Bugsnax feels like more of an appetizer than an entree
Bugsnax, the latest game from Young Horses, is a physics-based adventure game packed with charming characters and clever, albeit simplistic, puzzles. It’s also the first video game I’ve been able to play start to finish alongside my young children. I’m not talking about playing the game with my kids, mind you. This time around we each have our own save files, and instead of me rushing into the room to take the controller and help them through a difficult level, instead I go to my 10 and 7-year-olds for tips — and vice versa.
Trouble is that Bugsnax just isn’t all that satisfying as an adult. Even with a respectable run-time of around 12 hours, it tastes more like a fluffy appetizer than a rich, full meal. Worst of all, the gameplay itself feels unfinished.
In Bugsnax, I take on the role of a Muppet-like creature called a Grumpus. My in-game job is that of a reporter, and my editor sends me to a mysterious place called Snacktooth Island in search of one Elizabert Megafig. She’s an explorer who has discovered a bizarre creature that is simultaneously a bug and a snack. The island is rotten with them, and it’s up to me to get the exclusive story.
Once I arrive, Lizbert (as her friends call her) has gone missing. All of the colonists that she brought along with her for the journey have departed their fledgling outpost, a ramshackle village called Snaxburg. It’s up to me to bring them all back into the fold, interview them one-by-one, and ultimately to track down Lizbert herself. Along the way, I also uncover the secret of the eponymous bugsnax — which slowly transform the Grumpus’ who eat them — and the sprawling Snacktooth Island that they call home.
The bugsnax themselves are adorable. Imagine spiders cobbled together from a plate of cheese fries, or a semi-sentient banana split. Our family’s favorite is called a bunger, a four-legged hamburger still wearing its paper wrapper with curly fries for tusks. Each creature runs around chanting its own name, not unlike a Pokémon. The kids have been entering and leaving rooms humming “bunger, bunger, bunger, bunger” rhythmically all week, trailing off into a chorus of giggles.
How does one capture these bugsnax? Well, with an assortment of adorable tools, of course. There’s the snacktrap, which is a sort of remote-controlled patio umbrella that works like a net. There’s also the lunchpad, which will shoot snax (and rocks, and the player) into the air. There’s also a plunger with a bit of rope on one end, which places a tripwire between trees and other objects that stuns bugsnax. Cutest of all is a tiny ball with a trained bugsnax inside that you can roll around to lead other bugsnax wherever you’d like them to go. Add in an assortment of sauces (which grow on trees, naturally) that attract certain bugsnax, and you’ve got everything you need to go hunting.
The Rube Goldberg-style physics-based scenarios that follow are rarely all that challenging to dream up. Instead, the trick is getting them to actually work right. I spent a good five minutes, for instance, trying to use the lunchpad to catapult a snak trap into the air over a pack of sticky honey bees, only to find out they wouldn’t actually stick to it. Instead, I had to time the trap to close mid-air and sort of hope for the best. Thankfully, there were no clipping issues to speak of in my entire playthrough. The levels were precisely built and easy to navigate — the main reason why the kids did just fine on their own.
Bugsnax uses a number of different strategies to make up for the imprecise nature of the tools players are given. The lunchpad, for instance, has persistent lock-on auto aim that makes hitting the target an absolute cinch in most cases. Boss monsters — the island’s megafauna, if you will — aren’t all that threatening, and the player can’t die. Hang around long enough and you’ll eventually sort things out.
Unless, of course, the game bugs out. That happened to me a couple of times, and often the only way forward was to revert to a save point. In one instance my kids didn’t follow the painfully explicit instructions for dealing with one particular boss monster to the letter, and I found them trapped inside a locked cave 45 minutes later, wondering why they weren’t able to progress further or even get out into the fresh air. We loaded the last auto-save, I helped them read through the on-screen instructions one more time, and they were on their way in just a few minutes.
That kind of jankiness is most apparent in the endgame. You can hang out on the island for as long as you like, working toward catching each of its 100 creatures (I got bored in the mid-70s). But, once you have a penultimate conversation, there’s no turning back. You’re locked out of catching any more bugsnax, or even returning to Snacktooth Island for any reason, once the game begins racing toward its inevitable conclusion.
Bugsnax is good at building tension. The concept is creative, the writing is strong, and the voice acting is extraordinary. But, especially in the final moments as the narrative is reaching its crescendo, the gameplay itself structurally breaks down. It’s a real shame.
My tools got traded in for weaponized versions of the same items, and I was pushed toward what amounted to a sequence of bugsnax-killing minigames. Thematically it made sense, but the games themselves were of little consequence, as the sequence was mostly scripted and neither the player, nor the NPCs, truly feels at risk.
Making matters worse is the fact that these minigames barely work at all. The final level plays out with all the contrived urgency of a toddler’s birthday party, and it has about as much complexity as that dated wall of midway games in the back of your local Chuck E. Cheese. Knock down the clown’s teeth with the air cannon… or don’t. There are still a few over-enthusiastic parents standing by to cheer you on — in the form of invincible NPCs — and who can send you on your way before the pizza gets cold.
The Bugsnax epilogue, however, worked well enough to redeem the experience of that final level. The game’s dozen major characters all suffer from a lack of confidence, low self-esteem, or something in between. Over the course of the game I helped each of them to overcome their depression or their anxiety. In the end they all returned from Snacktooth Island emotionally transformed, ready to go out confidently into the world. It’s a great message for kids — just like Octodad: Dadliest Catch, Young Horses’ previous game.
Ultimately, it’s that modern-day Mr. Rogers moralism that saves Bugsnax in the end. I’d happily recommend it to any family, and to any parent looking for a few hours to themselves — either in front of the screen for a bit of casual gameplay, or in the next room while the kids enjoy it all on their own.
Bugsnax will be released Nov. 12 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Young Horses. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.
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