I have a rule when it comes to Steam tags – always check them, never trust them. Sure, some tags are put there by developers, but if enough Steam users apply a tag to a given game, it ends up showing up, sometimes higher in the list than the developers tags, and there are a *lot* of folks out there who think they’re very very funny.
Why am I talking about this now? Because the top user-defined tag for Bugsnax is “Psychological Horror”, and I am here to tell you that this is both correct and appropriate. You can trust this tag. It may look like an adorable adventure game with a dash of “gotta catch them all” but it’s also so very very deeply disturbing.
You play as a nearly-unemployed journalist, who has received a file, complete with black & white home movie style video, from explorer Lizbert Megafig. She wants you to come to the site of her latest discovery, Snaktooth Island, where all of the wildlife looks like snack foods and is, in fact, delicious. She feels like these creatures are a pretty significant discovery, and she wants you to tell the world about it.
As you approach the island in your half-ship, half-hot-air-balloon, a giant moth swoops down on you, knocking you out of your vehicle (which you will discover a little ways in crashed, but not too terribly damaged). After a super-brief tutorial on moving around, you discover the first of your fellow Grumpuses, lying on the ground nearly dead from hunger, and all of a sudden, you’re not just a journalist anymore. You’re going to be the best Bugsnax catcher this island has ever seen. You feed your new friend a Strobby or two (a very easy to catch Bugsnack that looks just like a strawberry), and immediately, he begins to change.
Now that I have played Bugsnax, I will never think of the phrase “You are what you eat!” quite the same way again. It is, in fact, possible to feed other Grumpuses until they become nothing but Bugsnax. Thankfully, the player character appears to be allergic to these tasty treats, as well as immune to the effects of hunger.
If you can get past the willful self-mutilation that every goofy looking critter on this island seems willing to endure for the delectability of the local fauna, you’re about to start on a whirlwind adventure of convincing all the (former) inhabitants of Snaxburg back to their home base on the island. See, Lizbert and her partner Eggabel have both disappeared, and the rest of the crew has gone their separate ways. Weird things are happening on Snaktooth Island, and as the resident nameless journalist, it’s up to you to put everything back to rights and find the missing Grumpuses.
I’m not really comfortable dropping spoilers for anything past the game’s intro; sure it’s been available for quite awhile on both Playstation and Epic Games, but just recently was released on both Steam and XBox (including on GamePass, which is where I played it). You will be given all the tools you need to catch every Bugsnax that exists, and although all the mechanics are fairly well explained, there are still plenty of opportunities to feel very clever indeed. There are also plenty of hints and walkthroughs all across the internet, should you find that you need them.
Zones open up slowly, as you manage to complete different tasks. In the end, there are 10 zones, including the “home base” of Snaxburg and the recently added free DLC area of Broken Tooth. You will also have four types of quests – main quests, which you will need to complete to progress the story, interviews, which almost always end with you obtaining something you’ll need by the game’s conclusion, side quests, which are mostly optional, but not really optional if you want to catch all the Bugsnax or open up the DLC area, and quests that come in the mail, which seem to just give cosmetics but which are, frustratingly, un-trackable once you finish reading the letter they come in.
There’s a lot going on, but if you stick only to what you need to do, you can complete the entire game in 5-6 hours. Which is what I did, because I have trouble not progressing the main quest when the game is successful at making you feel a sense of urgency. There is a point where the game warns you that you are about the pass the point of no return, and I did so without hesitation. There was a mystery to solve, after all. Lives were hanging in the balance.
Virtual muppet lives, but I was into it, ok?
Then I did something I never ever do. I started over. I wanted to play the whole thing again, this time, making sure I did all the quests & caught all the bugs & did everything there was to do … within reason. Even considering how much less time I was spending figuring things out on a second play through, this one has thus far been considerably longer, and that’s not including the pretty lengthy sequence that comes past the point of no return, which I have yet to pass. I’ve just opened up the DLC area, and as you can see, I’ve done a lot more on the second playthrough than the first.
Despite having almost nothing in common with them gameplay-wise, the feel of Bugsnax reminded me a lot of the Psychonauts games (which I loved both of despite being cool towards 3D platformers in general). Both games are bright and colorful and full of absolute what-the-fuckery. Whatever ride you think you’ve gotten on, you’re about to discover that the place this train is barreling towards you never really wanted to go, but you’re just dying to see what’s at the end of the tracks.
There’s something magical about that.