SPOILER WARNING: This review contains spoilers! Don’t read further if you haven’t played the game! I just had a great idea: go play it right now, then come back and read this! Seriously, go play it.
As one of the best in the Paper Mario challenge running business, I’d had my eye on Bug Fables for a while. Once people from my community really started getting into it and recommending I stream it, I decided to take the plunge and wound up playing a very impressive spiritual successor to the first two entries in the Paper Mario series. I liked the story and the characters; honestly, I thought they were better then any Paper Mario game. The music is good, the art is fine, the side quests are great — bottom line: If you’re a fan of Paper Mario, you’re doing yourself a disservice NOT playing this game.
But that’s not what this review is about. This is a review of the game’s combat in regards to challenge running potential and high-level game play. I highly suggest you go play the game first before you read this (or at least have some idea of the medals) because some of these strategies will likely spoil you.
As a disclaimer: when I first started the game, my entire chat told me “Hey, equip the Hard Mode medal, it’s the way the developers intended you to play the game”. If that’s how they wanted it to be played, then I had no choice to oblige. This review is about combat with that medal equipped at all times.
Let’s go over the combat basics. Like Paper Mario and TTYD, you’ve got HP, TP for special attacks (FP), and MP for medals (BP). You fight with Kabbu (a beetle), Vi (a bee), and Leif (a moth). Each one has their own unique basic attacks (Kabbu pierces DEF, Vi can hit flying enemies, and Leif can hit underground enemies) and special skills that use TP and you can equip medals that affect either the entire party of just one character. You can swap the positions of characters at any time (even when a character is knocked out!) as long as all active members haven’t used their turn. However, you only have three set formations: [Vi/Leif/Kabbu], [Kabbu/Vi/Leif], and [Leif/Kabbu/Vi]. Why is this important? Because the character in front gets a natural +1 to their attack power and is targeted more often.
You can also relay your turn so another character can attack twice, but at a cost of -1 attack power per extra attack a character does. This is an amazing new feature. Got 3 flying enemies? Relay with Kabbu and Leif to Vi and take them all down in one turn. Have a character use a skill, then relay to them to use it again…or use a different skill. It’s pretty sweet.
Okay, that’s it for the basics. In short… the combat is great. I love the turn relay system combined with the already solid Paper Mario foundation; it all gels together really well with how you approach normal fights and bosses. Being able to relay turns when needed to better utilize a character’s strengths and position them accordingly to better use your medals was very satisfying. I loved being able to figure out strategies and bosses completely blind with only my previous experience to guide me. That was very fun, and I think anyone will feel rewarded once they figure out some dope strategies.
Balance wasn’t really a problem as far as normal fights are concerned. I always felt like if something wasn’t working, I could find a way to make it better or had other options to choose from. The bosses and superbosses all had cool moves and one or two unique things about them for the most part. But that’s where the cool stuff ends and my issues with boss AI begin. Maybe this is a “Hard Mode” thing, but a lot of bosses had this pattern: Do things -> start buffing/attacking twice forever/summon minions after x HP is lost. Maybe sometimes they’d use a new move in conjunction with the above, but for the most part many bosses just started attacking more and buffing themselves. Now, of course, not all bosses were like this, but I would say it was enough to be over saturated.
What this lends itself to is the same strategies working all of the time. Tank Do Nothing Kabbu combined with Danger/Poison Vi is ridiculously strong and can wipe almost any boss pretty quickly if you’ve got enough TP-restoring items or both TP Cores equipped. Near the end of my playthrough, I found myself using those strategies to basically obliterate bosses. I was in real danger of a game over maybe a couple times near the end, but honestly, it didn’t feel like it. I felt like I had a pretty easy time because nothing could really stop the aforementioned strategy. This is a pretty big contrast to early and mid game, where bosses felt much more dangerous and I definitely felt in danger of a game over most of the time.
The second issue I had with bosses is that their AI is completely random (for the most part). Now, obviously, bosses have some triggers that are static and you know will come. The problem is that everything else is random, so while you can cook up cool strategies, you can’t fine-tune them like you can in Paper Mario and TTYD. This dampened the experience for me because there are only a few ways to get to an optimal state. I’m totally fine with random boss AI in most other games, but in a game where damage can be so finely tuned, I think having truly random boss AI like this actually takes away from it instead.
