Bugsnax is the kind of game that could only have been summoned forth by someone suffering from an intense fever who then decided to get stark-raving drunk and topped off the entire day with a mushroom trip gone horrifyingly wrong. I can imagine them now, huddled in a corner, ranting and raving. The next day they stagger out of their room and try to explain their hallucinations. “Okay, so, like, there’s these Grumpuses, right, who are like Muppets, all made of felt and fuzz. And they’ve gone to an island called Snaktooth, yeah, and on that island there’s hotdogs with legs and flying pizzas and angry jacket potatoes that ram people, right. They’re called Bugsnax, ‘cos they’re part bug, part snack. But the Grumpus’ eat ’em, and then, like, their body parts change into the food that the Bugsnax was, you know?” Sit down, Jamie. Just sit down, bud, and I’ll get you some water, It’ll be okay. I hope. Maybe I’ll ring an ambulance, just in case, dude.
Bugsnax is fucking crazy, yo. It might even be a horror game disguised as a cutesy adventure. The developers cited numerous inspirations, and two that stuck out to me were The Muppets TV show and BioShock. Looking back, I can see where those influences met to create Bugsnax, a game that certainly isn’t lacking in ideas. On the surface there are incredibly bright colours, likable characters, goofy humour and a crazy world. It’s Sesame Street with a dose of soap opera drama for good measure. But there’s an ever-present undercurrent of…wrongness. Obviously the core concept itself is pretty creepy when you think about. These Grumpuses eat the Bugsnax live, and then their bodies transform. That’s some horror-movie stuff, there, some proper body-horror. That off tone is entirely deliberate, though, because Bugsnax is a darker game than it lets on. That isn’t to say there’s blood or swearing or actual horror, but quite honestly it all gets a tad unsettling in a delightfully strange way, and how the developers manage to balance everything is nothing short of excellent. I’d say you could let your kids play this and they’d be absolutely fine right up until the final 30-minutes, at which point things go crazy.
You play as a nameless journalist who sets out to the mysterious island of Snaktooth, where renowned explorer Lizbert Megafig has gone, along with a group of Grumpuses. When you arrive, it turns out Lizbert is missing and the small settlement is divided, its inhabitants having scattered due to Lizbert being the only one holding them and their varied personalities all together. You run into Filbo, the bumbling acting-mayor with a heart of gold and a lot of self-doubt. Your mission: interview the inhabitants of the island one by one and help find Lizbert so that you can get your story. To do all that, you’ll need to persuade the Grumps to head back to town, and that means hunting a whole lot of Bugsnax.
The cast of characters have simple but extremely well-defined personalities, and they all have clear motivations that drive them. Wampus is a farmer whose struggling with his marriage. There’s Beffica, the town snoop. Chandlo, the bro who loves to get SWOLL, DAWG! But who is also just a damn good person with a huge heart. There’s Wiggle, the singer trying to re-capture her inspiration and her glory days. Gramble reckons all the Bugsnax are his kin and he tries to look after them and train them. These are just a few of the Grumps you meet, and learning their about their relationships is the best thing about Bugsnax. This is a game about wildly different people learning that they need each other, even when they don’t always get along. Watching these various relationships develop is the core of the game, the reason that kept me playing. Well, that and finding out exactly what Snaktooth Island is all about.
Bugsnax doesn’t have a lot of variety when it comes to its structure: you usually go a to a place, find the Grumpus that’s hanging out there, then and then go capture whatever Bugsnax they want in order to persuade them move back to town. This structure becomes repetitive, but luckily the allure of getting a Grumpus back to town is enough to push you through the less interesting act of actually catching the Bugsnax.
The first thing you usually do is whip out the camera and snap the ‘Snax because you are a journalist, after all. The practical reason is shooting the goofy food will provide a hint on how to capture it, and a list of what sauces it likes and hates. The ‘Snax movements will also be displayed so that you can see where it’s going to be and plan your assault accordingly.
To scoop up the ‘Snax you need to make good use of your bug catching arsenal. You’ll kick off with a simple trap that can snap shut with a tap of the trigger, and for a while its basically all you need. Sauces come next, from simple tomato ketchup to ranch dressing and hot sauce. These are fired out of a little slingshot and can be used to lure and rebel Bugsnax. The humble Bunger (that’s a hamburger with legs) can’t be caught with a simple trap, but if you use its love of tomato sauce then it can be tricked into ramming into another Bunger and stunning itself in the process. Later your personal armory expands to include a launch pad, tripwire and even a Strabby in a little ball. that you can guide around using a laser. There’s a lot of fun to be had experimenting with these tools, like learning to launch a trap using the pad, or figuring out that you can attach the tripwire to the buggy ball and drive it around.
