Released: November 2020
Rated: E10+ (Animated Blood, Crude Humour, Fantasy Violence, Suggestive Themes)
Humble indie team Young Horses were not likely expecting to be the talk of the town after Sony’s initial unveiling of the PlayStation 5. After all, this was the world’s first taste of the next-generation gaming system, defined by a bucketload of marketing buzzwords like “fast loading” and “ray-tracing.” Fresh off their similarly quirky hit Octodad: Dadliest Catch, Young Horses’ Bugsnax is not the most obvious showpiece for next-generation technology. However, as Kero Kero Bonito’s infectiously bubbly theme song prophesied, the world would soon be “talking ’bout Bugsnax.” And talk they did.
Snaktooth Island holds a myriad of secrets. A distant isle with astonishing topographical diversity, Snaktooth’s mysteries are of great interest to both renowned explorer Lizbert Megafig and the player’s character, a disgraced journalist who arrives in search of the truth behind the island and Lizbert’s sudden disappearance. Naturally it is the most appetising secret of the lot that drives the narrative – the Bugsnax themselves. Upon crash landing, one of your first sights is a walking strawberry quizzically staring at you with its googly eyes, before hurriedly rushing away whilst quietly chanting its name (which is Strabby, of course). Events only get stranger from there.
The Bugsnax populating the island exist in all shapes and sizes, sweet or savoury, and they all have unique characteristics that hinder your attempts at capturing them. Despite their overwhelmingly adorable qualities, Bugsnax is all about tracking and capturing the creatures using a variety of tools in different environments. Moments after arriving onto the island, the player encounters Filbo, one of several Muppet-like humanoids known as Grumpuses. With your help, he aims to restore the village of Snaxburg, which has since been abandoned after a tempestuous fight. The one thing all Grumpuses desire? It’s Bugsnax.
One alarming quirk is that feeding Bugsnax to each Grumpus changes a chosen body part in the corresponding food; a Rootle produces a carrot arm or the aforementioned Strabby can create strawberry teeth, for instance. Teetering into body-horror, this mechanic is one of Bugsnax‘s most compelling ideas as each individual Grumpus can have their entire appearance altered by your chosen Bugsnax.
Each quest typically consists of a Grumpus tasking you to capture a specific Bugsnak using one or more of your tools, ranging from the basic Snak Trap to tripwires and launchpads. Each Bugsnak is presented as a miniature puzzle with players figuring out how to incorporate their traits in tandem with the environment or other roaming Bugsnax. An early example involves coercing two identical Bugsnax into stunning one another with their own brute force strength. There is an appeal not dissimilar to Pokémon in discovering a whole host of new Bugsnax and gradually figuring out how to exploit their weaknesses, particularly as areas grow more hazardous.
Bugsnax is not a visual feast, but it absolutely nails the offbeat Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic, only heightening the horrific undertones with its writing. As for the environments themselves, there’s a constant stream of new biomes combatting the repetition of capturing familiar Bugsnax in later side-quests.
Where Bugsnax capitalises on its position as a next-gen launch title is in its stellar use of the DualSense controller. I was genuinely surprised by the nuances Young Horses implemented with both the haptic feedback and adaptive triggers – sprinting creates a thudding sensation inside both grips whilst the R2 trigger wobbles slightly upon aiming a slingshot. Even the controller speaker is put to novel use as captured Bugsnax uncomfortably squeal their name upon capture, as if they’re rolling around in the DualSense itself.
Furthermore, the fast loading speeds absolutely benefit this game’s peculiar design choices, which force players into travelling between multiple areas to replenish sauces (often luring Bugsnax out of hiding) or even just when returning to Snaxburg. As there’s no fast travel, I can imagine the loading screens between each area feeling near torturous on older hardware, with even the eight second or so load times on the PS5 proving slightly tedious. Additionally, there’s an unfortunate dependence on trial-and-error in certain segments that quickly spiral into frustration.
Bugsnax often behave of their volition and won’t necessarily act how you would expect, or even in the ways the game explicitly informs you they should. Whether it’s certain traps sporadically failing or Bugsnax not reacting to their environment consistently, the routine of capturing them can become a chore. Thankfully, Bugsnax never fully tired on me thanks to its surprisingly mature and nuanced writing throughout.
Each Grumpus is burdened with their own personal issues, which Young Horses delicately balance alongside its otherwise wacky humour. Relationship woes, imposter syndrome, and coming to terms with one’s sexuality are just a few of the approached subjects and I was incredibly impressed with how each character’s transformation over the game’s eight hour runtime.
Right from its beguiling introduction to the flat-out surreal chaos of its finale, Bugsnax‘s narrative was always a motivator to push through any gameplay niggles and see this adventure through to the bittersweet end. Evolving from the silly charms displayed in their prior work, Young Horses have crafted a deliciously off-kilter experience that stands confident in a crowded launch lineup.
Whilst its style won’t work for everyone, there is no denying that there is nothing in the world quite like Bugsnax. We were talking about it before, and as the credits rolled once more to Kero Kero Bonito’s Bugsnak anthem, I couldn’t help feeling I would still be talking about it in years to come.
Final Verdict: 7/10
Words by Jacob Heayes
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