A charming adventure in a tasty world
I've always been wary of Bugsnax. Without having seen much of the gameplay and largely annoyed by the oversaturation of the Internet's affection for its clever marketing scheme, I was glad to get my hands on it just to see what exactly Young Horses had actually made. The studio arrived on the scene in 2014 with the middling-yet-charming physics comedy game Octodad: Dadliest Catch where the team demonstrated an ability to imagine bizarre gameplay mechanics and commit to the bit, even if they couldn't stick the landing. That same goofy ambition is clear here in Bugsnax. A completely different kind of puzzle game, it is equally creative, but also a clear evolution for Young Horses. While Octodad was one joke told over and over (what if an Octopus pretended to be a family-man dad) Bugsnax's comedy is much more layered and surprising. Even if you were put off by the twee tone of the trailers, there's something more substantial and interesting happening here. Yes, it's a little too cute for its own good sometimes and it gets a little too in the weeds with some of its mechanics, but Bugsnax succeeds in many ways, landing a striking balance between bizarre, endearing, and funny - a rare tone for any game.
Hang with me, because the premise of the game is a little weird. The titular bugsnax are a mashup between creature and food. They behave like animals, but can be eaten raw - ostensibly tasting like the food they represent. There's a Banopper (a banana grasshopper), Crapple (an apple crab), Fryder (french fry spider), Ribblepede (centipede of BBQ ribs), and many others. They inhabit Snaktooth Island and make up an ecosystem of monsters that feels similar to Pokémon. Eating bugsnax creates a physiological change in the body, based on what you consume - so if you eat a Strabby, your hand may change into a strawberry.
The game follows the story of a settlement of grumpuses, humanoid walrus-like people, led by world-renowned explorer, Elizabert Megafig. Elizabert has invited you, a grumpus journalist, to Snaktooth Island to see bugsnax and their community for yourself. However, when you arrive you find that the settlement has been abandoned, its inhabitants are feuding with each other and Elizabert has disappeared with her significant other, Eggabell. This leaves Filbo, the deputy mayor of the town known as Snakburg, desperate for help and asking you to find the scattered residents and bring them back together to help find Elizabert and Eggabell.
The themes of community and togetherness are explored as you bring each villager back to Snakburg. I didn't expect much humor to land with me, but was impressed with how clever and witty many of the jokes were. This is largely due to excellent voice acting in the game, but also to the sound editing. The pauses, the pacing of the comedy (something which so often eludes video games) is present here and the jokes only work because the cast and audio designers have clearly worked hard on the delivery of punchlines. But there's also a tenderness that's clear in the game. It's not the twee, heavy-handed approach one might expect from a game like this, but a more subtle take on depression, anxiety, loneliness, and love - and those themes really hit home in 2020.
It all climaxes in one of the strangest turns I've ever seen in a video game. The game never quite completes the turn to full-on horror, but it certainly is embracing Burton-esque weirdness by the end. Much like in their previous effort, Young Horses doesn't quite achieve everything they wanted to narratively, but it's so much closer this time around.
The game has a quest-driven, open-world structure as you explore the land in first person. Snaktooth Island is made up of a series of biomes each with their own ecosystem of bugsnax to catch. As you explore each biome, looking for missing villagers and clues about Elizabert's whereabouts, you'll discover the different kinds of bugsnax present using a camera that identifies them and gives you a clue about how to catch them. A lot of the villagers will ask you to catch certain bugsnax for them as well. Once you've satisfied their bugsnax cravings, they will return to Snakburg. There you will be able to interview them and also do some side-quests, as well to learn more about their character. The pacing of the game is a little clunky toward the end, but I was constantly compelled onward, beating the game in a single 9-hour sitting, constantly driven by finding one more creature or completing one more quest.
After you've found bugsnax, you'll have to catch them, which is easier for some than others. There are bugsnax who never touch the ground, bugsnax who hide in bushes, bugsnax that are constantly on fire. The game gives you a series of tools, doled out biome by biome, to help you catch these tasty critters. So if a particular bugsnak is giving you trouble, don't worry, you can come back to it later. The game probably leans a little bit on the easy side when it comes to figuring out how to catch the bugsnax. Eventually, I found a tool that became my default for catching just about anything, which was a little lame. It’s a bummer because other fun tools like the Buggy Ball (a Strabby in a hamster ball) are a little under-used. Still, I did enjoy collecting the creatures and feeding them to the villagers, watching their bodies slowly morph into strange amalgamations of bugsnak parts. And there are some fun combinations of tools, like when I used a launchpad to shoot a trap in the air to catch a flying bugsnak.
I said the game is maybe a little too easy and that's because the mechanics are a little on the clunky side. When you're trying to do more complex maneuvers to catch some of the trickier bugsnax, it can be frustrating more than challenging. It also took me a little while to figure out how the Trip Shot worked. You'll know what you want to do, but getting the tools to actually do it is sometimes annoying.
The game is bright and colorful. The world of Snaktooth Island is filled with bright beaches, sun-kissed deserts, and snowy mountaintops. It's not a particularly big world, but it's well designed and feels bespoke everywhere you go. The bugsnax cleverly correspond to the locations as well. The s'mores-like Charmallow, which can be found in the forests, you'll see the Snaquiri on the beach where you might like a fruity drink, and the Preying Picantis can be found under the hot desert sun. A lot of thought has been put into which bugnax are in which location and vocal work to give life to all of these creatures is just as good as it is with the main cast.
The rest of the game sounds great too. There's a clever choice to implement an electronic, synth-y soundtrack which adds to the alien feel of the world, but oftentimes has been jazzed up and kept bright to compliment the game's whimsical tone. It's a nice punctuation to the inviting aesthetic created by Young Horses.
Bugsnax runs well on the PS5. The loading screens between the different biomes might be more cumbersome on the PS4 or PC, but things snap along quickly on the new hardware. The only issue I had was a random crash, but when I loaded the game back up it didn't even require a restart. Speaking of, there's no manual saving, but the game generously autosaves.
There’s also some novelty to using the new PS5 controller with the game. Certain tools, like the SnaxScope, cause the triggers to have a clicking feel when you use them. The Sauce Slinger (which is like a slingshot) uses the dynamic rumble to make it feel like you’re pulling the band of slingshot. It was a little strange at first, but interesting to experience, adding just a little more immersion to the title.
The more I've written about Bugsnax, the more I find I liked it. I don't think it's earth-shattering in terms of gameplay - in fact, some of the frustration of using the tools keeps it from being a truly great game, but there's so much heart baked into themes and design, it still left a great impression on me. The cast of characters is so fun and interesting, the dialogue is so well-written and excellently acted and the overarching design of how the world rolls out and how easy it is to lose hours just finding the different bugsnax and figuring out how to catch them kept me invested in a rare way. It's a safe assumption that everyone is going to be purchasing big AAA games to show off the power of their new PS5 console, but I hope that after you're done with the blockbuster launch games, you make some time to try out Bugsnax - you might be as pleasantly surprised as I was.