|Publisher||Young Horses, Fangamer|
|Platforms||PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S (reviewed), Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac|
|Release Date||November 12, 2020|
There are a lot of things to appreciate about video games, but one that always stands out to me is identity. Innovative gameplay and multi-million dollar production quality is nice, but when a game is able to rise from the crowd and really set itself apart with a unique identity, I take notice. It’s an underrated aspect of game development, especially in the age of AAA series churning out games on a yearly basis. And identity seems to be the raison d’etre of studio Young Horses. Though they’ve only produced two games to date, odds are you’ve heard of at least one of their releases: 2014’s Octodad: Dadliest Catch and 2020’s Bugsnax. So, when Bugsnax finally landed on Xbox Game Pass this month, I knew I had to jump into this studio’s catalog. And it just might be one of the most memorable gaming experiences I’ve ever had.
Violent Content: Though not graphic in any way, the entire game is based around the Grumpuses eating Bugsnax whole and alive. When they do, a portion of their body transforms to match the Bugsnak they just ate. Various Bugsnax slam into you or other Snax to send them flying. Some Bugsnax are comprised of other smaller Bugsnax and break apart when you defeat them. The player finds ancient skeletons in various archaeological dig sites.
One character who is studying the effects of Bugsnax on the Grumpus body removes their leg, which is then replaced with Snax. Later, they attempt to cut off their own head for an experiment but are stopped before doing so. A volcano erupts near the end of the game. Depending on your performance at the end of the game, most characters can die, turning into a pile of Snax.
Language/Crude Humor: Characters use “grump” as an epithet throughout. One mission involves collecting waste from the outhouse to use as fertilizer.
Sexual Content: Several of the characters are in relationships, some of them homosexual. Characters kiss and flirt throughout. A doctor character threatens to have to medically restrain her partner, who responds with “not while the camera is rolling!” Another character mentions that they are “roommates with benefits.” One character is non-binary.
Drug/Alcohol Use: The Grumpuses are clearly addicted to Bugsnax, and can’t seem to resist eating them. The Grumpuses also invent something called “snakwater” which appears to have the same effect as alcohol.
Spiritual Content: One character is a self-proclaimed guru who warns against “The Toxin.” She wears a floral crown, meditates, and prays to “Mother Naturae.”
She is revealed to be a fraud, but continues to string others along after this.
Positive Elements: The game emphasizes that relationships, both romantic and otherwise, take work, but are ultimately worth pursuing in the end. The characters start out selfish and antagonistic towards each other, but as you progress, they begin to see each other’s perspectives and cooperate.
The best place to start with Bugsnax is, appropriately enough, at the beginning. The game opens with you, an unnamed reporter, talking to your boss about a new lead. You’ve received a mysterious video from one Lizbert Megafig, a renowned explorer. Lizbert seems to have made a fascinating discovery: an entire island inhabited by sentient, edible creatures called Bugsnax. She’s taken a crew of misfits to the island to set up a colony, and she’d like you to cover it for the paper. After debating it with your skeptical editor-in-chief, you take off for Snaktooth Island.
Next thing you know, you’re flying toward Snaktooth in the middle of a terrible storm. A mysterious, gigantic flying figure soars above you, and in your distraction, you crash. As you explore your new surroundings, you meet a Grumpus named Filbo, who claims to be the mayor of a nearby settlement. He’s…not doing so hot, but apparently all he needs are a few Bugsnax to get back to full health. He gives you his trap and asks you to catch him some food so he can show you around.
You do so, and Filbo leads you back to Snaxburg, their home. Along the way, you meet Wambus, a farmer who seems to be growing some…ketchup plants. He’s reluctant to go back to Snaxburg, but after a little convincing from Filbo and yourself, he relents. As long as you catch him some Snax. You do so, and you find yourself in Snaxburg, which is pretty empty. Filbo asks for your help bringing all the residents of Snaxburg back so they can be together again. I’ll give you three guesses as to how you do that. That’s right: catch and feed them Bugsnax.
Snaktooth Island is split up into four major areas, with two sub-areas each. As you explore, you’ll meet the rest of the Grumpuses, who are a pretty eccentric bunch. I won’t spoil the characters, as that’s a huge part of the game’s charm, but suffice it to say that Young Horses did not skimp in this department. Every character is fully voice acted, and, for the most part, they’re some of the better performances I’ve heard. Voice acting is a slippery slope; you need enough there to give a good impression of the character, but it’s far too easy to go overboard into campiness if you’re not careful.
