portion of the game, Bug Fables is pretty light when it comes to managing equipment and skills. Instead of individual levels, your entire team levels up as one unit. When you gain enough XP, you can then choose to upgrade your health, your Team Points (which is your MP), or give yourself more Medal Points so you can equip more medals. Medals are your main pieces of equipment as there's no armor or weapons to worry about. These can give you buffs, status ailment resistances, or in some cases, even allow you to use new moves. The RPG mechanics aren't very complex, but it leads to a streamlined experience that still forces you to strategize, as you can only equip a limited number of medals and carry a limited number of healing items.
A Few Things That Bugged Me
Bug Fables is pretty solid in every aspect, but I will admit to some mild frustration due to the game's dedication to being a Paper Mario tribute act. As a result of the flat style, sometimes the platforming and puzzle sections were a little awkward. Lining up certain jumps could be hard to gauge as the shadows under the characters were too light to reliably determine where I was going to land. This problem could be exacerbated if I was trying to go toward or away from the screen as the ground might not be fully visible due to the camera's position. The side view of the game could also be a hindrance to solving puzzles as it would be hard to properly aim abilities like Vi's Beemerang, which made some puzzles more annoying than they should have been.
Bug Fables has a lot of side quests you can take on for extra money, medals, or items, but it doesn't have an efficient way of tracking them. When you accept a side quest from the various mission boards, you sometimes have to talk to the NPC to start them. Except once you speak with them and they tell you where to go, the side quest doesn't update in your logbook and it doesn't appear on your map. So, if you happened to decide to save a side quest for later or turn the game off, it's easy to forget where you were supposed to go. This means that you might have to wander around until you find the missing NPC, which seems like something that could have been avoided by placing some markers on your map
Bug Fables Does What Nintendon't
Aside from minor nitpicks, I found myself smiling from ear to ear playing Bug Fables. Yes, it is definitely coasting on a major wave of nostalgia, but it feels fantastic. It absolutely nails the combat, the visual style, and the general tone and vibe of the Paper Mario games. It's a little awkward in places, but that honestly didn't stop me from enjoying this game immensely.
Nintendo hasn't made a true Paper Mario game since 2004's Thousand Year Door, and if you've always wished for another game like those first two in the series then you should probably check this out. It doesn't revolutionize the RPG formula, but Bug Fables shows that you don't need an Italian plumber to have fun playing with paper.
A PC copy of Bug Fables was purchased by TheGamer for this review. Bug Fables is available on PC, with Playstation 4 and Nintendo Switch versions arriving in 2020.