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Bear-ly there, December 24, 2021
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)
I mentioned in my review of Finding Light that I was surprised to go so late in the Comp before finding a puzzley fantasy adventure – and here we are half a dozen entries further in, getting to the first game that centers on a kid. Despite the fact that you’re playing as an off-brand Care Bear, Brave Bear isn't particularly whimsical. There’s a creepy vibe to the dark presences that are scattered around the bear’s owner’s house, and the threat they pose seems darker than the toy-focused premise led me to expect. Unfortunately, this short game withholds the full picture of the plot, leaving inference to fill in the nature of the danger, and it also ends pretty quickly, with only a few simple puzzles to solve before the thing is done – there’s enough here to intrigue but not, alas, to satisfy.
The premise, of toys coming to life to help their owner, is a nice one, and the basics are definitely covered. Thematically, it’s all about the power of togetherness, and solving the puzzles requires building a team: recruiting other toys gives you the strength you need to banish the threatening miasmas that gate progress through the house (I imagined the Care Bear Stare, given my demographic). This is satisfying to work through, and the supporting cast – a Transformer, a toy car, several stuffed animals – are briefly but satisfyingly sketched. They also have a few abilities that are used to get the band together. These challenges are all simple enough, though they feel quite old school, since most of them require a CHARACTER, ACTION command syntax that I associate with Infocom games. The ABOUT text flags that this will be required, though, so it’s all fair enough.
I’m struggling to find much more to say about Brave Bear, though, since it doesn’t do much with this solid framework. This isn’t just a matter of its brevity; first, the owner and her relationship to your protagonist feel very archetypal, without much lived-in detail. Similarly, the house is quite generic, with the room descriptions spending more time mentioning exits to other parts of the map than offering up any scenery or anything that offeres a window into the owner’s life. Nor is the origin of the evil phantoms haunting the house ever explained, and the game ends without a climactic action showing the Bear rescuing the owner – there’s some mysterious ending text that hints at the real story, but it’s pretty thin gruel. It’s all implemented smoothly enough and it goes down easy, but I can’t help wishing Brave Bear had a little more to it – there’s a down side to wearing out one’s welcome, of course, but the game errs too much in the other direction.
Highlight: I liked the other toys, who definitely have a spark of personality coming through – my favorite was the nervous Transformer.
Lowlight: I was enjoying the game for what it was, so I was sorry to reach the overly-conclusory ending so soon.
How I failed the author: Henry was feeling a bit fussy while I was playing Brave Bear, so I was only able to play it in five minute chunks in between seeing to him, which probably made it hard for me to integrate all the different hints as to what’s going on.