Bugsnax feels a bit like a game from another time. Over the next couple months, as the first PlayStation 5 consoles worm their way into people's homes, Bugsnax will be there waiting for folks as a free PlayStation Plus title. My gut tells me a lot of people will be surprised by Bugsnax, just as I was, with how much it feels like a throwback.
Yes, we're right on the cusp of a new generation, but don't take that comment as a slight. What I really mean is that they just don't make 'em like Bugsnax anymore.
Developed by Young Horses, the team behind the slapstick ragdoll antics of Octodad, Bugsnax is both a deeper game than what came before it and one that's also somewhat less adventurous. Octodad was one of the first titles that really built a cohesive experience around novel and goofy physics gameplay—in contrast, Bugsnax proudly wears its aging inspirations on its sleeve. The cute, googly-eyed food creatures known as Bugsnax are there to be studied and caught by the player, and nearly all of the mechanics have traces of Pokemon Snap or Pikmin just beneath the surface.
The overarching story of Bugsnax is a simple one: in a world populated by furry, Muppet-like characters known as Grumpuses, famed adventurer Elizabert Megafig claims to have made an intriguing discovery. She's gathered a dozen other Grumpuses on Snaktooth Island, a place teeming with the mysterious Bugsnax. Nobody knows where the Bugsnax come from or what they are, exactly; while some of the Grumpuses are there to investigate further, others look to turn a quick buck on tasty Bugsnax or are there just to get away from civilization for a while. The player character, a Grumpus journalist, comes to the island after receiving an invitation from Megafig.
After a run-in with a winged pizza beast, the journalist crash lands on the island and quickly discovers that things have gone awry. Megafig is missing and the community of Grumpuses has turned on each other in the wake of her absence. Save for mayor Filbo Fiddlepie, nobody's thrilled at the thought of rebuilding the Grumpus community on Snaktooth, but bringing folks together is the only way for players to find out the truth about Megafig and the island—and bringing folks together means catching lots of Bugsnax.
Equipped with a net, a camera, a portable trap, and a few other gadgets found along the way, Bugsnax primarily revolves around tracking and capturing the titular critters and then feeding them to whichever Grumpus asked for them. When a Grumpus eats a Bugsnax, a part of their body turns into the corresponding snack: feed Filbo a Strabby and one of his limbs will transform into strawberries. It's a bizarre quirk that doesn't take long to become routine: some Grumpuses explicitly want their body parts to take on snack form, and before they sit down for an interview with the journalist, they'll send the player off in search of the Bugsnax they want.
Every Bugsnak has its own behaviors, movement patterns, likes, and dislikes. Keeping track of these is absolutely necessary for catching stronger or rarer Bugsnax, presenting lots of little puzzles to solve. Want to catch a Kweeble, which is a little walking Kiwi with a spoon for a snout? It loves chocolate, so coating a trap in chocolate sauce will lure the Kweeble right where you want it. Some Bugsnax are much feistier or harder to nab, which can then require a combination of tools and strategies. In true Pokemon fashion, a few Bugsnax also only appear at certain times of day or with certain weather conditions.
There are lots of little design choices in the catching mechanics that will help make Bugsnax accessible to younger or less experienced audiences. On a spectrum of first-person games like Gone Home and Firewatch (from which Bugsnax also takes some cues) to immersive sims like BioShock or Deus Ex, Bugsnax sits comfortably in the middle. Fast reflexes aren't needed here, nor is a deep understanding of how the A.I. routines for Bugsnax work. Simply scanning a Bugsnak with the camera shows the path it normally walks or flies along and gives players enough info to start figuring out what bait and gear they might need.
It's basic gameplay that Young Horses adds to over time with familiar-feeling tools; nothing in the Bugsnak hunting gear stands out as all that innovative. Still, there's a satisfying rhythm to finding and catching Bugsnax. At no point did I feel like I was really struggling to catch this or that Bugsnak, and by the time I hit the credits I had nearly caught them all.