But it’s not perfect, and Bugsnax does delve into campiness a few times, specifically with a couple characters who go really overboard on their personality. One particularly egregious example is Chandlo, a pretty stereotypical “lifter bro” with a spiritual side. He’s likable enough, always trying to patch things up with other Grumpuses, but he’s SO LOUD and obnoxious about his “gains” that I honestly ended up skipping through a lot of his dialogue. It’s not so much the writing, but his performance that got me. I will say, though, that his softer moments really hit different when contrasted with his normally boisterous performance.
I also just…had a hard time liking the characters, at least at first. The story centralizes around their inability to get along together, so it makes sense that they’re all combative. It just makes it hard to empathize with many of them when you first meet them, since they’re all so standoffish and…well, rude. However, as I neared the end of the game and completed each character’s set of side quests, I found myself warming up to them.
Along with meeting the characters, you’ll encounter an absolutely enormous amount of Bugsnax. I was honestly shocked at the variety of creatures on this little island, and it just kept growing. First off, the designs are wonderfully creative. Each Snak is themed after a different food, from the burger-themed Bungers to the carb-loaded Cinnasnails. The main gameplay mechanic is catching the little buggers and feeding them to the different characters on the island. This sounds simple, but it’s far more complex than I would have thought possible. It reminds me a lot of Pokemon Snap’s system of environmental puzzles. Every area offers different challenges, and the Bugsnax within are themed around each area, with their own strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes you’ll have to get Snax to interact in specific ways before you’re able to catch them, while other times you may just be overthinking things. These puzzles can be downright devious, and I’ll admit I had to look up a couple solutions out of frustration. But that’s part of the fun, and it never gets old, even coming down to the final few areas.
In addition, there’s a surprising amount of personality to the Snax. Just like the Grumpuses, they’re all fully voice acted—though in true Pokémon fashion, their dialogue consists entirely of their own name. While it did get a little grating listening to the same four voice lines repeated ad nauseam as I tried to puzzle out some of the solutions, they’re so expressive that it’s hard to stay frustrated for too long. Early in the game, I couldn’t help but chuckle as I sent a Bunger excitedly hurtling into a Shishkabug’s hiding place, only to see the latter come shooting out yelling its name like it was falling off a cliff.
This environmental puzzle solving core is what makes Bugsnax so addictive. I found myself catching Snax in ways I know the developers didn’t intend, but it just…worked for me. It strikes at a deep-seated collectathon addiction that kept me coming back to finally complete my collection of Snax, and the “aha” moments when I finally figured out how to capture a Snak were always satisfying.
It’s not all just catching Snax, though. The game is absolutely packed with side quests: a full set for each character, complete with a mini character arc they all go through. Again, for the sake of spoilers, I won’t go into detail, but each character has come to Snaktooth Island for a different reason. Through these quests, you’ll help them chase after that dream, and maybe assist them with some self-discovery along the way.
In fact, that’s the last thing I want to cover: the story. Bugsnax is a surprisingly emotional little game. If you’ve done any digging on this game, you’ve probably seen people talk about the ending. I’ll echo their sentiments: it turns the whole game on its head, and makes those character arcs even more meaningful. There’s a lot of heart to the story here, and it touches on a lot of different points, including family, relationships, co-dependency, self-confidence, cooperation, and more.
Parents may want to take note, however, that, despite Bugsnax’s family-friendly appearance, things do get legitimately harrowing near the end of the game. It might be rather disturbing for younger players. In addition, as mentioned in the Content Guide, there are a couple homosexual relationships in the game, (though it’s never more intimate than a kiss,) and one non-binary character. However, this could serve as a launching point for Christians to discuss these themes with children, so take that as you will.
Bugsnax was a surprising hit for me. I’ll be honest: I wasn’t expecting much going into the game, but I came out with some gaming memories I’ll keep around for a long while. The world is charming, the characters, while a bit grating at first, are memorable, and the gameplay loop is addictive and fresh the whole game through. Plus, the game certainly does not overstay its welcome. A focused playthrough of just the story could easily be done in less than 5 hours, and completionists will be finished in under 12. That might seem short for a $25 price tag on Steam, but the gameplay and unique charm of the game make up for it. Plus, its inclusion on Game Pass means that subscribers can download it, experience it quickly, and be done. It’s a perfect fit.
Before I played it, I’d nearly written Bugsnax off as just another cartoony kids’ game to ignore, but that’s vastly underselling the experience I had here. While it gives off the air of a goofy Saturday-morning cartoon, Bugsnax is really worth a play for just about everyone. It’s definitely not for everyone, but its atmosphere and identity set it apart as a truly remarkable experience, even if you only play it for an hour. It’s not a showstopper, but it’s memorable, charming, and most importantly, just a whole lot of fun.
The Bottom Line
Bugsnax's blend of charm and addictive gameplay makes for a truly unique experience, though there are a few storytelling and writing bumps along the way.