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‘Bugsnax’ is charming and funny, but sapped by vexing gameplay

(Young Horses)

I had high expectations as I started “Bugsnax,” a PlayStation 5 launch title from the creators of the indie hit, “Octodad.” “Bugsnax,” for families and kids as young as 10 years old, features characters that are part furry animal with huge, expressive eyes and part sentient human with complex emotions. They’re something like a mix of “Veggie Tales,” “Pokémon” and “Skylanders.” The adventure-filled island world of “Bugsnax” that they inhabit is a surprising, comic and enjoyable one, but the game of “Bugsnax” bugged me just enough to sap some of that enjoyment.

The story centers on a journalist’s exploits as he travels to lush Snaktooth Island to interview a potentially specious explorer and leader. Elizabert Megafig’s ardent but culty group has taken refuge on the island because of a delicious preponderance of Bugsnax. “It’s not just a bug. It’s a snack!” she exclaims. If big, expressive eyes can indicate the smacking of lips, these do.

Six years in the making, this gotta-catch-'em-all style adventure game’s beginning is more exciting than I expected after a crash-landing of your hot-air balloon contraption during a storm. Looking around, you feel you’re inside the game. That’s due to artwork that, while fairly simple, evokes tantalizing depth and sense of foreboding within a raging, rain-filled vista. These aren’t the realistic graphics for which early adopters may have bought the PS5, but they’re more than adequate, offering expansive views of the terrain that can be awe-inspiring.

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I tested the PS4 version in tandem with the next generation version. On the PS5, scenes in the distance are more graphically detailed, and you want to visit those areas immediately. Additionally, levels load about twice as quickly on the next-gen console, although I wish the loading was seamless and didn’t require any time at all.

The varied, subtle vibrations captured within the new DualSense controller also add a sense of real life to these family-oriented festivities. Brief exclamations from the controller’s speaker seems to leap into your ear as if someone were throwing their voice. Put on a headset and nature’s own tone, thunder, is not only accompanied by soft rumbling in your ears, it also subtly rolls though your controller. The combination of the two is a delight.

Deft touches with other game elements add to the experience. The voice acting here is top notch, and most of these folks have a worthy resume that includes other video games, TV or film roles. The 80s-synth pop-inspired theme song by Kero Kero Bonito has hints of The Waitresses’ famous “Christmas Wrapping,” and that’s enough to make you want to get up and dance.

However the gameplay design isn’t as inspired as everything else. There are too many moves required by the player to lure, place a trap and capture over 100 types of Bugsnax. And the tutorial during gameplay isn’t as clear as it needs to be. It led me to think I had to capture a bush to retrieve my prey within when, in fact, this is where a Bugsnax hides in protection until you coax it out.

Also, I’m not sure how difficult the puzzles for capturing the edible joys are supposed to be. Early on, you’re asked to capture a walking hamburger, a grump who attacks you by knocking you up in the air if you’re in its way. I learned to lure them by shooting ketchup with a slingshot. But then what?

I jumped on one, which kicked me high enough to see a rickety bridge. I searched in vain for a rock or twig to hit one. In hopes of a discovering weaponry farther afield, I repeatedly tried to get the cranky thing to loft me up on the bridge. While I got close, it didn’t happen.

What you have to do is lure two beasts with ketchup, then watch one hit another. Once they’re woozy, you can capture them. That process is not intuitive, and I was frustrated. I can imagine a number of kids who receive “Bugsnax” for a holiday gift turning quickly to streamers for help. There’s no shame in getting tips, but you should be able to figure puzzles out this early in a game.

Shortly after, you get a journal that helps you in your quest because it holds a map of the island and dossiers on Bugsnax along with the more human characters you meet. I couldn’t help thinking a hint should have popped up after my prolonged failure with the walking hamburger. I mean, this isn’t a Souls game. It’s a family game.

And yet you roll with it because everything is adorable and cuddly. Some Bugsnax tiptoe and look like strawberries with legs. Others slither like snakes but look like carrots. Twice, a bird stole my trap and seemed to laugh as it hung there holding it in its talons. (Creatures can and do steal your tools here, often.) Somehow, their cheeky affectations make them more alluring.

The crafting of the backstory and narrative for each character is nothing short of inspired. None of this motley crew is perfect, and that’s a positive. To compare, while some of the characters in the “Animal Crossing” series are quirky, these can be troubled, comically so, but troubled. When Filbo Fiddlepie, the self-appointed town mayor is insulted by a female character he likes, he nearly falls over from disappointment. And he stays there for some time, seemingly injured. You want to go into the game and tell him everything will be all right.

And that’s the key to “Bugsnax”: Not only are its characters emotion-filled, you enjoy the cuteness combined with writing. The narrative fleshes out humanlike foibles that strike chords in your heart. Their names stay with you, too. They’re reminiscent of the comic weirdness of Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” and Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” I smiled when I was introduced to C. Clumby Clumbernut, a gruff newspaper editor, and Gramble Gigglefunny, a Southern-twanged lover of Bugsnax as living beings as opposed to food.

As you progress to the varied island areas, the oval-eyed, colorful characters will never be real beyond the PlayStation 5, but you would like to hang with them, even have a beer with them in some alternate universe. Heck, even the Bugsnax would be cool to have as pets. They grunt, hum, mumble and sing as they move about terra firma.

But then the game itself interferes with these relationships. As well-rounded and thoughtfully executed as the characters, world and story are, I found myself both frustrated with the complexity of the controls and tiring of the repetition that comes with trap-setting and luring the Bugsnax into my clutches. The mystery of Lizbert’s whereabouts and the compelling job you have as a journalist with something to prove aren’t enough. The gameplay has to reach the same high bar as the rest of the pieces of the video game puzzle. Perhaps they will refine and simplify the gameplay in a sequel, because I’d like to spend some more time with these characters outside of this game’s encumbrances.

Harold Goldberg has written for the New York Times, Playboy, Vanity Fair and elsewhere. He’s the founder of the New York Video Game Critics Circle and New York Game Awards. Follow him on Twitter @haroldgoldberg.

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