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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (477)

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Pikmin 4 4/5
No Man's Sky 4/5
Dragon Quest Monsters: ... 4/5
Assassin's Creed IV: Bl... 2.5/5
Tiny Tina's Wonderlands 3.5/5
Ratchet & Clank: Rift A... 4.5/5
Super Mario Bros. Wonder 4.5/5
The Alliance Alive 2/5
Catmaze 4.5/5
Turnip Boy Commits Tax ... 4.5/5
Seasons After Fall 3/5
Rayon Riddles - Rise of... 0.5/5
World to the West 4/5
MechWarrior 5: Mercenar... 4/5
Streets of Kamurocho 2.5/5
Aeon of Sands - The Tra... 2.5/5
Greak: Memories of Azur 3.5/5
Yaga 2.5/5
Riverbond 3/5
Bug Fables: The Everlas... 4.5/5
Front Mission 1st Remake 1.5/5
Middle-earth: Shadow of... 3.5/5
Bladed Fury 3.5/5
Ruzar - The Life Stone 3.5/5
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin 3.5/5

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Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling   PC (Steam) 

Spiritually Successful!    4.5/5 stars

“Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling” (“Bug Fables”) is the inaugural effort by Central American Indie development studio, Moonsprout Games, based in Panama. Crowdfunded in IndieGogo, the initial concept for “Bug Fables” arose from a desire by the developers to create a spiritual successor to Nintendo’s ‘Paper Mario’ series after noticing that more recent entries in the series (read: anything after the Gamecube) strayed too far from the spinoff series’ RPG roots. This stated goal of aping the excellent qualities of the early ‘Paper Mario’ games in a spiritual successor was what initially brought “Bug Fables” into my sphere of awareness, as I agree with Moonsprout’s stated goal for the game and their assessment of the ‘Paper Mario’ IP as a whole.

However, I still wondered if an unknown, untested Indie studio from a part of the world without a particularly strong game development scene would be up to the task of creating a spiritual successor to a Nintendo franchise with anywhere near the quality Nintendo (used to be) known for bringing to the table with every game. Not only that, but without the well-known characters of the Mushroom Kingdom, I wondered if “Bug Fables” was capable of making an impression at all. Thus, it is with great delight that I can report Moonsprout’s complete success: “Bug Fables” does its inspirations proud, while managing to build a compelling, unique identity all of its own.

Presentation
“Bug Fables” wears its inspiration on its sleeve, aping the 2D/3D pop-up book artstyle of Nintendo’s ‘Paper Mario’ series with aplomb. The character designs feature all manner of cartoony anthropomorphic insects, spiders, and the like, drawn in a cheerful, childlike style that further invokes another Nintendo property – ‘Yoshi’s Island’ – while also giving similar vibes to the odd-looking insects from another Indie game about bugs, “Hollow Knight.”

Audio is generally excellent. While the game is unvoiced, each unique bug character (and there are a LOT of them) has a unique warbling sound accompanying their speech bubbles. Furthermore, the soundtrack is one of the most memorable ones I’ve experienced this year, with a wide variety of catchy, quirky tunes accompanying the action and story.

Technically is the only place “Bug Fables” falls on its face a bit. There have been numerous bug fixes (no pun intended) to fix players getting stuck in the environments, which shows admirable ongoing support from the developers. However, there is an ongoing quirk with Xinput controller support that nearly always forced me to unplug, then replug my controller after the game was running in order for the game to pick up any inputs from it. That said, for a first-attempt game by an Indie studio using an engine as quirky and janky as Unity, “Bug Fables” is otherwise quite immaculate in just how well it turned out. The team at Moonsprout even added a few extra bonuses via free updates instead of trying to sell them as paid DLC!

Story
“Bug Fables” takes place in a mysterious world of anthropomorphic, talking insects who live very human-like lives, but in a microcosm. Our heroes are would-be Explorers for the Kingdom of the Ants, a beetle named Kabbu, and a saucy worker bee named Vi. Kabbu and Vi find themselves nearly shut out of the application process for becoming Explorers because neither one has a partner. However, they quickly decide to work together in an alliance of convenience, with Kabbu wishing to prove himself as an Explorer and Vi simply wanting to make butt-loads of berries (read: money) from selling the treasures she finds.

This alliance of convenience sets out in pursuit of the mysterious artifacts coveted by the Ant Queen, Elizant II, which she believes are the key to uncovering the location of a legendary plant known as the titular Everlasting Sapling, which, according to legend, grants immortality to any bug who eats of its leaves. Kabbu and Vi decide to make their first stop a mysterious cave known as Snakemouth Den, where countless other teams of Explorers have perished or vanished.

Our heroes quickly learn why Snakemouth Den is so dangerous, as, in the process of rescuing a trapped moth, provoke the wrath of a truly gigantic spider. Shockingly, the moth trapped in the spider’s web is not only still alive, but capable of using ice magic – a very rare ability among bugs in general. Breaking the Explorer Guild’s rules about teams consisting of 2 partners, Kabbu and Vi invite the rescued moth, named Leif, to join forces with them. Not only are the trio able to defeat the spider, but they recover the artifact that no other bugs were able to, and successfully return it to the Ant Queen.

