Sometimes, the name is the game. Bugsnax, the new game from Octodad developer Young Horses, is all about catching bugs made of traditionally appetizing foods like pizza, strawberries, carrots, and lollipops, which turn your body parts into food when you eat them. They’re bugs, but made of snacks. Bug... snacks? Bugsnax.
It's a wacky, whimsical conceit that, when paired with the game's cute and colorful art style, puts a smile on your face and pushes your imagination to run wild. The surprisingly powerful desire to discover more about this world and its weird, wonderful creatures fuels every aspect of the experience. Its clever, if somewhat temperamental, puzzles revolve around catching Bugsnax. The story sends you off to investigate the mysteries of their home, Snaktooth Island, and its colonists. And though that drive is purely superficial--your real motivation will be to see all the clever Snak names and designs--the game you experience along the way has a lot of substance.
How do I even begin to explain what's happening in Bugsnax? You control an investigative journalist who's reporting the expedition of explorer Lizbert Megafig to Snaktooth Island, where she's discovered evidence of an ancient civilization and the delicious, mysterious Bugsnax. When you arrive, Lizbert has gone missing and her colony, Snaxburg, has disbanded. Your goal, for most of the game, is to find the colonists around the island and convince them to get back together so you can get your story and find out what happened to the lost explorer. Most of the time, "convincing" means feeding them Bugsnax.
The world of Bugsnax is colorful, like something out of a children's book. All of the humanoid characters are furry, big-eyed Muppet-like creatures called Grumpuses. As someone who loves food but hates all bugs, I was delighted to find the Bugsnax all look adorable and charming. (The key, I think, was giving them all arts-and-crafts-style googly eyes.) Pulling a page from Pokemon, each one has a clever, explanatory name, which they say aloud as they crawl around. Exploring the various biomes of Snaktooth Island, which range from forests to beaches to canyons to snowy mountain peaks, searching out all the inventive little creatures, scanning them to discover their properties, and observing them in their element, is a pure delight. There are 100 Bugsnax, some of which are simply palette-swapped reskins, but finding a new one is always exciting.
To satisfy the former citizens of Snaxburg, though, you will need to do more than look. Getting your hands on delicious Fryders (french fry spiders), Crapples (apple crabs), and Ribblepedes (BBQ rib centipedes) requires you to be clever. Catching each type of Bugsnak presents a unique puzzle; each one has a different set of characteristics that dictate how they react to you, to your tools, and to other Bugsnax. Some will run away when they see you, and others will chase. Some can be caught using your remote trap, while others will break free and need to be incapacitated in some way before you run in and scoop them up with a net. Later on, some of them are literally on fire, so you need to find a way to cool them off before making your move.
You have a toolkit that gives you a few options for manipulating the Snax. Your slingshot lets you fire different sauces--ketchup, hot sauce, ranch, chocolate, and so on--which can act as bait or repellant, depending on what you're trying to catch. You have a tripwire that can knock over aggressive creatures and bring down Snax that are out of reach. More often, though, you'll need to use your tools to bring two Snax together and interact to make them susceptible to capture. In an early example, a Bunga (a hamburger bug) will charge at anything covered in ketchup, so when the extremely skittish Shishkabug (shishkabob bug, which kind of looks like an ant) hides in a bush to get away from a trap, you can sling some ketchup at the hiding spot to attract the Bunga and flush the Shishkabug out. Though you rarely need more than two Snax to interact to set up a catch, the process of bringing them together requires some creative thinking. I wouldn't say any of them are really tough to solve, but you need to think outside the box, and that makes you feel clever when a plan comes together.
Your interview subjects don't just want you to catch their Bugsnax; they want you to feed the Snax to them, too. And when you feed them, part of their body will turn into the food they just ate (or something related). Early on, you gain the ability to choose which body part changes, which turns the Bugsnax into cosmetic items. You can continue feeding Bugsnax to any character whenever you want, giving them a makeover as increasingly abstract food mutants. No matter how much you change a Grumpus, they still look friendly.
As a gameplay mechanic, it's a bit underwhelming. In some later, optional missions, certain colonists will ask you to catch Snax with specific colors or characteristics and apply them to specific body parts, but that doesn't actually affect how you catch the Bugsnax or the feeding process. The body-changing factors into the story, so it never feels totally superfluous, but the actual mechanic is really just for fooling around.
Bugsnax' larger story plays out mainly through the conversations you have with the colonists once they've returned to Snaxburg. Upon their return, you get the chance to interview each one, learn more about their personality and background, and get clues to the larger mysteries of Lizbert's disappearance and the origin of the Bugsnax. The overarching story is a proverbial page-turner, motivating you to keep moving through it. It's a bit predictable, but that didn't keep me from wanting to see how things play out.
The heart of Bugsnax story isn't in the plot, but in its characters. Though they look like cartoons, colorful and tropey, Snaxburg's residents have real personalities and personal stories to tell, if you want to hear them. After convincing them to return to town, each character has an optional questline in which you help them with their work and/or personal chores. Beffica, the nosy former gossip columnist, asks you to spy on the other colonists in the middle of the night. Triffany, the archeologist, wants help exploring ancient ruins. Invariably, each character winds up revealing that they're struggling with deeper personal problems--difficulty coping with loss or failure, depression, anxiety. Sometimes you wind up helping them solve those larger issues, but sometimes you don't. Even when you can't, though, there are touching, human moments when these characters reveal themselves to you. (And, shockingly, having strawberry horns or a burrito nose doesn't make them any less relatable.)
Unsurprisingly, 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.