The mobile gaming market has always been a strange place to me. I’ve never thought that it couldn’t be an avenue for some legitimately good games, capable of telling a story or being an experience, I’ve just never really seen it been done. It seems every game that comes out for mobile devices is made to be a quarter of an experience, that can be sold back to you at very small, easy payments (*cough* clash of clans, candy crush, and almost every mobile game out there *cough*)
But don’t get me wrong. I do agree that as games, stuff like Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Where’s my Water and all that stuff that came out to extend your BMs by three hours, we’re fun enough to play. They worked in that old kind of arcade experience where games were just games, made for fun and I guess to a greater extend, to suck quarters out of your pockets.
So I guess it’s always a refreshing experience when I find stuff like Alphabear on the mobile market, a free-to-play fun little word-based puzzler that has arcade fundamentals mixed with minor RPG elements (but that’s probably being generous), available for both android and iOS.
Alphabear plays a bit like scrabble with some minor puzzle elements. Players are given boards that contain letter blocks. As players combine these letters to make words, they’re rewarded with points, and the blocks take the form of little bears. As players use letters surrounding the bears, the bears begin to get longer, taller, or bigger in overall size. Once the round is over, the player is given points for each bear on the board, bigger bears equal more points, ideally trying to turn the board into one giant bear. What’s more, every day brings new challenges, with different objectives and themes, like Sundays not allowing the letters W,O,R and K.
However, it’s not as simple as it sounds. Each letter block is given a number of turns and every time the player makes a word, that number ticks down by one. If the player goes without using a letter and its counter hits zero, the letter becomes an immovable stone, worthless in points and disrupting the growth of bears. Players need to have keen eyes and a sharp vocabulary if they’re going to combine letters that are on the brink of becoming stones, but it gets tricky when you have an H, a J, a P and an N all on their last limbs, so there’s a bit of strategy in managing letters, saving the ones that have a longer countdown and being able to create words out of the ones that are on their way out.
But I bet you’re wondering “Ninja-Jordan, what do the bears do exactly?” Well, besides rewarding you with points at the end of the level, by reaching target scores players can unlock new bears, all of which have different abilities that can assist the player. The “EASY bear” for example rewards bonus points to the letters E,A,S,and Y, while the “Pirate bear” increases the likeliness of getting A’s and R’s. It adds a nice layer of depth to the otherwise simple gameplay, and it gives the game a feeling of character and personality. Also, besides just unlocking new bears, acquired bears can be leveled up to make the amount of points they get greater at higher levels.
While the game is free, it does suffer from some minor “freemium” elements which come in the form of the game’s two forms of currency. The first is honeycombs, which are required to play the game as each level has a certain “buy-in” of honeycombs. If players don’t have enough honeycombs to play a level, they can either wait, as the honeycombs replenish themselves one by one every two minutes both in and out of gameplay, however the replenish pool caps at 120. Players can choose to shell out real dollars for more honeycombs or use the games other form of currency: the silver dollars, to buy more honeycombs. The silver dollars can be acquired through playing the game, but if you find you just don’t have enough to satisfy your Alphabear needs, you can also play real dollars for more coins. While these kinds of “free-to-wait,” “fee-to-pay” tactics do bother me, the game isn’t wholly dependent on them, and works well as a fun little mobile experience.
Alphabear has a very cute, minimalist style. Conforming to the boundaries of the mobile screen, it’s one of the few games that doesn’t use the landscape mode and actually uses the shape of the screen in its design, making everything, including the bears, square. It has nice soft pastel colors and all the bears are very cute, unique and well designed.
Honestly, this is a tough one, because there really isn’t much in the way of music in Alphabear, outside the 30-second loop main theme that plays in the level select screen. While I think the lack of music does help the game a little as it does help the player concentrate a little better, I think a little Professor Layton-esk, puzzle theme would’ve been nice. The bears make cute little growls and groans every now and again which I guess counts as sound.
Alphabear is a neat little game, and one of the few mobile games I’ve played in a while that actually impressed me, enough to actually write a review about. If you find yourself needing something new to play on the bus and have your phone handy, I’d say it’s definitely worth a play. It’s certainly better than that hackneyed, Scrabble rip-off: “Words with Friends” that everyone raved about and was fun for exactly two minutes.