"I think you should teach them a lesson" coos the bright and playful narrator at the start of every scenario in Naughty Bear. Yet this is just a prelude to a game that's anything but bright and playful. In fact, Naughty Bear spends alot of effort in building the feeling of a toddlers cartoon, only to have you go all slasher-film on the cute and cuddly bears. It's an interesting and unique concept which is, unfortunately, let down by very lazy implementation.
Naughty Bear is a dog-eared, and slightly creepy brown bear who finds out he's not been invited to the birthday party of one of his fellow bears. This is obviously one slight too many for Naughty Bear, who promptly goes on to murder his fellow residents in the most brutal ways imaginable and the game requires you to collect Naughty Points to progress through various areas and get to your target.
Naughty Points. They're the first problem. Instead of building intricate, open-ended scenarios with several ways of completing the task and an emphasis on stealth, the game encourages you to build up as many of these points as possible. Points are awarded for breaking things, scaring bears and ultimately killing them in varied ways. To get the most bang for your bears you have to keep the games multiplier topped, and this means keeping the madness constant. This means all pretences of stealth go to hell, and any attempt to score the top points quickly descends into a violent whirl-wind of bear-traps, contextual kills and mashing the attack button. The background music is simple happy-happy kid's music for the most part, but as soon as the naughty meter begins to rise and the bears start to lose their sanity, the music takes on a sour tone, befitting of the atrocities you're committing.
Scaring the stuffing out of the bears: it's the sort of thing you shouldn't enjoy. But you will.
Even if you don't care about the points, you can't really take a stealth option anyway. The areas give you forest grass in which you can hide in, but the second a bear glimpses naughty they become worried. The worry spreads, and while this gains you points, soon enough the bears are holing themselves up in a house and barricading the doors. Even if you get by without being seen, the first bear you kill attracts enough attention for the result to end very much the same. The only option available for you is a full on assault on them. Stealth be dammed apparently.
So it's apparently not a stealth game, but some sort of hack-'n'-slash action game - only the control is awful, the camera is skittish, the combat is reduced to one button and the areas are repetitive. Throughout the seven scenarios there are about five areas, endlessly rehashed with different objects scattered around. This is the sort of thing I'd expect from an average sort of arcade title - not a full retail release! There's a bunch of 'ultra-kills' you can do, and they accurately convey the sort of violent, cartoon humour the game relishes in, but each item and each weapon has only one animation, and it won't take long for you to tire of them.
The games concept is interesting though, and aside from the atrocious gameplay, it's actually handled pretty well. The narration reads like it's from a frozen-smiled sociopath caressing a knife, and the stark contrast between the cutesy visuals, story-book sounds and the brutal gameplay works well to create a dark undertone which will either repulse or enthuse you. The visuals, while simple, work fine for portraying the bright, happy colours of perfection island, and the sky blurs off into the distance with a nice pastel blur. The sound too plays an adequate role, with the bears making muffled little pips and squeaks as they go about their jolly business, and then later, muffled noises of distress as they find out Giggles and Sunbeam have been caught in bear-traps and had their necks snapped. From the in-game visuals, the menus, the art direction, and the sound it's all about giving that juxtaposition to the horrific slasher-movie violence that makes up the gameplay.
Contextual kills, while fun to watch, are always the same, and they eventually lose their impact.
While playing the game isn't particularly fun, there's a fair amount to do in it. While you'll still be traversing the same areas, each scenario puts you up against a variety of different enemies, including police bears, army bears, robo-bears, zombie bears and alien bears. These bears offer different challenges, which can add some variety to the otherwise stagnant gameplay. There are sub-scenarios as well, whereupon you'll be asked to finish the level killing all the bears, not getting hit, not getting seen, or turning all bears insane. Completing all this to win the highest accolades gives you new costumes for naughty bear which offer in-game stat increases such as more power, or higher health. While you'll need to sink alot of time to unlock all this content, the truth is that the gameplay is so tedious and repetitive, that you probably won't want to bother.
There's a multiplayer component as well, where you'll stagger slowly around with a cake while your enemies attack you so they can have it, or a two-on-two team game where you try to capture the other teams statue. It's baffling, useless and feels more lazy than even the single player.
Bottom Line:Naughty Bear has a solid concept - mix the ultra cutesy aesthetic of teddy-bears and their perfection island with brutal, relentless violence. It succeeds in its dark humour. The game is initially fresh and funny but the awful control, repetitive level design and shallow gameplay mean the merits of the games concept are quickly garrotted, stabbed and then drowned in a pool of syrup, skittles and candy-floss.
As always, please leave comments and particularly constructive criticism on the writing - I'm here to learn. =p