It’s funny that in my last blog post, I mentioned The Binding of Isaac for both being aggravating and entertaining. While searching for a new puzzle or card game to play in between shooters and more hardcore stuff like Dark Souls, I randomly ran across The Legend of Bum-Bo on sale on Steam. The description for it is a deck-building puzzle RPG, and a prequel to all the various flavors of Isaac. Having seen trailers and gameplay preview videos, I had some idea of what I was going into, but I had no clue how fast the gameplay loop would hook me. There’s still problems that bugged me, but this is for sure going to be one of my more positive reviews in a while.
Before getting into the details, I think a warning of sorts is fair. Edmund McMillen games all have a certain level of shit in them. I don’t mean a bad game element. I mean feces and urine are quite common in his stuff. If I ever interviewed Ed, one of my early questions would have to be “did you get trapped in a sewer while tripping on acid or shrooms?” This game is no exception, so if you find weaponized poo and pee offensive, Ed’s games are not for you. And that’s okay.
But to begin with, Bum-Bo’s game isn’t so much a direct prequel as it is a setting imagined by Isaac before his mother’s psychotic break with reality forced him into hiding. Each level is made inside a diorama with puppets dangling from strings or sticks, and pretty much every element is constructed from paper and/or cardboard. It sounds dumb described in mere words like this, but in practice, the treatment gives most levels a kind of charm that was missing from Isaac’s top-down twin-stick shooter.
The term deck-builder is perhaps not the right choice, as it creates for me an image of a card deck. Instead, Bum-Bo has a short stack of spells that are acquired by clearing floors from each “Chapter.” These chapters end with a boss, who offers either another spell or a trinket, which can augment Bum-Bo’s spells or grant buffs like improved attack damage, stat bonuses, or extra movement. (ie: action points.) There’s lots of other effects to trinkets, but half the fun of this game is in finding new stuff and seeing what it does. For this reason, I’m going to be light on details to let you discover what all the good stuff is yourself.
To cast spells, Bum-Bo has to match tiles on a 9 by 4 grid. The lines are shifted up and down or left and right, with a minimum of 4 tiles matching required to get a reward. Brown mana will toss out poop shields to block incoming attacks. Yellow pee droplets will recover action points, and green snot will bind an enemy in place, preventing them from attacking or even moving for one turn. Both grey teeth and white bones will act as ranged weapons, dealing out 1 damage for matching 4 tiles. But matching more tiles on bones will allow Bum-Bo to throw more bones in a single turn, while matching more than 4 teeth will increase the damage of a single attack. Match seven tiles or more, and both of these tile types will unleash some very interesting mega-attacks.
Oh, but lest I forget, certain stat bonuses will increase the base damage of both puzzle attacks. Combining these bonuses with similar spells and trinkets can result in a normal attack scaling from a measly 1 damage into a far more respectable 5 or 6. We’re talking one-shot attacks for everyone but bosses. It’s good stuff, y’all.
Beyond the immediate effects of matching tiles, each tile also offers up a type of colored mana. (Brown, yellow, green, grey, and white. Oh, and there’s also hearts, which are about as useless as they are in Captain Planet. I kid! OR DO I?) These mana points are what power spells, and this is where things get interesting because even after using up all of Bum-Bo’s action points, it’s possible to use spells. For the starting character Bum-Bo the Brave, this amounts to adding one or two more attacks per turn, but that can help to keep the incoming waves of enemies at bay.
The first time through the game, there’s only one dungeon to complete, leading to unlocking a second dungeon or “chapter” as well as a new character, Bum-Bo the Nimble. This second character has a spell to remove a tile from the board, and so it becomes possible to toss out spells AND also manipulate the board to keep getting more action points or attacks.
Two rounds later, Bum-Bo the Weird is unlocked, bringing with him one spell to copy tiles, and another that gathers all the tiles of the same type to fling them as a ranged weapon. The more of the same tile gets thrown, the higher the damage. Additionally, each time he kills an enemy, he gets another action point.
It’s at this point that it becomes possible to pick a path through the tiles, dishing out massive damage in each room without ever once letting the enemies take a turn. This right here is what keeps me up at all hours of the night, trying to pull off a perfect run where no one gets to move in any dungeon except my man Bum-Bo.
