Coming from Young Horses, the masterminds behind Octodad, there were a few things that I expected from Bugsnax. I expected an abstracted world with colourful characters that satirise the human experience. I expected toilet humour and silly voices and sing-a-longs. I expected to be playing a game that took familiar concepts and put them through one of those play-dough pasta maker things. Basically, I expected it to be totally batshit. And although it certainly checks those boxes, and it’s definitely different, the end result is something significantly more well-rounded and accomplished than I’d anticipated.
Much noise has been made about Bugsnax in the lead-up to its release, which is mostly thanks to some very effective marketing. If by some miracle you’re not still breaking out into the theme song that Kero Kero Bonito recorded for the game’s announcement trailer daily then you’re already one step ahead of most of us. The game’s meme status is a double-edged sword though, because for every new set of eyeballs on the game there’s further potential for expectations to be set up that it can’t possibly meet. This is, after all, an indie game through and through. Young Horses might have the might of PlayStation’s marketing machine behind them, but it’s still a small team with reasonable aspirations and it’s important to go into this game with that in mind.
Bugsnax drops you into the fuzzy, Muppet-esque shoes of a Grumpus newspaper reporter investigating a particularly unbelievable story involving eccentric explorer Elizabert Megafig. Given the (rather relucant) greenlight by your editor, you travel to Snaktooth island to follow the lead, and after a crash landing quickly discover that things aren’t quite right for the island or its makeshift community of Grumpuses. What ensues in the following 8-12 hours is a combination of mystery-solving, errand-running and Bugsnak-wrangling that feels like a crossover episode of Adventure Time, Sesame Street and Hannibal. And yes, I absolutely mean that as a positive.
Upon first arriving at Snaktooth Island’s central village and being greeted by its Mayor, Filbo Fiddlepie, it comes to light that all of the other Grumpuses that followed Elizabert on her adventure to discover the secrets of Bugsnax has left the community for one reason or another. In order to put the pieces together and figure out the mystery of Elizabert’s disappearance it’s important to first bring everyone home so that you can put your reporting skills to work and get the answers you need. This makes up the bulk of the game – travelling to new areas on the island and discovering what it’ll take for them to return home and start offering up some clues. Each Grumpus has their own wants and needs to fulfil, but you’ll spend most of your time on Snaktooth discovering and capturing the titular Bugsnax.
Half-insect, half-snack, the creatures that inhabit the island sure are something else. Out in the wild they behave like you’d expect from animals, but when a Grumpus happens to eat one it causes their bodily extremities to transform into the food that the Bugsnak was made out of. Catching the ‘snax is the game’s core mechanic, and involves exploring the varied biomes on the island to discover where these creatures nest and how best to draw them out or corral them, and then making use of a steadily-increasing suite of traps and tools to capture them. You’ll do this to fill a logbook of Bugsnak discoveries as well complete favours for your new Grumpus friends, or just to feed said friends and watch with morbid curiosity as they become more food than Grumpus. Does that mean that I’ve eventually turned the community into pseudo-cannibals? Yes. Is that a problem? That’s for me to know.
Bugsnax thrives on two core successes – the simple act of discovering, capturing and experimenting with Bugsnax, as well as the strength of its writing. The former is easy enough to understand, there’s a level of fun inherent in its Pokemon Snap-cum-Ape Escape hunting that should keep players thoroughly engaged. Figuring out which tools suit the situation, playing with elements like fire and ice and deviously pitting rival Bugsnax against each other are all part of the strategy and crossing each creature off the index in your journal quickly becomes a personal goal. Not to mention the handful of, uh, more unique Bugsnax to find and bring home.
If you’re coming for the Bugsnax though, you should be staying for the game’s excellent narrative and dialogue writing. The Grumps of Snaktooth Island might seem like a gaggle of Jim Henson understudies, but they’re all unique and interesting characters with surprisingly human stories and conflicts. I have a soft spot for storytelling that takes abstract ideas and worlds and uses them to make relatable observations, so this was right up my alley, but I’m certain any punter will quickly find a favourite character or two (especially Chandlo). Young Horses has also done a great job at telling queer stories within the game, which is nice to see.
This is all wrapped up in a presentation that’s appropriately offbeat and whimsical, but not without issues. The game’s simple visual style pulls from its disparate influences with decent enough results, but it does unfortunately suffer from a relatively spotty frame rate in certain areas on the PlayStation 4. It’s also subject to overly long load screens between all of its nine-or-so separate areas, which makes travelling to specific biomes to complete objectives needlessly painful. The wait likely won’t be as long on the PlayStation 5 or a PC with fast enough storage but it’s odd given how small each area is, and some kind of fast travel system would’ve been a simple way to eliminate at least one loading screen when trying to return to Snaxburg from the areas furthest out.
It all feels very indie at the end of the day, which it is, to be fair. And just as the game’s quirky aesthetic manages to shine in spite of technical foibles a middling audio mix thankfully doesn’t go too far in spoiling the excellent voice work from its stellar cast. There’s some great, veteran talent on the bill for each of Snaxburg’s menagerie of Grumps, and they all do a fantastic job with the material provided. Best of all though are the cries of the Bugsnax themselves, endlessly repeating their own names, Pokemon-style as they go about their existence. I could listen to the song of a Scoopy Banoopy all day, if it wasn’t inclined to attack me on sight.
Despite the potential for its viral marketing success to set expectations that go beyond its status as an indie title, Bugsnax manages to make a mark all its own in the space. There’s an assuredness in its storytelling that goes far beyond the bonkers concept and constant wackiness on-screen. This is a game that has as much life, love and community as it does about sandwich-centipedes and plants that grow cheese sauce. It’s also got one heck of an ending that, well, even if you think you’ve seen it coming you probably haven’t quite picked it. I imagine I’ll be talkin’ bout Bugsnax for some time.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher