One of the first indie games on PS5 is a bizarre mix of Pokémon style exploration and couples counselling on Love Island.
Sony’s PlayStation 5 showcase back in June might have felt like a long time coming but it did a lot to assure people that the new console would have a suitably large range of games, including AAA exclusives, multiformat titles, and indie releases. But despite all the big name reveals one of the most popular trailers was for Bugsnax, a new indie title from the makers of Octodad. Unlike the portentous reveals for other more serious games, Bugsnax was funny, weird, and had a great theme tune. But until now it’s never been clear what it actually is.
What Bugsnax is, is very odd. And we mean that mostly as a positive. The most obvious way to describe it as a parody of Pokémon, in that you’re exploring an island looking for bizarre new creatures to catch and collect. Except there are no turn-based battles and the game is played from a first person perspective, with traps having to be set-up manually and the titular bugsnax chasing after you and attacking if you get in the way.
That’s only the half of it though. The bugsnax creatures are exactly what the name suggests, a mixture of animal and snack, with wonderfully punny names such as a Shishkabug and Ribblepede. Eating them has the bizarre effect of turning people’s limbs into the snack itself (but not you, you’re immune). So if you eat a Strabby (a walking strawberry) your arms turn into strawberries. There is no benefit to this whatsoever but everyone puts up with it because they’re so delicious and because everyone on Snaktooth Island is already slightly unhinged…
Among the many peculiar details we haven’t yet mentioned is the fact that all the visitors to Snaktooth Island are Muppet-like Grumpuses, although technically that has no bearing on anything that happens. Despite the Pokémon influences Bugsnax is primary a narrative driven game and the most rewarding element is talking to all the various inhabitants and trying to convince them into coming back to town – which almost everyone left after a massive argument that occurred just before your arrival.
You play as a journalist looking to interview the expedition leader, who it turns out has disappeared along with her girlfriend. A lot of the other residents are also missing but gradually you manage to talk them into coming back to the community, usually by doing them favours – which usually involves catching and feeding them bugsnax.
You only have one trap for the entire game, a sort of basket that drops down vertically at the press of a button. This is fine for the less evolved bugsnax, that have no means of defence, but others will attack the trap on sight or will be permanently on fire, or freezing cold, meaning the trap won’t work and you can’t get near them.
Working out how to capture them is an intriguing puzzle at first, as scanning the bugsnax reveals whether they like, or dislike, various sauces that you find growing around the island and if there’s anything else that attracts or repels them, such as other bugsnax. Later on you gain a trampoline-like launcher, that allows you to fire the trap into the air; as well as a trip rope and a mechanical grabber, which becomes essential for the more difficult creatures.
Given the disappointments of Pokémon Sword/Shield this is all very intriguing at first, as you work out complex plans to catapult freezing bugsnax into fires, or coat one in the favourite sauce of another that is prone to divebombing its enemies, but in practice none of it is very much fun. Capturing bugsnax tends to be either trivially easy or frustrating fussy, especially when it’s obvious your plan is viable but it’s not working because of the janky in-game physics and fiddly controls.
It wasn’t necessarily obvious from the trailer but Bugsnax is a very low-tech game. The graphics would shame a Switch game and even though each area is very small the game map is split up into sections that require more than a five second wait to load. It’s not a PlayStation 5 exclusive, and isn’t being sold on its visuals, but even so it’s a peculiar thing to be playing on such an advanced next gen console.
Ultimately though, capturing bugsnax is just a means to an end and it’s getting to know the island residents that’s the most compelling part of the game. The voice-acting for them all is superb, as while they sound like they’ve wandered in from Sesame Street, and all have names like Beffica Winklesnoot, they’re portrayed as ordinary people with very real-world problems. All have a very specific reason for wanting to visit the island, which you must tease out of them, and most are either lonely, depressed, or having trouble with their relationships.
It’s all surprisingly affecting, as the game gently reveals the motivations and backstories of characters, making you feel sympathy for even the most abrasive amongst them. But while the character work is very good whatever metaphor was intended with the bugsnax does not come through clearly.
You could argue it’s meant to represent how self-destructive an obsession can become and how people sacrifice too much of themselves for ultimately meaningless goals. Or maybe it’s just meant to suggest you shouldn’t be a glutton. The game isn’t clear about what it’s trying to achieve with its narrative and all you really come away from it with is the sense that most people are strange but, ultimately, good.
That’s a perfectly fine message for a game to be getting across and given the number of relationships it portrays this is one of the few video games to explore lasting relationships in a non-superficial manner. Bugsnax is an entertaining oddity but at the same time, if it was more mechanically competent it could’ve been a really good Pokémon clone too – not even a clone but something that took similar concepts and produced an entirely different style of gameplay.
As it stands though Bugsnax is likely to be remembered for its theme tune (which only plays in the end credits) and little else. But it’s certainly a unique and unpredictable experience, which is not something you can often say for a launch game.
Bugsnax PS5 review summary
In Short: An ambitiously odd game that has an innovative take on Pokémon style gameplay and features some of the most intriguing characters of the year – but is rarely as much fun as it should be.
Pros: The voice-acting and dialogue is great and despite what they look like the characters are all very human and relatable. The bugsnax designs are excellent and the general concept has lots of potential.
Cons: The mechanics are fiddly and frustrating to use, with catching bugsnax often seeming like a crapshoot. Wider story lacks obvious purpose and the graphics are terrible.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (review), PlayStation 4, and PC*
Publisher: Young Horses
Developer: Young Horses
Release Date: 12th November 2020
*Epic Games Store exclusive
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