Platforms: PC (reviewed), Mac, PS4, PS5
When Sony first revealed the launch lineup for PlayStation 5, we got our first look at a peculiar little game called Bugsnax. Muppets chasing junk food-themed animals on a mysterious island? How wacky! Obviously, this was going to be a neat little feel-good title for a new generation right?
Wrong! Wrong, you fool! What, did you think Bugsnax was here to make you feel good? No! It’s here to make you look deep into the terrifying darkness that is the core of humanity, and its tendency to use and abuse others, writing them off as people and treating them like tools. It’s about how we’ll never learn how to truly communicate, always trapped in our own bodies without knowing how anyone else truly feels. It’s a game about addiction. A game about obsession.
And yes… it’s also a game about catching pineapple-shaped spiders in a jar.
Welcome to Snaxburg
Bugsnax is a game that revels in its own absurdity. When it was first introduced, the devs purposely created a sense of mystery around each teaser and trailer. On the surface, Bugsnax looked a bit like a next-generation Pokémon Snap, but they always hinted at something more. For a while, I was convinced that it was going to pull a 180 and go full horror on us.
It’s not quite that subtle or that profound. It really is, for the most part, a game about hunting and catching food-based critters. It’s just that it’s willing to go places with its character writing that feels just a bit too serious for its subject matter, and it’s that seriousness that makes everything feel awkward, creepy, and off-putting. Young Horses knew exactly what they were doing. They wanted you to feel like something is wrong, and something is.
Daring explorer Lizbert Megafig and her expedition have invited a reporter to come to Snaktooth Island to document the strange creatures known as Bugsnax, “half bug, half snack.” However, when you, the journalist, get to the island you find out that Lizbert and her expedition have gone missing. It’s up to you to not only document these strange Bugsnax but also to find Lizbert and her expedition and lead them back to their makeshift town of Snaxburg.
It’s the characters here, known as Grumpuses that are the real draw. Every Grumpus has its own sidequest which helps determine whether or not you get the good or bad ending during the climax of the game. It’s these sidequests that really tug at your heartstrings.
You’ll meet someone having a crisis of faith in their religion. You’ll meet someone who feels like they have no choice but to turn to a life of crime. You’ll meet someone who tries their best to be a leader but is paralyzed by the weight of the burden of leadership. You’ll meet someone who feels like they are slowly growing apart from their significant other, simply due to the inexorable passage of time combined with the slow buildup of small grievances that never get resolved. You’ll deal with mental health issues, grief over dead loved ones, and general feelings of hopelessness and despair.
Yeah. It gets deep.
You can help all these people with Bugsnax. Just chomp one down and your body will transform into part snack, and that sure does make you feel better. But the whole time you find yourself asking if this is alright. The Bugsnax themselves feel strangely unnatural, and the strange reliance on them feels like they are almost a drug allegory. This only becomes more apparent in the game’s action-packed, bizarre, yet somewhat on-the-nose climax.
So it would be accurate to call Bugsnax a game about goofy muppets with depressingly real problems.
Set your trap
It would also be accurate to call Bugsnax a fusion of Pokémon Snap and Ape Escape.
Your first of many tasks is just to scan every Bugsnax, which basically involves taking their picture. This is where the Pokémon Snap comparison comes in. Every Bugsnak has its own pattern of behavior, from pizzas flying high in the sky, to sandwiches scuttling on the ground. They respond in different ways to different gadgets in your inventory, as well as different other Bugsnax in the wild.
The second task is to capture Bugsnax, which usually involves taking advantage of these very behavioral patterns. You’ll have to anticipate the path of some, pull aggro on others, lure others out of hiding, and more. Some are intelligent and will openly attack your traps, while others are veritable boss battles and need to be weathered down before you can nab them.
This is pretty much the meat and potatoes (pun included) of the game. You’ll come across a Grumpus and they will want you to find a desired Bugsnak, trap a desired Bugsnak so that they can eat the desired Bugsnak, and mutate their body in some horrible way. Lather, rinse, repeat.
It does get repetitive at times. There are more than 100 different species of Bugsnax, but many of them are just recolors or reskins of species you have found before with slightly different catching methods.
The catching methods themselves evolve over time. At first, you can just net a Bugsnak by running up to it, but soon you’ll get remote control traps, launchers for use on flying Bugsnax, a slingshot that can fire condiments to stun Bugsnax, and much more. This is primarily where you get a sense of progression in Bugsnax, as more options open up more critters to catch and make trips to previous areas of the island suddenly new and interesting.
The game is at its best when it asks you to solve puzzles. For example, you may have to fling a condiment at a cracked wall to get a Bugsnak to charge into it, both to stun it and to open up a new area.
The issue is that these puzzles are few and far between. Every so often you get a satisfying “Eureka!” moment that keeps you playing but more often than not you simply find a Bugsnak, anticipate its path, and put it in a jar.
To be completely honest, it’s the writing that keeps you here. If Bugsnax really was a goofy little children’s game, the core gameplay loop would have probably lost me, but hearing the deep troubles of the Grumpuses and slowly uncovering the mystery of Snaktooth Island actually made me dive in again and again.
Unfortunately, I don’t have access to a PS5, but if the PC version on the highest settings is anything to judge by, Bugsnax looks amazing. The deceptively simple art style isn’t going to show off the power of next-gen hardware like, say, Spider-Man: Miles Morales is, but the island still looks vibrant and beautiful. From the mountains in the background, the trees that you wander through looking for critters, the rolling waves, and the fantastically expressive Grumpuses, every element of Bugsnax looks like an episode of Barney: the Dinosaur went on a depression bender with a high-powered graphics card.
The voice work is also top-notch. All of the Grumpuses are fantastically charming stereotypes with voices to match. You will come close to crying in some of the darker moments of the games.
The Bugsnax too are perfectly voiced. They all call out their name, much like Pokémon do, and they are all cute and cuddly and they make you just want to eat them up.
No, wait! Don’t eat them up! That’s what got us here in the first place!
Should you sink your teeth in?
Bugsnax can be completed in about 10 hours, sidequests included, so it’s not a full course meal. However, it only costs $25 and you can still get it at an even lower price on PC platforms due to early release sales at the time of this writing, and that’s a price point that works. It’s about the price of a takeout binge and it will satisfy you about the same, with two or three nights of contentment followed by a small empty feeling inside.
The ending of Bugsnax is abrupt but it comes at the right time. The core gameplay loop simply didn’t have enough depth to support several more hours of food finding and catching. Yet still, there are some mysteries left unresolved, even after the whole thing goes David Cronenberg. Perhaps it’s a setup for a sequel?
Perhaps, but I don’t see myself coming back for seconds.
Overall, Bugsnax was a good, if disturbing, time. It’s certainly not as deep as Young Horses made it out to be, but it’s well written, solidly produced, and fun enough to keep you coming back. All that put together makes Bugsnax a snack worth tasting.