Every new console usually has a new game showcasing what it is possible on the new platform. The Super Nintendo debuted in the United States with Super Mario World, a masterpiece of platforming, music, and fun. Not every launch title goes to glory though. Knack, one the launch titles for the PS4 found its way to the bargain bin of nearly every retail and online store that had the misfortune of selling it. This year with the release of the PS5, we have another launch title, Bugsnax, in the works. For Playstation Plus subscribers, it is (or was depending on when you read this) a free game until January 2021. It comes from Young Horses, the makers of the popular Octodad game. So how'd the do on their latest offering?
Bugsnax is a game about Grumpuses, who look like a weird combination of muppets and Simpson characters. You play as an unnamed Grumpus journalist who was invited to Snaktooth island by Elizabert Megafig, an explorer of sorts to tell the world about her latest discovery, bugsnax. As you're about to arrive, hijinx ensue and the game is set in motion. The island is inhabited by bugsnax and the hapless and dysfunctional members of Snaxburg.
As you help the residents the story unfolds and new parts of the world map are unlocked until the story ends. Bugsnax, you see, are bugs that look like food or maybe it is the other way around. You can feed bugsnax to the locals. Once you do, part of the grumpus is transformed into that food. How'd you like a french fry for a leg, or cookies for teeth? No, I don't know why you'd want food appendages but this is what the subtitle "you are what you eat" of the game means.
The gameplay is simple. Trap or capture bugsnax and feed it to the locals to progress until the game is over. That's it. Now repeat that process for seven to twelve hours and that's the whole game. True, as you progress you'll be given different items to use to trap or capture different bugsnax (or the same bugs differently), but the game never deviates from one fetch quest to the next.
As you do so, you'll also repair relationships and help unify and interview the residents of Snaktooth Island, bet you didn't know journalists were so capable. As you interview them, they will propel the story forward and sometimes give you an item or a clue as to where to go next. The game is fairly linear. There's not much to choose from except the occaisional response to some dialogue or to accept a side-quest. The game ushers you along from one place to another. Other than the town itself, once you've completed the tasks in one area of the map, there is rarely any need to revisit it. A particular annoyance that adds to the boredom is the inability to skip or speed up cutscenes. Combine that with the slow pace of said cutscenes and you'll definitely want to have your phone handy while they play out.
Unlike a lot of games, you have no health meter. You cannot be injured or die. There's no need to manage health resources or calculate risks but it also means there's no challenge or worry. Feel free to jump off as many cliffs as you want in Bugsnax. As I made it to Simmering Springs, the first unlocked area after the introduction, I couldn't help being met with a single overwhelming emotion that never left me during the rest of the game, boredom. There's no other way to say it. The colors may be bright and vibrant but this game is dull as can be. The skill level is excruciatingly simple.
It's easy to pick up what to do and catching bugsnax is almost easier than watching a two year old shout at Dora the Explorer when she can't find the Swiper for the billionth time. Like Fall Guys, Bugsnax may be simple but Fall Guys is also challenging and more rewarding. Because it lacks challenge it also lacks any real incentive to complete any of the quests - other than to advance the story.
The game revolves around the story, rather than the gameplay or the unique idea of feeding bugsnax to the residents as a way to change their appearance. In order to make the game worth playing the story needs to be compelling and interesting. Since so much depends on the story I'm attempting to avoid spoilers. The story is a run-of-the-mill missing person mystery. What the mystery is and the main plot and such is presented to you right at the beginning of the game. To unravel more, you must convince the Snaxburg residents to return to the city as well as then interviewing them. You know, cause you're a journalist. Most mystery stories will give you enough clues that the astute reader will be able might be able to piece everything together before the conclusion. Not here. The clues and information only lead you to the next tidbit of story and its associated fetch quests. It all leads to the dramatic conclusion which is as disconnected from the rest of the story as it is weird. Because the ending is so strange, the ending itself has several articles written about it on other gaming sites. Whether that is compelling or an interesting story is somewhat subjective. I found the story to be very thin up until the end where it started to get mildly interesting and then, it was over.
The supporting cast of characters that you interview and give you side quests are all tropes and stereotypes. There's the leader who can't lead, the country bumpkin, the hippie, the gossip, the ripoff Danny DeVito sleazy salesman and the weird scientist to name a few. As far as character development, just feed them some bugsnax (they'll tell you which ones) and they'll do the rest. The whole experience is a lot like watching a bland Disney Channel sitcom that lasts twevle hours and is never funny in spite of the actors hamming it up. For me, I was relieved when it was was over. In fact the most enjoyable part about the game just might be deleting it when you're done.
After the initial boredom set in and I really contemplated whether I was even going to finish Bugsnax let alone review it, I decided to peek at some of the other reviews about the game. Let me share a few quotes:
IGN (8/10) - "this is a story-driven first-person adventure game with light puzzling and a surprising amount of emotional depth and character development and manages to tell a solid story, complete with twists and turns, along the way. And while not being much of a technical showcase for the PlayStation 5’s launch, Snaktooth Island is definitely a place worth visiting for the wildlife on show alone – just try not to eat too many."
Destructoid (7/10) - "It's been a while since I've played a game with a cast of characters that was so good it elevated the rest of the experience, but that's where I am with Bugsnax. Because they're brilliant. And the concept behind Snaktooth Island is equally brilliant."
Gamespot (8/10) - "Bugsnax' best qualities are its cleverness and charm. The surprise and delight you feel when you see a Bugsnak wiggling around or watch someone eat one and change their arm into food never goes away. That alone would make Bugsnax worth your time, but creative puzzles and thoughtful story give it the body and depth to make a Snak feel more like a meal."
And my personal favorite.
Laptopmag.com - "Bugsnax is an easy game to recommend for players of all ages. It blends a Pixar-worthy narrative with challenging puzzles, a compelling mystery and interesting characters — but it is the unconditionally innocent whimsy that will put a helpless smile on your face."
All of these glowing reviews gave me hope that there was a good game in there somewhere, especially with a "Pixar-worthy" narrative. Well dear readers, I have been all over Snaktooth Island, talked to every character, caught nearly every single bugsnax out there and I did not see anything Pixar-worthy, either in story or render quality. I have to wonder if all of these writers played the same game I did. They did have similar complaints of repetitive gameplay. Yet we're talking about anywhere between seven to twelve hours of repetitive gameplay, all for a story that probably takes 30 minutes at most to tell.
The music of the game is equally repititive. Each area has it's own theme, but like the game itself the tracks are short. In fact, the songs all feel about the same length as original NES games but with better instruments. To use a soundtrack with the depth of games from the 8-bit era is about as close to phoning it in as you can get. The longer you play the game the more grating the repetitiveness of the music becomes. It is by far the most forgettable aspect of this game. Anyone who praises the soundtrack most likely did not play the game or did not play much of it in my opinion.
Wikipedia reports that the developers over at Young Horses took about six years to develop Bugsnax. I feel somewhat guilty being so critical of something that people put six years of their lives creating. The game is polished and you can tell that those who worked on it truly enjoy what they do. At the same time, the game is outclassed and outshone by other games in everything Bugsnax aspires to be. Journey, another short and strange indie game released in 2012 for the PS3 is hands down a superior gaming experience. Bugsnax one redeeming quality is that it is free to Playstation Plus subscribers and for those lucky few with a PS5 and a few hours to burn, Bugsnax might be something that strikes your fancy. However, for everyone else required to buy the game, paying any amount above the current $0.00 PSN+ price to be that bored is too high.
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- Creative Idea
- Good Artwork
- Free on PSN+