Although nowhere near enough people ever played it, Artificial Mind And Movement’s previous game – the Grindhouse-themed PS3 and Xbox 360 shooter Wet – is more fully deserving of a critical reappraisal than any videogame since Free Radical’s ignored (and influential) Second Sight from back in 2004. It could be argued that Wet’s dizzying, multiplier-focused score-attack gameplay has directly influenced one of next year’s most feverishly anticipated releases (EA’s mouthwatering Bulletstorm) and whilst its overall visual scrappiness – a result of both its potently grubby aesthetic and an extremely troubled production history – meant that too few gamers ever gave it the time of day. It was certainly no masterpiece, and remains riddled with deeply unfortunate glitches that could infuriate a doorstop, but given half a chance it shone brightly and distinctively.
Pleasingly, Naughty Bear begins where Wet left off, and whilst Wet was definitely worthy of some contempt for its thorough and rather curious dearth of leavening humour, Naughty Bear appears to be a direct riposte to all of those allegations. Because although the concept of Naughty Bear is inherently amusing from the outset, it’s also consistently inventive with it, and despite the (entirely justified) PEGI 12 rating, Artificial Mind And Movement spend the entire duration of the game attempting to get away with as much tasteless tomfoolery as they possibly can, in the hopes that the powers-that-be won’t notice.
And hilariously, they’ve pretty much gotten away with murder. Were this game to have featured almost anything other than cherubic teddy bears, we’d currently be knee-deep in yet another ineffectual tabloid moral panic. The plot is pretty threadbare (each mission begins with a brief and jocular cutscene detailing an amusingly hackneyed reason for Naughty Bear to become murderously vengeful) but its arch and sarcastic tone is so effective, and the sequences of violence so vivacious, that the ‘story’ that you’ll come away talking about will have been almost totally dictated by what you get up to whilst in the ‘field’.
As with Wet, the score is everything. Each level sends Naughty Bear on a different killing spree, and although it’s possible to pass most of them by steaming blindly into action and hacking every bear to pieces with a machete, stealth and sabotage rule the roost where the big points are concerned. Sneaking around in the underbrush, setting bear traps and land mines, and tampering with the environment to arouse suspicion is your ticket to a hot spot on the online leaderboards. You’ll also have to keep a sharp eye on every single bear in each level, as many of them will take any opportunity to flee (via car or boat) or use the telephones (which you can also disrupt) to call the police, who arrive speedily, brandishing some pretty powerful pistols that’ll finish you off in no time.
So avoiding detection is key to earning majestic high-scores, and your multiplier steadily bleeds out in between acts of naughtiness; and simple vandalism doesn’t freeze it anywhere near as succinctly as scaring or maiming a bear does. Each level has clearly been built with replay-factor placed to the fore, and taking note of each level’s structure and each bear’s primary abode (and deciding when it’s best to pick up the multiplier ‘Freeze Capsules’ that are strewn around each level) pays dividends. A bit of careful planning is involved if you want to get the most out each scenario, and the exciting ping of an accelerating score tally quickly becomes extremely gratifying.
You get points for scaring bears, you get points for killing bears (with extra kudos for inventiveness) and you get points for scaring bears via other scared bears. But the most points are reserved for the one part of Naughty Bear that doesn’t ever get old: namely the act of scaring bears to death. After freaking-out a specific teddy a few times, a string of blue bubbles start bobbing around beside its head, denoting impending insanity. Give it one more shock and this bear will use whatever is at its disposal to immediately take its own life. This may sound utterly horrendous to some, but if you see no comedy in the sight of a teddy bear battering itself to death with a baseball bat, you’d probably be best advised to steer clear of this game altogether.
Naughty Bear is far from perfect, and its simple visuals and similarly uncomplicated gameplay pleasures may result in the impatient labeling it as an unfortunate last-gen throwback rather than the proud reminiscence that it resolutely is. There are apparently over two hundred different ways to earn ‘naughty points’ in the game, and because simple repetition results in a depleted score, variety and experimentation are encouraged at every turn. Online multiplayer options are excellent (many of them are witty spin-offs from the modes included in the N64’s seminal Goldeneye) and for those who take the time to play it as it was meant to be played, there is content galore. Overall, Naughty Bear is refreshingly amusing and agreeably addictive, and more than worthy of your time.