Like Godfall: Ultimate Edition, Bugsnax is a PS5 exclusive that turned out to be a timed exclusive, and its developers have taken the opportunity to unleash it on Xbox. We would argue that Xbox is exactly where it should be, as it plays most like a much-loved Xbox exclusive of our own. Bugsnax feels like a successor to that Rare treat, the glorious Viva Pinata.
Things kick off with you flying over Snaktooth Island in a kind of helicopter. You’re a journalist following the threads of a story, after being sent a letter by Elizabert Megafig, a renowned explorer, inviting you to observe a new form of life: the bugsnax. But as soon as you get close to landing, what seems to be a mega-bugsnax knocks you from your ‘copter and sends you hurtling to the ground.
It’s not long before you are introduced to the bugsnax, a hybrid of – yep – bug and snack. There are stag beetle/burger crossovers called bunglers; lollies mixed with buffalos called bopsicles. Everywhere you look are creepy crawlies that have been fused with hot dogs, strawberries, doughnuts and french fries.
The mayor of a little pop-up town on Snaktooth Island, Fimbo, takes you through the game’s simple loops. Firstly, you scan the bugsnax. This gives you some hints towards their likes and dislikes, and perhaps a means of catching them. Often this method will involve the next step in the loop: a bit of bait. Plants grow in the area, dangling tempting bottles of ketchup, chocolate, ranch dressing, peanut butter and more. So, you are plucking these in an effort to attract or paralyse your targets.
Next is the biggest piece of the puzzle: catching the scamps. This process is wildly different for every bugsnax. A simple strawberry will only need you to lay a snaktrap and then walk away, waiting patiently for it to step into the trap’s radius. Other creatures might need more elaborate steps. We bashed our head against the table trying to catch a sweet fryler (sweet potato crossed with spider, obviously), before realising that we could use a recently unlocked springboard to fire our trap at it. You might even need to bring a different breed of bugsnax into your target’s territory to catch them.
Over the course of the nine or ten hours of Bugsnax, you will unlock a variety of tools to help you along. A tripwire allows you to snag the faster snax (watching them constantly run into the wire is a minor joy), while a strabby in a hamster-like ball can be used as a moving baitball. Some of Bugsnax’s finest moments comes from realising that these tools can be combined in fantastic ways. The strabby ball can be covered in some of the game’s sauces to tempt bugsnax that particularly like those flavours, for example.
With the bugsnax caught, the next step is what you do with it. The residents of Snaktooth Island are partial to a subquest, and require you to trap creatures because they’re hungry, they want to annoy another character, they want an unusual hairdo, and more. You’re often heading into the wilderness to catch animals that they are interested in. Equally, you can trap bugsnax to fill in your ever-growing Pokedex equivalent, or store them in a menagerie in the hub town.
Feeding them to the villagers who, we should note, are kind of bug-eyed muppets, making the game seem like an elaborately themed episode of Sesame Street, has an odd effect. A grumpus that eats a bugsnax finds that their body parts begin to change. They begin to grow banana arms and popcorn legs, depending on what you feed them. It’s all rather odd.
Most of the grumpus are estranged from the main village, so the bulk of the storyline is getting them back to the village by completing their quests. When they are back home, you can interview them through a series of set questions, which will help you to zero in on the location of Elizabert Megafig, the grumpus who first brought you here. She’s gone missing, and there’s a strange lack of evidence around where she is.
Get enough villagers back to the hub, and new biomes open. It’s what you’d expect: there’s a beach land, desert land, ice land and grass land, for example. But exploring them is one of the chief joys: it’s always a treat turning a corner and finding new everythings: new bugsnax, bait, grumpers, quests, tools and isolated little minigames. Every new location comes with bumper stock of things to do.
Tapping this all onto a keyboard, it seems like a winning combination with plenty to do. But like the unholy hybrid of snacks and bugs themselves, the mix didn’t quite work for us. It never coalesced into something that we fell in love with, or wanted to play for particularly long stretches. A lot of that falls on the interactions with the bugsnax themselves. We ran a gamut of emotions whenever it came to trapping creatures, but very rarely was it fun.
The world of Bugsnax is a chaotic one, because it’s ruled by both physics and AI. The inclusion of physics makes sense – particularly from the developers of Octodad: Dadliest Catch, which thrived on it – and it’s realised in the tools you use – springboards, rolling balls, tripwires and flingable traps – just as much as it is with the creatures, as they tumble off platforms and even fling you vast distances. But by creating a physics-based sandbox to play in, you are often prey to its whims. It’s all very imprecise, and even simple things can lead to you getting tied in knots, as traps fall off cliffs, springboards fail to stay even on the floor, and annoying bugs crash into your constructions just as you’ve positioned them.
Stir in the AI, and you’ve got an extra-fiddly game that’s prone to infuriation. Bugsnax run away or relentlessly attack. They do random things that can’t be accounted for. But rather than avoid situations that provoke the AI and physics, Bugsnax decides to poke the hive. Quests encourage it. An early mission where you have to tempt a bug through a gauntlet of pushy crabs, mosquitoes and more, without it getting scared and returning to square one, is emblematic. Too often, you are clumsily flipping through the trap menu by pressing LB, trying to combine several traps at once, before a bug charges and topples it all.
Away from the creatures, Bugsnax is also oddly unengaging. Systems keep layering on that have no real value or interest: you are asked to choose the limb of a grumpus that gets changed into a strawberry, lime or sausage, but it doesn’t matter and we simply didn’t care. It looks vaguely amusing, but nothing more. Returning a grumpus to the village triggers an interview, but there’s no choice in what you say. It’s presented as a list of branching dialogue options, but you’ve got to exhaust them all to progress, which means you’re only choosing what to say first. And the objective that arcs over all of this, to find the lost explorer, is too flimsy. We had never met the explorer, we didn’t care much for her, and the plot didn’t develop fast enough to make us care.
There are some adult topics surrounding mental health, toxic relationships and the ethics of eating meat, which are handled well, but it leaves us wondering who exactly Bugsnax is for. It’s a complicated web of baits and traps, complicated further with AI and physics, clearly making this a game for the older player. But this is a game that’s presented as if for children, and the narrative swings wildly between satisfying both groups. It can’t quite find its snug, happy place between them.
That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy Bugsnax. We did, and we saw it through to completion. It’s paced well, as it knows it’s at its best with the dawn of a new biome. So it chucks them at you after only a few quests each, delivering a feeling that you are blasting through the game and onto its legendary beasts. The puzzle of how to capture a bugsnax is delicious, too, with some offering multiple different approaches. Sure, the actual process of catching of them isn’t perfect, but the conundrum of ‘how’ is well done.
There’s a battle at the centre of Bugsnax. In the red corner is a sweet, satisfying puzzle game, where figuring out how to catch a given bugsnax is the challenge. But in the blue corner is the physics-based sandbox where you have to actually capture them, and that game can’t find the fun. As they grappled together, we found ourselves occasionally losing attention, scanning our game backlog for a different treat. Perhaps it’s time for a return to Viva Pinata after all.
You can buy Bugsnax from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S