Before we had discretionary access to audio content while trying to get from point A to point B while listening to music, audiobooks or podcasts, we each had our own way to drown out the deafening silence and keep at bay the existential dread and darkness within each and every one of us. Most of us got lost in our thoughts or used our imaginations, especially back when we were kids. I, for example, used to pass the 20-30 minutes I spent walking to and from school each day by assigning each boring part of town I passed through a fantastical twist. Parks became forests. Blocks became desolate post-apocalyptic city-scapes. On some days. Other days they were futuristic bases of operations and bastions of civilization in some intergalactic war or another. You get the idea. Bear With Me banks on a child’s capability to create entire worlds out of the mundane to fill the downtime or make time pass quicker in an age where entertainment discretion is less prevalent.
Bear With Me: Windows PC [Reviewed], Mac OS X, Linux
Developer: Exordium Games
Publisher: Exordium Games
Release Date: 8 August 2016
Price: 4:49€ [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Publisher]
Bear With Me, Doll
I consider it my mandate from the Heavens to use bad puns in my writing. This is only reinforced by the bear-centric nature of the game and its choice of title. Bear With Me is an episodic noir adventure, according to its creators Exordium Games, a small independent studio based in Croatia. It stars little Amber Ashworth, a girl of ten and her maybe imaginary friend Ted E. Bear, a stuffed bear who is essentially Humphrey Bogart. They try to solve the maybe imaginary disappearance of Amber’s brother and protecting the maybe imaginary denizens of the maybe imaginary Paper City from the maybe imaginary menacing Red Man.
The game is determined to keep what is really happening under wraps. As I mentioned in the intro, the most likely scenario is that Amber is looking for something to do on a stormy sleepless night, populating her surroundings with characters based off of her toys, but I’m not writing off the possibility of supernatural elements just yet, especially with how dark the antagonist’s character is made to look. Bear With Me is also a honest-to-God point and click inventory puzzle adventure like what we had in the good old-days. You pick up items, combine them, find crazy uses for them and whatever else you need in order to progress. It’s presented almost entirely in a monochrome gray-scale with just a tint of sepia thrown in with hand-drawn backgrounds and models. Of course, the colour red is displayed vividly and prominently where thematically appropriate.
I didn’t quite grasp exactly what role Amber plays in her Paper City, but it was definitely a position of power and respect (I mean, wouldn’t you do the same if you created a world?), while Ted is her estranged former detective partner with a troubled past and a drinking problem. Their relationship seems strained but it’s also endearing to see what a 10 year old girl considers “troubled”, “estranged” and “strained”. They constantly take jabs at each other, with Ted’s seeming resentful, while Amber’s are optimistic and playful.
In fact I’d call the entire tone of the game “playful horror”. It’s the story of a serial killer running amok and some supernatural occurrences are thrown in as well but it’s made somewhat adorable by the childish spin Amber’s imagination puts on it. Ted’s character nails the archetypal noir private investigator being just over the top enough to not be obnoxious. Amber, however, seems, at times, like a bit too sassy, confident and erudite for a girl her age. I still haven’t figured out if she’s intentionally written like that or if it’s supposed to be her imaginary self-projection.
The experience is a rather short one, but due to my inability to quickly solve some of the puzzles I took about three hours to play through it. Even so, it’s a very dense few hours, with about nine or ten screens to go between, over a dozen items to collect (some of them red herrings) and about six characters to have conversations with for hints or clues. If you ever run out of ideas, talking to Ted will give you a nudge in the right direction. I found most of the puzzles to be sensible, but Ted occasionally gave me hints for two or three steps ahead of what I needed. Regardless, with a bit of back and forth I eventually pulled through.
I enjoyed Bear With Me‘s art direction. Not just the colour style, but the hand-drawn environments and big-headed cartoony characters too. Everyone is drawn in a way that conveys their personality, which I always appreciate in a stylized aesthetic. Other than the hand drawn characters and backgrounds, the developer paid a lot of attention to the weather effects outside. The occasional lightning strike and flashes blindingly and thunder cracks menacingly, while some rooms have dim, flickering light sources. The “cut-scenes” consist of a comic book panel layout from Ted’s perspective and narrated by him. I found it to be a nice touch.
The music consists mostly of piano tones and smooth, subtle jazz, as befits a noir detective story and the voice acting is very good. Everyone involved seems to be having fun with the role and plays it up just enough that it gets you immersed without becoming annoying. However, I do have a small problem with the writing. Other than the dissonance I mentioned earlier with Amber’s character, the game makes about five 4th-wall-breaking meme jokes too many that fouled my mood for a bit. Additionally, it’s so intent on being funny that it added achievements for every single thing you can do in the game, including looking at all the lamps and paintings and reading/listening to all the descriptions. I appreciate the effort, but the game was plenty humorous even without trying so damn hard. I suppose the achievements do add some measure of replayability, though.
I also have an issue with the game’s long loading times. I don’t know what it does exactly, but I shouldn’t have to wait around ten seconds or more for a pre-rendered background and some other stuff to load. This is made even more irritating by the fact that several puzzles have you navigate back and forth between rooms, having to sit through loading screens each time. It’s by no means a deal breaker, but it’s at least a mild and constant annoyance, especially considering how much I shelled out for a high-end PC earlier this year.
Bear With Me is clearly a passion project and a labor of love, but it doesn’t use this as an excuse but rather puts in the work to deliver a well-polished experience and an overall satisfying return to form for the adventure genre. Misgivings about some artistic choices aside, I liked what it offered and found the concept of imaginary playtime itself to be a clever framing for the story. It has a very cohesive style, clearly knows what it’s going for and I’m looking forward to playing more episodes as they show up. In fact, I can bearly contain myself.