In Bug Fables, getting into Danger or being Poisoned is where it’s at for damage and defense for your primary attacker. There are a few items that will put you down at 1 HP, but other than that and Weak Stomach, you have to basically wait until a boss deals enough damage (and if you aren’t Kabbu using Taunt, you need to be targeted in the first place). This is how late-game boss battles looked like for me:
1) Attack until bosses put Vi into Danger -> Spam Tornado Toss (you could sub another move here — didn’t really matter)
2) If Vi dies, use Pep Up; otherwise, Do Nothing on Kabbu to restore HP/keep DEF up
3) If Leif is alive, buff Vi or rally to Vi always. Rarely, use Cleanse on beefed up boss
This cycle basically destroyed every boss in EX Boss Rush mode without me healing between rounds or using items. I put Miracle Matter on Leif just to make bosses go faster by letting Vi attack more. I would always keep Vi in front because I didn’t care if she died. She took 1-3 damage most of the time thanks to Last Stand x2 and I’d deal 30-50 in one turn if I also gave Kabbu’s turn to Vi. You could supplement other things around this, but the core is the same.
There are definitely other cool strategies I haven’t explored that utilize Sleep or something or using Berserk or what-have-you (I used a really dope Taunt Kabbu HP Regen setup on the Mini-Boss Rush and it was pretty effective and fun), but the core of my problem is… there’s not a lot of cool ways to get to the state you want to be at to activate Medals you have. You’re either using Big Mistake/something to active Weak Stomach or the status you want to inflict on yourself, or you’re waiting for bosses to just deal enough damage to put you in that range. If they die, just use Kabbu’s Pep Up which puts them in perfect Danger (and waiting for a character to die just so Kabbu can do that is RNG and…yeah). It’s very samey, and because bosses are basically random you can’t manipulate cool positioning or damage you deal to direct them as the battle goes on and you’re just waiting sometimes for things to start happening while not even feeling threatened. The only way to really do that is through Kabbu’s Taunt, but sometimes they could roll to use AoE moves and ruin that anyway. You could be waiting 2-4 extra turns just to get your strategy rolling unless you use one of the few ways to force it to start.
This is a stark contrast to TTYD, where you can do some pretty wild stuff to get into Danger/Peril while also taking/dealing the exact damage you need to and using the exact amount of FP you have to emerge victorious. Point Swap + Double Dip, using a move + Point Swap, KO’ing a partner with Point Swap to force attacks onto Mario, Trial Stew, Poison Shroom, manipulating specific phases that give you extra turns to setup, taking damage on purpose while Charging, using clever DEF to go from full HP -> Danger -> Peril… there are a LOT of ways to craft a cool or interesting strategy or one that just gets into Peril, and that to me is more interesting than what I did for most of Bug Fables’ end game.
With all of this said, I still found the entire end game experience very fun, but most of the cool stuff that bosses have gets shut down by the same things by then and it’s just a waiting game to get there instead of a cool mapped out strategy you can implement with 100% or near-100% certainty, which was a little disappointing. To add onto this, most of the secret codes to impose extra challenges are only slightly different and probably don’t change this cycle (except maybe for MYSTERY which randomizes all Medals).
So what does that mean for challenge running this game? In my opinion, I think the game still has a lot of challenge running potential. The secret codes on their own aside as challenges, you can use them to do some other cool things like Level Zero, maybe a “Character Alone” run? You can try and use no Danger/Poison or ban Miracle Matter. You could “lock” your formation and see how to play around that. Some won’t change too much, but the fact I can name all of these right now and feel like I’m only scratching the surface means there’s a lot of potential for this game and that’s really exciting! There are quite a few people in my community and I’m sure the Bug Fables’ community that have been challenge running this game for a while, so there’s definitely interest and the game having built-in modifiers only helps. I’ll definitely be doing quite a bit of challenge running for this game myself because combat is super fun to play despite the few issues I had with it during my first play through. Who knows… maybe my opinion will change once I really sink my teeth into some challenge runs!