In terms of both its difficulty and its humor, a point of comparison I keep drifting back to in my head is Double Fine's Psychonauts. Bugsnax feels like a game cut from the same cloth: a colorful title with smartly designed challenges and a wonderful cast of characters that parents can enjoy with their kids. The whole "limbs turning into snacks" thing is probably more disturbing to adults than it'd be to children, and I'd say Bugsnax is a way better introduction to body horror for youngsters than a David Cronenberg film or Junji Ito comic.
And really, I don't know if there's been a video game cast as endearing as the Grumpuses since Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp. For a game with characters named things like "Gramble Gigglefunny" and "Triffany Lottablog," the writing proves to be both appropriately goofy and surprisingly sentimental. Each Grumpus came to Snaktooth Island for their own reason, and however one-dimensional they may seem on the surface, they all have some depth to them. The voice cast is wonderful too, and there are even scenes where the energy of their few ensemble recording sessions really help elevate the story.
My personal favorite out of the Bugsnax cast is Chandlo Funkbun, played by Marvel's Spider-Man star Yuri Lowenthal. Chandlo's a carb-hungry musclehead with an aura of Bill and Ted-esque positivity and introspection; he'd do anything for his dawgs, most of all Snaktooth's resident paranoid conspiracist Snorpy Fizzlebean, and for my money he's the best new character of 2020. The competition in Bugsnax is stiff, though, and there's not a single Grumpus out of the diverse dozen who I didn't end up with a soft spot for.
As the journalist, players have a bit of room to assert some character for themselves with dialogue choices, but the Grumpuses and the Bugsnax are the stars here. The quests are nicely varied (they're not all about snak-catching) and the story is well-paced, but Bugsnax would start to feel more repetitive than it is if the characters sending the player out to do their bidding weren't likeable. Thankfully they are, to the point where I kind of wish I had a little more time with them all.
Wisely, though, Bugsnax doesn't overstay its welcome. I completed every side quest and finished the game after about a dozen hours. I heartily recommend doing the same, and thankfully, Bugsnax gives you a heads up when you're about to start the endgame.
To address the giant cinnamon elephant in the room (actually, I don't think Bugsnax has a palmier creature), I do want to respond to the speculation surrounding Bugsnax since its reveal. The first trailer released for Bugsnax ends with a scene that's decidedly creepier than the bouncy, Kero Kero Bonito-soundtracked footage before it, which led many folks to wonder if it's secretly a horror game. I expect that narrative will stick to Bugsnax like nacho cheese to a Takroach even after folks have played it, but don't let the notion of getting spooked turn you off from the game.
I did legitimately get chills down my spine at one point, and the story does go some admirably odd places, but Young Horses is not pulling a bait-and-switch here. Bugsnax is all about exploring the island, catching the next Bugsnak on your list, and getting to know these Grumpuses—I'd say the moment to moment gameplay never gets scarier than a night spent in Minecraft wondering if a Creeper will appear.
Playing on a PS4, aside from some occasional frame rate roughness, I had a great time playing Bugsnax. It doesn't have the all-consuming collection and combat hooks of a Pokemon or Monster Hunter, nor does it keep things too pared-down for the sake of pulling players through its narrative. Bugsnax is a breezy, enjoyable story bolstered by some solid puzzle mechanics. Essentially, while it isn't the kind of super-polished title that'll make the most of a PS5, Bugsnax is a good time that proves bigger and flashier isn't always better.
To borrow a turn of phrase from Lizzo, Bugsnax isn't a snack—it's the whole damn meal. In the smorgasbord of huge games and launch titles coming out this holiday, Bugsnax might not be the top pick of the platter, but playing it left me plenty satisfied.
Bugsnax sees Young Horses building on the strange sense of humor it developed with Octodad while embracing some familiar, less adventurous gameplay hooks at its core. I let out an involuntary "aw" when I saw my first Kwookie scuttling across the ground, but the real heart of Bugsnax is its cast of lovable Grumpuses. It has great characters, an entertaining story, and all the Bugsnak catching is just varied enough to keep the experience interesting to its end. All that talk about Bugsnax over the past few months wasn't misguided: it's a flavor-blasted joy.