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Preview: Bears Can’t Drift!?

If you go down to the woods today, you’d better know how to drive.

There’s a real kart-racing drought nowadays. With the indie-sphere bursting with quaint low-res throwbacks, a light-hearted gambol amidst a vibrant, pickup-strewn track is a dwindling notion, populated by little else than the odd Mario Kart. But alas, the karting trend lays nostalgic in many minds. During the screen-hooked Saturdays of my 1990’s childhood, I juggled a love affair with the Playstation One and the Nintendo 64, sparing momentary gawks at Mario Kart 64 and Looney Tunes Racing before propelling myself headlong into Crash Team Racing, my undeniable fave. As a kid I loved every second, and after recently acquainting myself with the woodsy tracks of Bears Can’t Drift!?, I’m proud to report that I haven’t changed a bit.

Developer: Strangely Named Studio
Publisher: Strangely Named Studio
Previewed on: PC
Also Available On: PS4, Xbox One
Release Date: Spring 2016 (PC); PS4 and Xbox One to follow

A review copy was provided by the developer.

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Sprung from the heart of Strangely Named Studio, a large part of Bears is rooted in the past – and that’s not a bad thing at all. Without so much as an introduction, Bears plonks you down into a quaint, Pixar-esque hub world reminiscent of the early Crash Bandicoot games, right down to the shadowy warp room that transports you across Bears’ three whimsical realms. Each world differs in difficulty level, carrying its own distinct theme. The Forest is generally the easiest, whilst the most intricate levels in the game come in the form of a dynamically-hued ancient samurai town, proffering spindly bridges across open, misty ravines. The Christmas-themed Snow worlds, meanwhile, are a challenging mix of the two.

Whilst Crash Team Racing did have a plotline, it always felt secondary to its racing elements – something that Bears appears to recognise from the beginning. You play as a bear, you race in a vibrantly-hued cart, and that’s as close to a storyline as you get. Whilst an initial narrative set-up to propel the player into this hub-world of grizzly motordom could lend some beneficial context at the start of the game, Bears directs its focus on game mechanics fluently – and because of that, races make for generally cohesive, tight and engaging experiences.

Each race is three laps long, supporting up to four players via four-way split screen. As with Mario Kart, races wouldn’t be the same without some dastardly means for sabotage; something Bears accommodates with its own amusingly woodsy pickups. There are explosive fish that can be cannoned towards opponents like aquatic Bullet-Bills, and bee-hives that cover unwary competitors with honey to inextricably slow them down. Pick up a lizard and you’ll be granted a temporary shield, whilst bird totems carry the kart-racer’s prerogative: the good old fashioned speed boost. Combat can get a little convoluted during solo races, as AI opponents tend to use their pickups all at once, but with the satisfying integration of the drift mechanic, this is something that feeds into the game’s challenge level more than anything else, and isn’t particularly bothersome.

Front Bear

There’s also a hearty cast of woodland-dwelling racers to choose from, to bolster your vehicular antics. Snub-nosed grizzlies, skinless ‘skele-bears’ and a red-scarved Coca-Cola mascot lookalike all make their appearance in Bears – amongst an eccentric assortment of others. Given its titular theme, character selection might not be as diverse as it is in a Mario Kart or a Crash Team Racing, but it certainly doesn’t skimp on charm.

There’s a whiff of Diddy Kong Racing in there too. As with Diddy’s item balloons, pickups become more powerful by collecting more of the same item. Snatching four birds, for example, enables the player to launch a mortar-strike at the chump in first place – and during multiplayer matches, it’s really rather satisfying to zip past after curbing a particularly smug opponent. These instances allude to fond retro memories without allowing them to drive the experience, making Bears not only enjoyable to kart-classic enthusiasts, but potentially accessible to those merely looking to enjoy a racer in its own right.

Racing itself feels most akin to Crash Team Racing – with solo matches feeling a smidgeon tougher than those of the PS1 classic. AI traps seem to be set more intelligently, whilst the tracks’ tighter environments make overtaking marginally trickier. Whilst the inspiration is most certainly there, the heightened difficulty does well to prevent both tracks and races feeling like a re-hash; as a result, it’s much easier to enjoy Bears in its own right, without the nostalgic elements overriding its charm. And with twenty years between the PS1 and PS4 – that’s incredibly important.

