You only get one chance to make a first impression, and back when the PlayStation 5 was officially revealed in June, Bugsnax absolutely nailed it. Its sing-song-y trailer coated an otherwise standard next-gen presentation with a candy-sweet outer shell, and the song itself achieved meme status almost instantly. But is it actually a good game? For the most part, yes, though your mileage may vary depending on your feelings about Pokémon Snap and Cronenbergian fast food chimera mutants.
Bugsnax, which comes out on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PC on Thursday, is unabashedly bizarre. You, a journalist, venture to an island overrun by the titular half-snack, half-bug creatures and embark upon a journey to figure out why the intrepid adventurer who has alerted the world to their existence, Elizabert Megafig, has gone missing. In order to collect leads, you have to reunite Lizbert’s scattered community and rebuild their fledgling town, typically by finding and feeding them specific Bugsnax.
There are over 100 varieties of Bugsnax, and capturing them is like playing a less on-rails Pokémon Snap. You pull out a camera to scan them and learn their characteristics and preferences. Then you use a number of devices or good old-fashioned social engineering to incapacitate and trap them. For example, one Bugsnak might be drawn to hot sauce, so you can use your slingshot to fire a glob of it at a remote-controlled trap, which will cause the Bugsnak to wander in against its better judgement. Each Bugsnak is a mini-puzzle, though not a fully self-contained one; Bugsnax roam a series of small open areas and interact with each other according to their unique likes, dislikes, and daily schedules. Sometimes, when your traps won’t do because, say, a Bugsnak is perpetually on fire, your best bet is to simply lure a different Bugsnak with the power to freeze anything it touches into proximity and let nature run its course.
It’s not all basic elemental pairings, though. Some of the best Bugsnax require a bit more lateral thinking. My favourite is the Instabug, which hides in bushes when you approach, but immediately emerges the second you pull out your camera because, according to its description, it loves the spotlight. “Iiiiiit’s Instabug!” it says when it makes its grand appearance. The whole bit is extremely endearing, with a well-placed “like and subscribe” joke once you scan it with your camera to seal the deal.
When Grumpuses — the muppet-like humanoids of which the game’s main cast is comprised — consume Bugsnax, their limbs instantly transform into some aspect of whatever they’ve eaten. The first time I fed somebody a Bugsnak (official singular spelling), their foot morphed into a carrot. This character, wannabe mayor Filbo, was overjoyed by his new appendage. I was quietly horrified. Before long, I was giving people spindly arms made of BBQ ribs, teeth made of Oreo cookies, and legs that looked (and moved) like unrolled cinnamon buns. I couldn’t help but think about how uncomfortable exposed bone, teeth that would vaporise when exposed to milk, and boneless jelly legs must have been for characters, but they cheered even as their bodies slowly became unrecognizable.
Bugsnax makes the curious but mostly effective decision to pair this low-key body horror with a series of relatively mundane character stories that, at times, feel like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon aimed at kids. The game’s whole vibe is very chill, with relaxing (and it, should be noted, mostly lyric-less) music buoying your spirits as you, for example, collect Bugsnax for the archeologist Grumpus who has abandoned her farmer husband (who, in turn, has coped with missing her by dressing a cactus in her clothes), the nerd who’s crushing on a jock, or the aforementioned hopeless (but also hopelessly optimistic) mayor who just wants everybody to get along. Over time, characters learn valuable lessons about treating others better, overcoming their flaws, and being their best selves. It’s all very sweet.
But the game never stops insinuating that something isn’t quite right on Snaktooth Island. It does so unevenly. Transforming characters’ limbs never stops feeling a little icky, but while its premise and setting unavoidably raise questions of disability and colonialism, it just doesn’t engage with those ideas at all. Instead, the game’s main story slowly begins to question the wisdom of wantonly devouring Bugsnax, culminating in an absolutely bananas twist that doesn’t quite work, but which is certainly memorable. I plan on discussing it more later this week, because wow, it’s wild and good, but also pretty bad!
Bugsnax, then, is an odd mix of ingredients. It can never quite settle on a tone, and its cast of characters feel like they were pulled from several different games. I played on PS4, and performance, too, was weirdly rough for a game that, aside from intertwining AI systems, does not seem like it would be too technically demanding. I also encountered multiple cutscene-breaking bugs, which were, to be clear, not a variety of Bugsnak.
Still, Bugsnax is a unique and relaxing game that certainly goes places. It’s not everything it could have been, but it’s also much, much more than just a funny song and a weird concept.