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, Cronenbergian fast food chimera mutants, and inconsistent puzzling.
Bugsnax comes out on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PC this Thursday. In it, you play as a journalist who ventures to an island overrun by the titular half-snack, half-bug creatures. There, you embark upon a journey to figure out why the intrepid adventurer who alerted the world to Bugsnax’s 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. Like Pokémon, they all communicate by repeatedly saying their own names. Fortunately, they do so with such aplomb—sometimes literally screaming their names while chasing you—that it’s usually endearing and funny, rather than annoying. Capturing them is like playing a less on-rails Pokémon Snap. You pull out a camera to scan individual Snax 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 (official singular spelling) might be drawn to hot sauce, so you can use your slingshot to fire a glob of the stuff 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. As a result, puzzle solutions regularly encourage experimentation. 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 favorite 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.
But while some of these puzzles are genuinely fun, others are frustrating and inconsistent. None of your tools feel particularly good to use, and there’s an impossible-to-ignore clunkiness to just about everything you do. On top of that, it’s not uncommon to get all the steps right en route to snapping up a Bugsnak, only for AI or physics to malfunction, at which point you have to do everything right all over again. It quickly becomes repetitive.
Chaos is a regular though not always welcome companion; at one point, I tried to knock a flying, fire-based Bugsnak out of the sky using a rope to clothesline it, only for it to fall into a bunch of other Bugsnax, some of which attacked it, others of which attacked me. Then I tried to swing my net at the fire Bugsnak, and I caught on fire, which caused my character to careen out of control until the fire went out. I repeated this process until I basically threw my hands up, wondering all the while why I couldn’t just douse the flame with a squirt of ketchup, peanut butter, or chocolate, all of which Bugsnax’s main character has on them at basically all times. Mercifully, after several tries, the fire Bugsnak’s AI proceeded to glitch such that it just stayed on the ground, allowing me to use a grappling hook tool to manually drag it into some water and extinguish its flames. Then I was finally able to capture it.
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, his 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 Grumpuses 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 vaporize when exposed to milk, and boneless jelly legs must have been for characters, but they cheered even as their bodies slowly became unrecognizable. Is Bugsnax the most cyberpunk game of 2020? Only time will tell.
Bugsnax makes the curious but mostly effective decision to pair this body horror with a series of character stories that feel like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon—albeit a forward-thinking one that’s unafraid to depict a diverse range of sexualities and genders, as well as some nuanced dilemmas that are relatable no matter where you fall on the age spectrum. The game’s whole vibe is very chill, with relaxing (and it, should be noted, mostly lyric-less) music buoying your spirits as you collect Bugsnax for the nerd who’s crushing on the jock, or the archeologist who has abandoned her farmer husband (who, in turn has coped with missing her by dressing a cactus in her clothes), or the aforementioned hopeless (but also hopelessly optimistic) mayor who just wants everybody to get along.
Stakes are low, but in a way that gives characters room to breathe. Over time, they learn valuable lessons about sticking together, treating others better, overcoming insecurities and trauma, and being their best selves. In the meantime, they hang out in town and incessantly greet each other. It’s very earnest, sometimes bordering on saccharine, but the writing is peppered with enough cute gags and subtle twists to make archetypal characters feel vibrant and alive. By the time the credits rolled, I regretted not having time to complete every side quest, as I wanted to spend more time with my new band of squabbling friends.
Despite this pervasive lightheartedness, the game never stops insinuating that something isn’t quite right on Snaktooth Island. Unfortunately, it does so unevenly. Transforming characters’ limbs never stops feeling slyly sinister, but while Bugsnax’s premise and setting unavoidably raise questions of disability, colonialism, and people’s right to modify their own bodies as they see fit, it only lightly engages with those ideas. Instead, the 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 in some ways good, but also incongruent with many characters’ stories and not at all fun to play.
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. Over the course of a relatively short run time, it deploys a Costco 64-count Doritos bundle-worth of ideas, but only a handful truly stick. Then the ending, uh, sure does happen. 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 more than just a funny song and a weird concept.