It’s harder than it sounds because the more times the game is played, the more the difficulty is cranked up with the introduction of new bosses and combinations of some truly dickish enemies. Some can steal moves and/or block your use of your best spells. Some are just straight up immune to spells or puzzle damage, while others recover health or cast shields to protect their…comrades? Co-workers? I don’t really know the organizational structure of video game dungeons. But my point is, when I get wiped in a losing run by a cheap attack, and I don’t even have time to lament before I’ve started a new game to keep chasing that perfect run. It’s just that addictive.
For as much fun as some characters are, others are kind of annoying to try and win with. Bum-Bo the Stout gains bonus mana for matching tiles, but at the end of each turn, he loses everything. If there’s nothing on the grid to sustain him, Bum-Bo the Stout can have a run end very badly for him very quickly, and there’s not much you can do to turn it around.
Then there’s Bum-Bo the Dead, who has the mana costs for spells change each time the spells are cast, meaning every spell use is a gamble on whether you’ll have the right mana type to power the next cast. His ability to manipulate the tiles is great, except when all of them require the same mana type, and suddenly you can’t get that tile to drop. Then it’s turn after turn of groaning “Can I just have four poops already?!” (Side note: video games make us say some weird things sometimes, don’t they? Like “okay, first I’ll drop the poop shield, and now here’s a booger bomb, and I’ll finish up with a bone in your face.”)
Next is Bum-Bo the Empty who–I shit you not–swaps spells on every floor. The game still offers you new spells after beating a floor, but they’re meaningless because the spell list will swap without you even getting to try them for one floor. Even if you somehow find one spell that doesn’t suck or works well with another, the next floor, you’re back to a waist-high stack of garbage.
Here is where we get to the other trait of McMillen’s games that I’m not nearly so fond of, and that’s his quasi-masochistic need to find ways to fuck over the player with random bullshit. Just as Isaac can take a pill or an item that poisons him or saps his attack power, these variations on Bum-Bo are less about making a strategy as they are dealing with a constant stream of dick moves invented by RNGesus. They weren’t fun in Isaac, and they aren’t any more fun with Bum-Bo.
At this point I’ve unlocked all the characters, including the free DLC addition, Bum-Bo the Lost. I had to make it through the first three dungeons without taking damage to do it, and that was not easy. For all that work, I was kind of expecting something OP like Bum-Bo the Weird, and instead, I’ve yet to make it past the first dungeon with him because he’s so fragile. There’s got to be a trick to turn him into a badass, I’m sure of it, but now he’s kind of aggravating. I feel like “This is my reward for managing a flawless run? Meh! Meh, indeed!” Ah well, if I never get the hang of him, at least there’s other Bum-Bo’s I still want to play.
Much like with Isaac in all his DLC flavors, I long for the chance to do a real RPG character creation. I don’t mean mods, either. Give me an option in the game to pick a set of skill points to divvy up and make my own character, and then give me a set of spells to start off with. The rest can still be added via RNG, but let me decide what stats to Min-Max and what initial spells to load my fighter with. That way, even as I’m slaying the same hordes over and over, I feel like I have some control over my starting point.
To finally round out the list of complaints, it also kind of sucks that despite adding all these different enemies and bosses and variant forms, there’s only one final boss, and he’s just not that interesting. He doesn’t even make sense to the story. Okay, true, the story is being told by a toddler, but why am I chasing this monster through 4 dungeons, only to find him limp on the floor at the end? How did he even manage to hobble all this way in his condition? It’s pathetic.
Give me a boss like one of the Horsemen from Binding of Isaac, or Isaac’s angel form. Give me a boss that I’m excited to fight, and give me more than one boss to expect after my slogging journey through all these dungeons. Even if it is one boss, don’t make the final fight so underwhelming, yo.
Even with those complaints in mind, I have no trouble giving The Legend of Bum-Bo a solid 4 stars. If you can get past the scatological obsession and aggravating nonsense dished out by RNGesus, this is a surprisingly deep puzzle game that offers many, MANY hours of engagement.Let me put it this way. I got this on sale on Steam, but now I’m considering paying 16 Euros to buy the game again for my phone. That’s how much I’m enjoying it. I want to play with video game poop while I’m pooping. If that isn’t a ringing endorsement enough for you, well then you’ll never be convinced.