Review: Alphabear 219 Sep 2018 1
Review: Alphabear 2
Released 04 Sep 2018
With each turn, little tiles bearing individual letters count down to zero before ultimately being frozen in stone, but by chaining them together into words, these tiles transform into bears and grow into larger bears. This is Alphabear, and it’s a classic formula, so natural and fun that one might mistakenly believe it was discovered rather than designed. Alphabear 2 is almost strictly a better game in every respect, with more interactions and play-modes as well as better scaling, not to mention an in-game dictionary for the curious. It is perhaps the snazziest, coziest, smartest word game you can play on the go. This sounds like a dream and it’s mostly accurate, for Alphabear 2 plays like one too, but its ‘honey’ energy timers never go away even with the paid, fully-unlocked version. So the perfect word game is dragged down to an only slightly unbearable reality.
Alphabear 2 has a lot of bells and whistles, and a fairer monetization, but its spelling-whiz challenges are as good as they’ve ever been. The game’s transparency is perhaps its greatest strength. Each level has a point cutoff, with this goal score easily broken down. Each turn clearly spells out what a word is worth (just the simple sum of its constituent letter values), and last but not least, the big bear bonus. At the end of the match, either when a board is full or no words can be spelled, the largest bear is worth its area times four, in points. (So a 5x4 bear is worth eighty points.)
That’s it. The best turns have long words, sometimes easily recognized common words but more often than not obscure ones (almost obnoxiously so). But success creates suffering: a big turn opens up many more letters ticking down ominously, begging the speller to keep up the momentum and add more long words or else lose key central letters. This is one way Alphabear 2 encourages and rewards perfectionism, the other is with its ‘Big Bear Bonus,’ which offers special (cosmetic player character costume) currency for a perfect clear. With some letter layouts, this is a trivial accomplishment, but for many it feels like something special, especially during the hurly-burly of timed stages.
In terms of planning and strategy, there are a few strong points in Alphabear 2’s favor. First, the bears are ‘equipped’ before each level and give multipliers to this final score. Besides choosing Zombie Bear, Lucky Bear, Cleopatra Bear for their scoring potential, they also each contribute passive perks or potent active abilities to tweak the levels. The Hollywood Ingenue Bear (not her actual name) makes S letters 50% more likely to spawn, while the Zombie bear adds an active which reveals ‘ZZZ’ on the board. These custom loadouts offer a pretty big influence on how the actual play unfolds, which means the sheer variety of bears to collect isn’t cute or cosmetic but instead mostly functional.
There are about twenty levels to each stage, and ten stages. The hapless young bear has created a break in the space-time continuum which must be repaired by travelling to every-where and -when whilst spelling like mad. Suffice to say the game doesn't take itself too seriously. The game has a faux-selfie mode after each level with a MadLibs-style random phrase generator. This is a nice touch for those who care and easily glossed over for those who don’t. Ditto for the costumes, earned by accruing red, blue and gold cloth, mostly from perfect clears. Earning a tuxedo for the player avatar isn’t profoundly meaningful, but trying it to performance and consistent high achievement is as good a fit as any. A good look, if you will.
Now for the downsides. The original Alphabear felt a little stale after a while, largely because of two fatal flaws. First, neither the boards nor the bears had any active or deep effects to alter planning in any real way, so each level played out more or less the same. Secondly, later stages were literally impossibly difficult. You see, a bear’s level increases its final score bonus modifier, so by artificially ratcheting up the minimum winning scores, Alphabear (originally) pushed its players to collect and level up bears in order to progress at all. In its endgame, skillful play became secondary to devoted, regular daily sessions. The game is easily great enough to play daily, but that’s no excuse to try to disincentivize other types of engagement.
So is the sequel any better on that front? Well, yes and no. (Mostly yes). Scoring is more transparent, effects are more dynamic, and the collectible aspect is both deemphasized overall and easier to accomplish. Two main currencies, coin and berries, fuel time-machines which work basically like lootboxes for bear unlocks. There’s also a free time-machine once per day, and special clocks to fix for significant resources. Oh, and daily school mode to level up bears. Each of these are pretty useful investments and just as fun as the main mode. It is still possible to get roadblocked from sheer bad luck for days on end, but if players invest their time equally across all game modes, this shouldn’t happen out of the blue.
Oh, and the ads. Ads for honey a few times a day, for faster free time machines, and for bonus loot drops from normal play. It’s about as tastefully done as can be, with one glaring exception. The premium version of the game drops ads completely but still restricts energy (honey). It takes hours for honey to regenerate, true, but it also takes quite a while to spend it all, given how tricky some of the harder stages can be. So the problem isn’t as acute as it would be in other free-to-play titles, but for some hyper-adept spellers who blaze through levels the honey limits will get on your nerves.
Alphabear 2 is a delight, accessible to those wishing merely to sample the gameplay but challenging for those on other end of the spectrum. It’s cute and smart and probably deserves a go from most anyone. If it had a premium-premium infinite energy purchase and less bumpy progression it would be perfect, but it’s still great and endearing as-is.