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In the storm of stress and worry that was last week, Young Horses' latest toonish adventure Bugsnax was a raft to which I could cling. Bathed in its psychedelic colours and accompanied by its puppet-like characters, it offered an oblivious adventure in the second English lockdown, linking arms with me and snickering at its own ridiculousness. It is only fitting that I write this review like a weather-beaten explorer, like I am the only survivor of the HMS Disturbance's maiden voyage, and how I cannot resist its temptations to return.
A group of Grumpuses (the characters that look like they've strolled off of the set of Rainbow) travel to the remote Snaktooth Island, led by the famous adventurer, Elizabert Megafig. The mythical island is home to animals that are sentient representations of food, like the Bunger (a sesame seed burger which trots around with two curly chips for 'tusks'), the Cinnasnail (a cinnamon roll pastry bearing eyes on the ends of its gooey icing), or the Peelbug (a chain of citrus fruit segments which rolls into a ball when frightened). These Bugsnax populate different areas dependent on their type; on the beach, you'll find tropical, fruity Bugsnax, whereas in the mountains, you'll find toasty or icy Bugsnax.
The Grumpuses cannot get enough of these animals as their tastiness is unrivalled. Consuming the creature causes a body part to turn into the food that the Bugsnax was named for, leading to alarming yet irresistibly creative results. But, when you arrive on Snaktooth Island, Elizabert and her partner Eggabell are nowhere to be found. The town of Snaxburg is empty and dilapidated, and the only Grumpus of the group who stayed is Filbo. Though brave and optimistic, Filbo's survival skills are... not good. Without their guiding light and the knack to capture Bugsnax, the player's role is to convince the scattered members of the group to come back to Snaxburg, catalogue and understand these strange species of creatures, and discover what possessed Elizabert to leave her flock.
It's bizarre. All of what you've read about this game is bizarre, and these descriptions do not do the experience of exploring Snaktooth Island justice. It's the closest I'll get to going on a safari in 2020: entering each new area, I instantly whipped out my Snaxscope, which scans the animals like the camera in Pokémon Snap. Going at different times of day and during different weather reveals different Bugsnax which prefer those conditions. To exemplify, you'll find Charmallows (the ingredients of a s'more flying like a firefly) in the frigid nights of the Frosted Peak. Capturing the creatures sometimes requires springing a simple trap, but wily ones will evade you until you crack their shells. Occasionally literally.
Employing a range of equipment, puzzle-solving in this manner was so, so, so fun. Studying its behaviour, working out what a Bugsnax likes or hates, and using it to your advantage to scoop them into the trap is a frenetic yet rewarding exploit. In the later stages of the game, you'll even become a lean mean huntin' machine, using the environment and even other Bugsnax to help you in your endeavour. Those players prone to wandering off (counting myself in this camp) may get stuck trying to catch something that actually requires a new bit of gear or an upgraded tool. So, it's important to clue in when you've been beaten and run home to Snaxburg for respite. In addition, this is a habitat populated by animals, even if they have googly eyes that swivel comically in their sockets. Bugsnax will battle other Bugsnax that are in their territory, and in some deeply unsettling occurrences, even prey on those lower down in the food chain.
Every new Bugsnak logged in the encyclopaedia is a small, silly victory, and the cast of characters ask the player to hunt their favourite Bugsnax for their consumption. When giving them their morsels, the Bugsnak will then appear somewhere on the Grumpus' body, like the paws, limbs, or even teeth. You'll think you know what would happen if you turned someone's arm into a rack of ribs, or their horns into a slice of birthday cake, but you'll never be ready to witness what gross violation of the natural form comes to pass. With every transformation, I balked, but soon enough, I'd be shovelling Bugsnax into their Muppet-like maws again.
However, the characters aren't just canvases for the player to chop and churn to their heart's content. These people followed Lizbert for a reason, and the surreal story of Bugsnax shines when it is emitted from mouths that flap like an extremely caffeinated goblin. Exuberant and enthusiastic songwriter Wiggle worries that she may be a one-hit wonder, and travels to Snaktooth Island to discover her muse. Triffany, an archaeologist, has a theory that they are not the first to set paw on Snaktooth Island and stumbles upon cave paintings, temples, and mass graves.
Yes, there is a darkness to Bugsnax, and even an element of horror. In spite of its bright and colourful art, and step-by-step mechanics reminiscent of a edutainment game from the early 2000s, it would be remiss not to warn parents that the game might be slightly scary for smaller children. There was one moment where it got me good, and I practically leapt off of the sofa in shock. Throughout the game, it maintains this general sense of unease through its woozy and warbling soundtrack, which uses synthesisers to create an electronic anxiety. Grumpus skeletons are dotted here and there, and one character has petrified Bugsnax in jars, their googly eyes extracted in a tray.
Technical hiccups were pretty prolific, unfortunately, causing major dips in the frame rate, and the game struggled when there were a lot of Bugsnax and/or Grumpuses on the screen. I also found that it would trip over itself when multiple missions were active, or, cause my character to slide further and further away while in conversations.Though these problems must not be ignored, the overall experience of Bugsnax is incredibly moreish. Maybe it's the vivid colour palette, maybe it's the adorable titular animals, maybe it's the morbid mystery at its nutty core. Maybe it's the fact that it's an eight-hour game, which is refreshing, and required to let the story baste to the fullest degree. Maybe it's because I battled a giant dragon made out of sushi.
Playing Bugsnax feels like you're clutching the giant pull switch in Dr Frankenstein's lab, the creation before you twitching beneath the white cloth, while the sunlight streams through the windows: it's a lovely day outside.
Pros: Very weird story, hypnotic and toe-tapping soundtrack, punny Bugsnax, exciting capture mechanics
Cons: Bugs of the technical variety, would have loved a fast travel option
For Fans Of: Pokémon Snap, Viva Piñata, Octodad: Dadliest Catch
Bugsnax was tested on PlayStation 4, using code provided by the publisher. The game will be released on November 12th for PC, PlayStation 5, and PlayStation 4. Read a guide to our review scores here.
Featured Image Credit: Young Horses
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