Review: Naughty Bear

Naughty Bear is a sociopath. When he isn’t invited to a fellow bear’s soiree (Daddles’ birthday party; the event of the year, no doubt) he deals with this rejection in what is perhaps the most unhealthy manner one could think of: the mass murder of a quaint little community of bears. Armed with a variety of weapons (axes, pistols, baseball bats, you name it) he’s on a mission to punish each and every fluffy cuddle buddy on Perfection Island who ever dared to cross him. But he can’t do it alone. That’s where you come in. In 505 Games’ latest stab at an original release, Naughty Bear, takes up the mantle of the “naughtiest” bear of them all. He’s crass, angry, and, well, naughty. He’s suffered humiliation and anguish at the hands of his so-called friends and neighbors, and it’s your job to ensure justice is served…in that psychotic, no-regard-for-others kind of way.

The game advertises quite the rollicking premise: beat the stuffing out of your mortal enemies in a “cuter,” more tongue-in-cheek way than, say, games like Rampage or Manhunt. Unfortunately, like in childhood, that’s where the sidewalk ends. Naughty Bear, despite valiant attempts at accomplishing otherwise, is a veritable exercise in mediocrity. Only two levels into my review run-through, it became the less favorable option to going to work, mowing the lawn, or organizing my sock drawer. That’s when I knew there was a problem.

Naughty Bear is all about beating your fellow teddy bears to death, burying machetes in their stomachs, setting them ablaze, and eventually driving them to suicide. You know, kid stuff. I was shocked when I learned the game is only rated T by the ESRB, but then realized that eviscerating such cuddly victims mustn’t merit the same hard ‘M’ that games celebrating more realistic violence and mayhem are slapped with. The game spans seven main levels, each with their own subset of missions with unique goals to accomplish. You might need to track down a certain bear ripe for “punishment,” complete an area without taking damage (difficult to do with collision detection this horrible), or refrain from killing anything at all – a frustrating exercise in self-restraint.

Each level opens with a sprinkling of a “story” to guide to the game’s wanton destruction. First, he wasn’t invited to a birthday party. Next, he gets tangled up in some dirty politics. It’s really all downhill from there. If you make it through all seven episodes, you’ll find aliens, ninjas, and zombies to contend with in the exact same manner you yawned through previously. There’s little variation in the fresh meat, er, bears save for color or decor such as hats, police garb, etc. Get used to the island and its inhabitants. You’re going to become good friends.

To enable Naughty Bear’s terrifying behavior, you’ll pick up several different items scattered across the island: baseball bats, sticks, axes, and even pistols. Pick up a weapon (or use your bear paws) and proceed to bash skulls in. You can button mash a bear to death and quickly use the right trigger to perform a kill with your weapon of choice, or utilize several points littered across the maps to pull off environmental kills, none of which are particularly entertaining but certainly predictable. It’s a thrill to watch a bear bury an axe in another’s skull…the first few times. Anything after that begins to grate on the nerves. Yeah, it was thrilling to watch dressphere transformations in Final Fantasy X-2 while the spectacle was fairly new. Started to skip them after the first thousand times though, didn’t you?

The game gives the illusion of variety, when in reality each and every mission requires much of the same thing of you, in the same locations, using the same weapons. For example, technically you can play Naughty Bear one of three ways. You can can go on an all-out rampage to take out as many bears as fast as you can to feed your combo meter, chaining senseless violence together with an absolutely lazy, NOT scary “BOO!” in an attempt to scare the plush toys out of their wits for extra points. Smash balloons, statues, and household fixtures. Burn precious gifts found around the island. Decimate the place and maximize the damage before moving on to the next area.

Option two? Take your time, creeping through the grass where Naughty Bear will automatically attempt to cover himself with foliage. Sabotage the bears’ belongings and catch them unaware either to pull of a particularly heinous kill or scare them silly, perhaps enough so that they pull the trigger on their own little fluffy heads. In short, channel your inner Garrett. Taff your way through the homes of your half-wit victims and ensure they walk into their own demise.

The third way? It’s less an option on its own than just straight advice: play a combination of both tactics because Naughty Bear is all about maximizing points via multipliers and combo chains. In essence, anything that sees you taking the time to attempt creativity in killing off the bears is discouraged. I found that I made much quicker progress simply by planting an axe in each bear I found, quickly triggering a kill, then rinsing and repeating. I applaud the direction the game touts as the “best” way to play — premeditation, cunning, and imaginative ways to toy with your prey — but it becomes apparent early on that running around like a furry serial killer is what’s necessary to really get by, especially since you need to participate in sub-challenges in order to unlock the main episodes. They don’t unlock through sheer will alone and those party hats and Naughty Bear costumes won’t magically appear unless you put in a little work. Work that you aren’t going to want to do.

If it weren’t enough that the game practically forces you to play in a manner that isn’t entertaining, it’s full of frustrating glitches and game-breaking freezes. Not once, twice, or even three times was I plagued by my entire game freezing upon journeying to the next part of the island or Naughty Bear’s lair, but a whopping eight times before I just gave up. The first few were misdemeanors – I chalked them up to my aging Xbox 360, but research confirmed these issues are present in the PlayStation 3 version as well, I was increasingly ready to begin using the disc as a coaster. It’s this kind of issue that consistently breaks any sort of feeling of involvement I had with the game as a “real” adventure or even an enjoyable little beat-’em-up. Let’s not forget the countless environmental kills where the stodgy camera decided to focus on the trees behind Naughty Bear’s head rather than the carnage going on in front of the player.

All of these factors simply blended together to convince me that my time was better spent elsewhere. And should you encounter them, I have a feeling your mind will be made up for you as well. It makes you want to grab your own teddy bear and shed a few tears, doesn’t it? I am deeply disappointed, as I initially and quite gleefully followed the many trailers and niceties like classic horror costumes for Naughty Bear with a song in my heart.

The shallow gameplay mechanics, shoddy graphics, and miserable excuse for a commentator were the cherry on top of a cake filled with unexpected, bitter jelly. I find it absolutely laughable that it is expected you will pay full price for an inane adventure that would be better served as a throwaway XBLA or PSN title. When even dark humor and over-the-top violence can’t save your game, perhaps it’s a good idea to downsize an intended full retail release. Oh ho ho! The bears “bleed” stuffing and “cute” cop bears come to the island to try and bring order to the havoc. One cop, mind you. It’s hilarious because these cute things should not be violent! No. It’s not. It could have been. It could have been a blast! Unfortunately, all the could haves and would haves can’t save this product from what it’s destined for: a tomb at the bottom of the bargain bin.

With a title and a premise like Naughty Bear, it seems impossible to walk away from the game with the feeling that you wasted your money. But as Juliet lamented, “what’s in a name?” In this case, everything. In fact, that’s all this game really has going for it. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to save it from absolute, soul-sucking mediocrity. And it pains me to say this as I’m one who routinely looks for releases that go above and beyond the call of duty (both literally and figuratively) to bring something new to the table. This excellent premise is wasted with clunky, repetitive gameplay and a host of other irreparable issues. And it’s such a shame that what could have been a delightful, tongue-in-cheek jab at games such as Manhunt or even Grand Theft Auto is really, like its cast of characters, so full of fluff. Perhaps it’s time for Naughty Bear to be locked away for good.

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