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Another of Bears’ most delightful idiosyncrasies lies in its select few modes. In addition to the infinite-running Time Trial mode, there’s also Picnic Mode to contend with. Bears aren’t usually known for their mealtime etiquette, and as such the aim here is to consume as much food as possible to fill up a bar at the bottom of the screen. Players hurtle around the track, driving through hamper icons or gathering smaller morsels scattered about the track. First to fill the bar wins.

But simple though it may be, it’s actually one of the game’s most successful aspects in its own right. Naturally, the more food you consume, the fatter your bear gets – a fun little touch that I found hilarious during social head-to-heads, without ever allowing me to lose touch with the immense urgency I felt whilst scrabbling for picnic baskets like a baguette-crazed Yogi Bear.

fat bear

Whilst Bears’ mechanics look reverently back on the past, its vibrant visuals have no trouble embrace the contemporary era with grinning, toon flair. The art style is clean and soft – quite how one might expect a classic-kart remaster to look after all these years. Forest tracks are framed by pillowy pines, whilst many of the ancient lands shine dynamically with piercing natural light. Amongst the most notable visual aspects is the accentuated motion blur accompanying sharp turns. As well as lending a satisfying sense of speed to its winding tracks, it’s something that adds well to the Saturday-Morning cartoon vibe offered up by the cute, rounded design.

Amidst the quaint visual display, it’s the details that pop the most. From the unassuming surveillance cameras concealed in passing trees, to the nonchalant, over-the-shoulder glances of your bear whilst reversing, to the room-full of vaulting supercomputers in the hub-world’s isolated save room, Bears’ novel sense of character certainly yields a chuckle or two, and is something best experienced in good company.

At present, Bears Can’t Drift!? is in Early Access, and despite its gleam and polish in many areas, its patchier elements are very much still visible. Not only are there no menus in the game, but it’s also devoid of text. Save for the title and credits – all settings and customisation features are integrated into Bears’ main world. Thumbing the X button will swap game modes and the select button and analogue sticks will change your bear. Hitting start on the other hand will enable you to pause your game, restart your race, or transport you back home to Bears’ main world.

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Whilst the game’s lack of menu certainly sets the game apart from classic karters, the user interface feels rough, with options borderline confusing. It stops responding to the controller once you use the shoulder buttons to navigate to visual settings. The game also didn’t appear to register changes to my visual settings, and as the resolution is changed by way of a dropdown box, controller users will most likely need to alternate between gamepad and mouse in order to change settings. Whilst the lack of menus and text-based content is unique and could potentially aid Bears‘ accessibility, right now it’s uncommunicative and unwelcoming during the early moments of the game – something that detracts from some of the game’s most commendable attributes.

From a more aesthetic standpoint, the loading screens are a little bland in comparison to the main game, reminiscent more of the buffering network screen of the PSP than anything tied to the PS1. This initially threw me off, as it looked so out of place compared to the charming style of the main game that I thought something had gone wrong, before realising it was part of the title. The screen also causes the odd blip, but most of the technical issues surface (albeit minorly) within races themselves, with use of multiple pickups at once causing small interruptions in frame rate.

How the game sounds, however, is quite another matter. Adorned with a boppy main theme that changes with each world you visit, Bears’ airy soundtrack aligns perfectly with early N64 titles – and it doesn’t feel dated at all. The ancient town, for example, invokes a twangier, koto-driven main theme, whilst my visit to the Arctic realm hummed along to Christmasy jingle-bells as I ploughed past stacks of multicoloured presents.

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And yet, I find myself taking to Bears for another, confetti-streaked lap- and not just because I’m a sore loser. Comprising tight controls and sparkling cartoon visuals, Bears Can’t Drift!? homages what we remember from classic kart-racers, without the technical frustrations their systems often imposed. It’s so close to nailing it as a solid throwback kart-racer it hurts, but its elusive menu choices and unresponsive options stop Bears short of coming first place. Considering Strangely Named’s commitment to addressing technical issues in the past, however, it’s quite possible that between now and its official release later this spring, Bears Can’t Drift?! could go from troubled karting caper to podium straddling champagne-splasher with some further tweaking.

Bears Can’t Drift!? is currently in Early Access on Steam, intended for official release later this spring. At this year’s EGX Rezzed, The Palace of Wisdom caught up with Strangely Named’s Arran Langmead to discuss the game. The interview can be found here.

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Charlie is a platforming romantic from England, that still speaks in a fashion that died with the Elizabethan era. Having been gaming since the days of Crash Bandicoot, he champions the Playstation, and is only a little bit embarassed that Super Mario Land keeps spelling his defeat.

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