Review: The Legend of Bum-Bo
At this point, you really should know what you’re getting yourself into with an Edmund McMillen joint. It’ll have solid mechanics buried beneath a cartoon rendition of Troma-level grotesquerie, and pretty much right after you get a grip on how it plays, it’ll start kicking your ass. The only real question is what shape the mechanics will take, and this time it’s puzzling of the match-4 variety. It’s a bit deeper in strategy than your Bejeweleds or your Puzzle Quests, while at the same time not quite having the breadth of content as that last one, and lacking some essential balancing, too. But honestly, if a follow up to The Binding of Isaac ends up falling just a little short while shifting into a whole new genre, that’s still a pretty big win.
Bum-Bo is… um… some naked guy with a coin? And someone nicks his coin and spirits it away into the sewers. Without much else to do, Bum-Bo sets off to get that coin back, using what he finds as weapons against the shocking array of horrors awaiting him just beneath the surface. Unfortunately, those weapons are things like old bones, boogers, and poop. Fortunately, those make really effective weapons against the mutant creatures he battles, further propped up by the spells and powers he learns from… other naked people, and… corpses? Man, I really should not try to do story summaries for these games.
Forget the feces-filled Zelda dungeons of Isaac, because Bum-Bo is all puzzles, all the time. Each leg of his journey is a series of four rooms filled with monsters, with the last containing a boss to beat upon. Rather than crying or peeing on his foes directly, Bum-Bo has a grid of tiles he rearranges to match teeth and pee to damage and debilitate enemies, or power his bizarre little spells to similar effect. You’re matching four or more symbols here, by shifting entire rows or columns of the board at a time. Typically you’ll only have around two moves per turn, and on the enemy turns they can prepare to attack, deploy traps or more monsters, or produce other effects that will surely complicate your scatological scrap.
Unlike the puzzle games I mentioned previously, Bum-Bo is not about making huge combos or lucking into big damage. Your board is small, and stuffed with, at minimum, five kinds of things to match that all do different things. Bones and teeth do damage, poop and boogers provide defenses, and pee gives you additional moves. Matching more than four at a time multiplies the effects, and matching seven produces a special super effect. You’ll also bank the symbols you match as mana for spells you collect as you progress, which can attack or debuff enemies, rearrange your own board, and more. Spells tend to be cheap and powerful enough to allow for dramatic plays, like setting up a combo with your limited moves, then swapping or blowing up key tiles with your spells to gain even more moves. The different character classes you unlock also play very, very differently, and tend to have their own ways to abuse the board to give you the power needed to triumph.
But you won’t always have that power. Much like Isaac before it, Bum-Bo has great runs and bad runs, and here the bad runs can dead-end you hard. The spells you get are incredibly important to success with the later classes, and there’s no guarantee you’re going to get useful ones on any particular run. You also HAVE to use the different classes to progress through the game, due to some silly gating of the different chapters. I’m currently stuck on the third character, who has powerful spells and generates extra mana, but can easily get ruined by not having the right complimentary spells to their starters. Battles really feel balanced against having the right tools in the later chapters, despite there being no way to really load up on them like you can in Isaac.
The other thing about Bum-Bo is that it really sucks to lose. It sucked to lose in Isaac too, but puzzling through challenging fights where you need to be carefully scrutinizing every turn is a big departure from bullet hell romps. This is a more mentally taxing game, at least for me, which makes doing lots of runs in a single sitting much harder to stomach. Not everyone will feel this way, I’m sure, but it is the one place where the shift in genre really threatens to chafe. Aside from that, it’s a welcome change considering how intricate the puzzle mechanics are and how well the strategy flows when you have all the tools you need. It’s a bit narrow in scope compared to Isaac, with fewer items and secrets and such to find, but Bum-Bo will need time to grow into the sprawling monstrosity BoI is if that’s what it’s meant to do. But even if it doesn’t, the Legend of Bum-Bo offers plenty of engrossing puzzling in its gross-out way, as long as you have the patience to get through the rough patches.