Now operating under the moniker of Team Snakemouth, Kabbu, Vi, and Leif quickly find themselves insinuated in the upper echelon of adventurers, as the Queen directly requests their expertise in recovering the remaining artifacts, and eventually the Sapling. Team Snakemouth’s travels will take them across the full length and breadth of Bugaria, from ancient Roach Ruins to the Bee Kingdom, to remote trackless lands, and beyond.

Each of our three heroes has a mysterious past, and each gets their fair share of character development. This character development is complemented by a surprisingly deep level of worldbuilding, backstory, and lore, with nearly every NPC possessing a unique name, appearance, and personality. The plot itself is incredibly well-written, with bug-themed parallels to a variety of story paradigms that frequently made me crack a smile. There are also plot twists aplenty, some more surprising than others.

“Bug Fables” clocks in at about 40 hours, which is pretty beefy for a first-attempts Indie game. However, it falls right in the sweet spot in length for story-based RPGs. Some of the collect-a-thon-ing in “Bug Fables” can be exhausting and tedious, though, with a full completionist run with all Achievements tacking an extra 10+ hours onto the experience.

Gameplay
Its basic core mechanics are where “Bug Fables” most closely resembles the ‘Paper Mario’ series that inspired it. Navigating through towns, wilderness, caves, and tunnels, the player will need to use Kabbu’s, Vi’s, and Leif’s unique abilities in simple platforming, activating switches, and overcoming a variety of other obstacles. More abilities become available to each character at specific plot-points, which can lead to some frustration due to the need to backtrack and find previously inaccessible treasures – a la Metroidvania, only hobbled by “Bug Fables’” less-than-detailed-or-useful world map.

Most non-town environments are populated by a small variety of enemies – with each discrete area featuring its own stable of foes – that can be engaged or ignored at the player’s whim – though they will chase the player if spotted. Upon touching an enemy, the game’s action switches to a full-blown Turn-Based RPG, replete with well-designed radial menus and interactive attacks that rely on simple timed button presses to deal ‘full’ damage, instead of fumbling. It is slightly annoying that “Bug Fables” always assumes the player will nail the QTE for each attack (and most blocks), whereas the ‘Paper Mario’ and every other ‘Mario RPG’ spinoff series always treated the well-timed button press as a bonus, but it’s a minor complaint. In general, the combat encounters in “Bug Fables” feel incredibly well-balanced. Of course, the underlying mechanics are all in place to all-but-assure what the player’s party Rank will be at any given time, since enemies stop giving any usable amount of experience once Team Snakemouth has outranked them.

Ranking up in “Bug Fables” grants the player a choice of three different boosts: Either 1 extra health point for each member of the team, three Skill Points (which are, shared by the group and used to cast special abilities), or three Medal Points, which allow the team and individual members to equip more of the game’s sole type of equipment. Medals come in an insane variety, with some much more difficult to acquire than others, but with plenty of options for building the party to the player’s desired specification. All of these underlying systems mesh together perfectly, creating a game that almost never feels ‘too difficult’ or ‘too easy.’

Unfortunately, there are a tiny handful of things that annoyed me and dragged-down the gameplay score a bit. First, there are a number of optional Bounty Bosses the player can find hidden throughout the world. These are tougher-than-normal battles which grant special rewards. However, the first Bounty Boss the player is likely to encounter is ALSO the hardest, which gave me a sense of neurotic avoidance when it came to all of the other Bounty Bosses.

Next, most of the best Medals in the game are locked behind annoying activities, like equipping the Hard Mode Medal before fighting each of the games seven Chapter Bosses, running a boss gauntlet in VR, powering through a succession of 50 battles in a row in a hidden grotto, or playing some knock-off mobile-style mini-games. Fortunately, none of the Medals acquired from these irksome activities is necessary to complete or enjoy the game.

Lastly, I took some issue with the QTEs involved with activating many of the Team’s special abilities. While Kabbu, Vi, and Leif each have their basic attack that never changes through the course of the game, they do learn a variety of different special abilities either by ranking up or equipping specific Medals. These abilities are often too vague in their text description regarding what kind of QTE the player will face when attempting to use them. Moreover, attempting to use an unfamiliar skill in a boss battle is a recipe for disaster, since it’s easy to flub a skill’s QTE that you’re seeing for the first time, and flubbed skills generally do next to no damage, in addition to wasting the Skill Points used to cast them. Ultimately, I ended up going through the entire game depending solely on two of Kabbu’s special attacks, one of Vi’s, and a couple of support abilities (with no QTE’s attached) from Vi and Leif, making the combat feel extremely repetitive much of the time.

Overall
“Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling” is a monumental achievement as the inaugural game release by a crowdfunded Indie outfit. Moonsprout Games managed to nail everything people used to like about the ‘Paper Mario’ series, while simultaneously providing RPG-starved gamers a brand new IP with surprisingly great production values and even more surprisingly great writing. It has a small number of rough edges, sure, but in spite of its minor flaws, I can’t recommend “Bug Fables” highly enough.

Presentation: 4.5/5
Story: 4.5/5
Gameplay: 4/5
Overall (not an average): 4.5/5

 

 


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