In other words, Bugsnax is more like a puzzle game, albeit one that constantly made me want a hotdog and a scoop of ice-cream. And to the game’s credit, it’s quite willing to leave you fumbling around trying to figure out how the hell to catch the ‘Snax. How do you cool down that burning bowl of noodles without any ice nearby? Work it out. While some Bugsnax are aggressive little buggers who’ll ram you, there’s no fail-states in Bugsnax. You can’t die, you can’t fail. It gives the puzzling a relaxed atmosphere where you’re free to experiment. And at times, I wasn’t sure the methods I came up with where ever intended. Sometimes that was good, like the developers had indeed thought of what I had done, but designed it so that my discovery felt unplanned and exciting. Other times, it just felt janky and clumsy, like I had accidentally broken the game.
I appreciate that there’s a basic eco-system at work, too. Some Bugsnax only come out at night or in the rain, and they can interact with each other. I caught a bunch of ‘Snax purely by snapping them up after they’d gotten tangled with each other.
It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy catching the Bugsnax at first, but after a while I wasn’t finding the gameplay much fun anymore. The simplicity of the mechanics matches the style of game well, but that didn’t stop me from wanting more. Knowing that I’d be going to find another Grump and feed them three specific Bugsnax and that I’d likely be repeating that process again after that me feel like it was a chore rather than something to look forward to.
Like catching ’em all in Pokemon, though, the completionist side of me did enjoy hunting down the various sentient foods. There’s a total of 100 Bugsnax to find, catalogue and capture, and while a good chunk of those are actually variations of the same Bugsnax it’s still enjoyable to chase them down admire their cute weirdness. As they bumble, fly and occasionally swim around they constantly repeat their own names. again evoking that Pokemon vibe. It’s cute, and when you capture them their little voice will eminate from the PS5’s Dualsense controller, like they’re talking from inside your bag. I can see why poor Gramble wants to protect them all and not eat them. At the same time, a Bunger and a Frydar would make for a prett awesome combo meal, so…sorry Gramble.
Really, though, the thing that kept me not only seeing the story through to the end but also completing all the side-quests was the characters. For such a fuzzy bunch of misfits that look like they’ve been ripped straight out of a Saturday morning kids show, they deal with a lot of very human issues. Chandlo has to learn that no matter how much he works out and tries to get stronger he’s never going to be strong enough to protect Snorpy from everything. Cromdo drops a surprising line about how he was born poor and so he can’t afford to be happy. For a game about a bunch of creatures that look like they’ve stepped out of the Telly Tubbies, the Grumps wind up being more human than most of the actual humans in other games. And a lot credit needs to be given to the voice actors who absolutely give it their all. It would have been so easy for voice actors to write this off as some sort of childish project and half-ass their performances, but everyone sounds properly invested in giving their characters depth. It’s great stuff.
When it all comes to an end at around the 7-10 hour mark the story makes good on its creepy undercurrent in a spectacular way, too.
Bugsnax doesn’t push what the PS5 can do. The closest it gets is using a bit of haptic feedback and the adaptive triggers, and using the speed of the SSD to cope with its loading screens. The island of Snaktooth isn’t a big place and its seperated into a handful of distinct biomes like the beach, a desert and a chilly mountain peak. On the PS5 the loading times between each zone is just a few seconds, so the 4-5 loading screens that you have to pass through when travelling from one end of the island to other aren’t too bad. According to other reviews, the PS4 load times are much longer, making getting around more annoying. A fast-travel option could have helped.
Considering the absolute wealth of bugs wandering around the island, Bugsnax is a much less buggier game than the likes of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla or even Cyberpunk 2077. I hit a few instances of characters being locked in a cycle where they’d go to bed, get up, go back to bed, get up and so on, but that was the worst of it and once I left the area and returned the problem had fixed itself. Nothing ever stopped me from progression, there were no crashes and I think the framerate only dipped a few times.
The PS5 launched with some truly great games that have showcased what the new console can do. Bugsnax can’t compete with the likes of Spider-Man: Miles Morales in terms of its visuals or size, but it brings to the dinner table a delicious meal of fun, quirky and unique ideas. I can confidently say that there’s nothing quite like Bugsnax, and while the gameplay didn’t do anything for me, just hanging out with the lovably crazy Grumps was a pleasure. And so while I’m not scoring the game too highly, I am slapping a recommendation on it for anyone who appreciates good characters and strange story concepts. Snaktooth Island is worth vacationing on just for the people.
Oh, and at the time of this review, Bugsnax is free for Playstation Plus subscribers.