GAME REVIEW: Bugsnax
Maxwell Alexander on a whimsical game with deep backstories
Platforms: PlayStation 5 (tested), PlayStation 4, PC, Mac
Release date: November 12
Rating: PEGI 7
Going into Bugsnax, I had my doubts that this game was going to be anything more than a funny internet meme. With the overly catchy theme song (It's Bugsnax by Kero Kero Benito) from its trailer and the ludicrous premise, I half expected this to be a short-lived five-minute chuckle and done, much in the same way that developer Wild Horses' last game, Octodad, was.
Bugsnax at its core is a game about catching little creatures that take the form of different types of food. From Scorpenyo that combines a jalapeño with the form of a scorpion or the Krapple and its crab-shaped apple body. Each Bugsnax has been lovingly created, each with its own distinct personality and routine. All brought to life with a simple pair of googly eyes.
Players take control of an intrepid journalist, tasked with investigating Lizbert Megafig and her expedition to Snacktooth Island, where the mysterious Bugsnax live. After landing on the island you’ll soon notice something is amiss as the town where the expedition resides is now deserted and Lizbert herself has mysteriously vanished.
As you search Snacktooth Island, you’ll come across different members of the expedition and quiz them over the whereabouts of their missing leader, Lizbert. These folks aren’t human however. They are what is known as Grumpuses. The Grumpus resemble fury humanoid muppet-like creatures that look like they have taken straight from the extras roster at Sesame Street.
Coming in all shapes and sizes, these colorful characters will task you with catching them particular types of Bugsnax that they crave. Once you have fed the Grumpus a bugsnax, not only will they return to town and help you to progress the story but parts of their body will also take the form of whatever bug they have just eaten. Eat an Incherrito and your leg turns into a burrito. Eat a Pineatula and your hairdo will transform in to a pineapple.
Catching these critters is not a straight forward affair and represents the core gameplay mechanic of Bugsnax. To catch Bugsnax you’ll need to outwit and trap them using a number of tools you’ll pick up, as you progress through the game. Tools like the Snak Trap or the Sauce Slinger, which, when combined, sees players lure in Bugsnax with a variety of flung condiments until they land in the trap. The steady drip feed of tools helps to keep the game from getting too repetitive but once I acquired all six of my tools, there were only so many combinations available to catch all 100 Bugsnax.
Things get even simpler once you get your hands on one of the games later tools, the Trip Shot, and you can catch the vast majority of Bugsnax simply by having them walk into one of your trip shot traps and stunning them. After that it’s as simple as running up to them catching them in your net.
There eight distinct locations to explore throughout Snacktooth Island and each area brings with it its own variety of Bugsnax. From Sandy beaches and it Cocomite to snowy mountain peaks and the banana split-shaped Scoopy Banoopy that lives there, Bugsnax does well to keep the designs unique most of the time.
In these areas the game presents some mild ‘metroidvania’-style game play elements that see you returning to a previous location to catch a particular type of Bugnax that was unobtainable until you had the right tool. By the time you have all of your arsenal available you’ll be able run through these areas and catch all manner of bugs with relative ease. Thankfully each area isn’t particularly large as, rather frustratingly, the game lacks a fast travel option, so you’ll have to manually walk through each area to get to where you’re going.
What took me by surprise was that the driving force of the game lied less in the Bugsnax themselves but actually in the Grampuses that hunt them. On the face of it, Bugsnax looks like a rather childish game with simple puzzles and bright colors. But as you get to know each character, the game reveals itself to be less of a collectathon, akin to games like Pokémon and more of a story-driven affair, fueled by an overarching mystery. Each Grumpuss you meet has their own motive for being there and getting to know each character definitely ranks up there as one of the highlights of the game.
I was caught off guard at how deep these unassumingly colorful characters were. When you initially meet them they seem to follow very typical character archetypes. The farmer, the scientist, the pop star. But as you progress through the game they slowly show themselves to be so much more.
An example of this would be talking to the farmer, Wambus Troublebottom. At first he comes across as a stubborn old farmer. A bit grouchy and fed up with you talking to him about what’s happened to the town. As the game progresses and you speak to him more, he eventually apologies for being grumpy and reveals to you that he’s actually just split from his wife, struggling with how to win her back.
Or Eggabell Batternugget who is having an existential crisis on the island and allows the local mad scientist to experiment on her to give her life some sort of purpose. These are all very mature themes and the topics of mental health, eating disorders and marital problems took me by surprise. The innocent appearance of the Grumpuses mixed with the surprisingly deep backstories made me care for these characters more than I ever thought I would have done, going into this game.
Don’t get me wrong. This game is whimsical and funny the majority of the time. Like a good Dreamworks or Pixar movie, it handles the more mature content in a way that adults will appreciate but the kids will enjoy just as much thanks to the bright and funny characters.
If you’re looking for a puzzle game to play this winter, this might leave you wanting something more. The puzzles are relatively straight forward once you figure out the game play loop, even for the most casual of players. If, however, you are after an interesting narrative and a bit of mystery with a great pay off at the end, then this one is certainly worth giving a go.
You’ll come for the Bugsnax but you’ll stay for the Grumpus.