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Indie Game of the Week 128: Bear With Me (Episodes 2 & 3)

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Early last year, I decided to try out the first episode of Bear With Me: an adventure game eventually released in three parts. In retrospect, each of the three episodes are perhaps a little too short to require their own individual IGotW entries: you could probably get through one in an hour, contingent on how long the inventory puzzles stymied you. All the same, it didn't feel right to leave this game half-finished (or one-third finished, as the case may be), not only because it leaves the overall review incomplete but also because I enjoyed that first episode quite a bit.

Bear With Me's twists aren't the most surprising, but it's evident early on that Amber Ashworth's make-believe session with her stalwart buddy, the well-worn private dick Ted E. Bear, wasn't quite as cut-and-dry as it seemed. Paper City is filled with archetypal noir roles filled out by Amber's many stuffed animal toys, in a process that might be precocious and incongruous for a ten-year-old but could feasibly result from a steady diet of Dashiell Hammett novellas or Humphrey Bogart movies (which all the ten-year-olds of today won't shut up about) - the noir setting is enhanced further with a monochrome aesthetic, monologuing voiceovers, and monolithic urban edifices that divide up the mean streets and the meaner alleyways of this corrupted burg. Flashes of red, however, portends an unnatural interloper that threatens to annihilate not just the people and buildings of the city, but the very creative energies that brought it to life and sustain it. In other words, this mysterious entity isn't targeting some aspect of Amber's made-up world, like the Mayor's office or the gangster-led casino, but Amber herself. Ultimately, to save her friends, Amber will have to confront this existential menace and come to terms with the trauma it represents.

Are all these pop culture references strictly necessary for the story Bear With Me is telling? It's like a Where's Waldo of nerd shit.
Are all these pop culture references strictly necessary for the story Bear With Me is telling? It's like a Where's Waldo of nerd shit.

Bear With Me has a slight tone problem as it relays this sordid tale to the player, deftly establishing the sinister threat of this mysterious crimson slasher (definite shades of Deadly Premonition's Raincoat Killer in his design) while frequently engaging in silly reference humor and fourth-breaking jokes. There's certainly room for levity in adventure games like this - the best ones all have a comedic bent, after all, as there's a huge capacity for ribald commentary with the less-crucial hotspots used to fill out each scene - but it makes it harder to take the truly emotional and tense beats of the game seriously as a result. These characters are, by their own frequent admission, fluffy playthings acting like cops or private detectives or waitresses or nightclub bouncers, and nothing twists a tragedy back around to comedy like seeing a named character bleeding out from gunshot wounds delivering their final, trembling words of reassurance to the protagonists only to turn back into an inanimate stuffed toy a moment later. I hesitate to discuss just how dark the game gets in its final chapter for fear of spoiling too much, but suffice it to say it's some serious business. I'm just not sure the game put me in a headspace to fully appreciate it.

That minor narrative quibble aside, as a standard adventure game Bear With Me falls somewhere in the middle of the "annoying" and "accommodating" spectrum. It doesn't have the ever-handy "highlight all hotspots" button, and the movement speed of the main character(s) leaves a lot to be desired if something on the opposite side of the screen requires your attention, but it does compartmentalize its chapters and episodes into small groups of rooms and screens for its puzzles, which greatly mitigates the difficulty without making the game a complete pushover. In this department it definitely earns a pass for never roadblocking me for too long: the one time I was stuck in an area for more than ten minutes, it was because I missed a coat that took up most of the very right margin of the screen, so that was entirely on me. If you're an achievement nut, prepare to get frequently flustered as many require checking hotspots that vanish quickly once the story moves head, and completing puzzles perfectly the first time (including a couple that are specifically meant to be trial-and-error); achievements are often a hard nut to crack when designing them around adventure games though, so I'm not going to hold that against the game. Likewise, the localization can be a little spotty with typos and unusual accents for minor characters, but there's only so much a small foreign-language studio can do and I could at least follow everything (and the joke references were fairly universal also - no in-jokes about Croatia's hottest TV show).

If ever a splash of color appears in Bear With Me, it's usually not a good sign.
If ever a splash of color appears in Bear With Me, it's usually not a good sign.

I think if I was going to sell this game to anyone, it would be on its atmosphere and mystery. A noir whodunnit should be expected to have both those things in abundance, of course, but in this game's case the atmosphere is in the encroaching horror of the "red man" and how that juxtaposes with the world of 1950s noir clich├ęs it destabilizes, while the mystery is more metaphysical in origin: If there was a god of a small universe and some external menace decided to start hunting that god and destroying everything in its path to get to her, what could the normal citizenry do? Help her fight it? Cower in fear of something several leagues above what they're capable of dealing with? Give into that fear of their and their world's imminent demises to try and help this demon before everything is gone? I kind of like when games establish the rules of their world and then break them with some unforeseen existential threat, and Bear With Me handles that conceit with a certain amount of panache and self-effacing charm. It has its share of minor problems, but I think this is a cool idea for a story and game alike.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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