There have been a few video games over the years that have tried to blend the idea of cartoonish childrens topics with a more ‘adult’ oriented gameplay style (for example the good but largely ignored Fur Fighters, or the bad and mercifully ignored Fairytale Fights). You can see the appeal of this approach from a commercial point of view; you still grab the kiddie market, since the box art looks cute and fluffy and the adults who buy the games for them don’t notice/care that the subject matter is ultimately more grown up than they might otherwise allow, and you get the adult market too by including ridiculously over-the-top violence and vulgarity.
In reality of course this usually means the worst of both worlds- the graphics are childish and the gameplay is juvenile, teenage at best, since they need to avoid approaching the mature or even teenage ratings on the games themselves, lest they alienate the children (or more accurately the parents who buy them the games) altogether. The only company that can reliably and consistently straddle these two areas is Nintendo, but of course that doesn’t stop a lot of others from trying and failing.
Into this ignoble tradition steps Naughty Bear, the latest game from developers Artificial Mind & Movement. I’ll forgive you if that was met with a ‘who?’. Looking through their back catalogue raises a few red flags to say the least. Mostly they have a bunch of Cartoon-based shovelware properties (Ed, Edd & Eddy, Kim Possible, Monster House, Happy Feet) and portable conversions of popular games (Dante’s Inferno PSP, My Sims Racing – yes, really), all firmly aimed at the childrens market. It’s not dificult to see where a lot of pent up anger about having to create endless cute and wholesame games for young children came from, that might lead to a game like this.
Usually this sort of development history points to a company living project to project, bidding for whatever work they can get, likely to be a reasonably high turnover of staff and a ‘first job’ for a lot of developers looking to cut their teeth before moving on to bigger and better things, or the burnout zone for bitter, out of date developers who ‘could have been a contender’ but never quite made it to the big time. They broke out slightly last year with their own IP, the 3rd-person action shooter Wet, published by Bethesda Softworks (the Elder Scrolls series, Fallout 3). No doubt this was supposed to be their big break, which makes it all the more unfortunate that it was an utterly shitty ripoff of the much maligned Stranglehold (actually fun, and available very cheap these days).
All that aside, Naughty Bear is also their own IP, though published under the decidedly more budget 505 Games label (think the sort of games that you find in Morrison’s for £10), so it too might be considered the great hope of the company to break into the top tier of games developers. Oh dear.
The paper-thin story is that Naughty Bear has not been invited to another bear’s birthday party, so has decided it’s time to smash up the bear village, and scare the other bears until they go so insane and kill themselves, or do the job himself with a bloodless but suitably gruesome (and cliché) set of hand to hand weapons. That’s pretty much it. If that sounds like a fun game, congratulations: you are retarded. Or ten years old.
The central idea behind the game gets old almost immediately, and sees you running around a tiny sandbox of bear houses during a party/election/other near-identical situation, scaring the other bears and sabotaging their houses for ‘hilarious’ situation-specific scares/kills with a seriously limited range of cheap motion capture reactions. You’re encouraged to set these traps and wait for the bears to come and fix whatever you have put wrong, at which point you spring out and scare/murder them.
By the nature of his name, Naughty Bear is supposed to be the naughty one. However, since a game where your enemies can’t fight back might be the only thing less interesting than the game as it currently stands, all of the bears you encounter will whip out their own machetes/guns/baseball bats/axes and reply to Naughty’s attempts at scaring them with a swift whack on the head. Since you earn more points for scaring the bears with your ‘fearsome’ boo! Than actually just hacking the stuffing out of them, Naughty Bear actually ends up being the least violent one of the lot.
There’s a fundamental dichotomy within the gameplay that ultimately proves its undoing; as you play, your score multiplier ticks down between scares/attacks, but the big points only come from setting sabotage traps and waiting, sometimes minutes, for a passing bear to give a shit about them. So you’re either running around mindlessly hacking at brightly-coloured teddy bears and screaming ‘Boo!’ at them (not even as fun as it sounds), gaining tiny amounts of points, or setting traps and waiting in the undergrowth (where you can’t be seen, for some reason) for bears to wander by, when you get more points but a slower multiplier.
Just like Split/Second before it, faced with a game with a single, flimsy central concept, they have put in arbitrary ‘special modes’ to mix things up a bit, such as levels where you can’t hit anyone (just the situation-specific attacks), or levels where you can only win by driving the bears insane with your scary shouting. Yes, that’s right: in order to deliver variety, the developers actually make you do almost exactly the same level several times, but each time give you less of a game to play with. They are so tedious I can’t even be bothered to write about them any more.
Everything within the game smacks of cheap development. The textures and graphics would not look out of place in a PS2 (or more likely Gamecube) game, the gameplay is tedious and incredibly repetitive: you have to complete a lot of levels in order to earn enough trophies that unlock later levels, possibly several times if you didn’t score well enough. In response to this, there are several alternate outfits (everything from a hat to a full Freddy Kruger outfit) that enhance your abilities in barely-perceptible ways, which are supposed to keep you interested. It does not. This game is a miserable turd with no redeeming features unless you have anger management issues and are a bit simple.
Honestly, I can’t even say that the central concept behind Naughty Bear is a good one- if you want a 3rd-person hack ’em up, there are plenty to choose from that are all better than this regardless of which platform(s) you own, from God of War to Manhunt via Mad World or No More Heroes. If you want a kids game then there’s everything from Little Big Planet to Banjo Kazooie, Little King’s Story to Super Mario Galaxy 2 (though you might have to help the younger ones there). I really can’t imagine the Venn diagram of customers that Naughty Bear will appeal to, and I certainly don’t ever want to meet anyone who fits there.
Avoid this game like the plague, just as I will be avoiding the shop assistant in Game who recommended it to me with a straight face since they didn’t have any copies of Transformers: Battle for Cybertron.