I previewed Bears Can’t Drift?! back in April, towards the end of its year-long stint on Steam’s Early Access. Developed by the predominantly one-man-band at Strangely Named Studio, the concept of a retro-inspired kart racer felt promising – even more so given the prominent lack of them nowadays. But alas, the nostalgic waters of childhood are notoriously acidic to tread, and no matter how alluring retro-homage might sound on the tin, it’s all too easy for games to read as patchy renditions of their technically limited ancestors.
So what a relief it is to find that Strangely Named largely succeeds. With its heart very much rooted within the PlayStation-N64 era, Bears Can’t Drift?! knows what it is, and makes a point of asserting itself with its clean, to-the-minute visuals and no-nonsense approach to gameplay.
Developer: Strangely Named Studio
Publisher: Strangely Named Studio
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Also Available On: PC, Xbox One
Release Date: Out now for PC & PS4; Xbox One to follow
A review copy was provided by the developer.
While the seminal Crash Team Racing remains at the heart of the game’s inspiration, Bears recognises the trappings narrative can present with a title so reliant on gameplay, dispensing with the zany premises and contextual cutscenes that often slowed its grandfather. Instead, all Bears‘ tutorials are visual, existing in (mostly) self-explanatory symbols and suggestive level-design, with any ambiguity resolved upon further exploration. While narrative dedicates might find themselves questioning just how they landed in this odd domain racked with ursine motorists, Bears‘ straightforward approach lends a refreshing purity to each of its twelve races, both visually and mechanically.
Love-letters to the 32-bit era are traceable throughout, from the Crash Bandicoot-style warp room, to the overt Spyro references made by the vibrant host lands the player must explore to access races. If, like me, you grew up with the PlayStation One, world-exploration will likely prove nostalgic; something that could all too easily have undermined the game’s longevity. Luckily though, Bears provides enough originality to keep itself afloat, proffering its own sunny realms to house its bear-related antics.
Visually speaking, not much has changed since the game left Early Access – and honestly, that’s no crime. The softened art style summons the cheerful impression of a Pixar short, as each teleportable realm is lit with the contemporary sparkle of an old-school karting reboot. While the Forest domain will have you tearing through rustic, toadstool-studded glades, the Arctic’s gorgeous lighting to really make tracks pop.
But for all its playful homage, Bears affords time enough to celebrate its small uniquities. This is a world flecked with toonish eccentricity, where red-eyed security cameras peer suspiciously from treetops, and collisions are met with tiny flurries of stars. In an over-saturated market of retro-clones and sparkling revamps, originality’s a precious thing – and there’s just enough here to beckon a second go.
The motion blur attached to the game’s drifting mechanic has thankfully remained, rendering sharp turns alluringly sleek, coupled with the tight control scheme. Levels generally feel more cohesive this time round, making it harder to get lost, but apart from a few design tweaks to help navigability, it’s very much the same world I entered back in April. And I’m really rather glad.
Stages observe a similar familiarity. Races are still three laps long, with each of the game’s tracks differing in challenge level. While not at all necessary, you’ll likely begin your adventure in the Forest, whose winding roads and clear-cut layout provide comfortable terrain to acquaint newcomers with Bears‘ playstyle. Races rapidly complexify, however, with later levels unfolding across ornate, ancient villages comprised of multi-leveled bridges and perilous, misty chasms. Quite needless to say, you’ll want to work on your drifting if you want to survive the game’s nip-tuck turns.
As was the case before, racing feels a tighter version of Crash Team Racing, with its narrower tracks and playful AI offering up a slightly greater challenge than Naughty Dog’s prior creation. Where CTR’s vehicular goons tended to lay pickups out in the open, you’ll more often encounter traps laid just behind usable items; a wry nod to those naughty strategies we all descended into during our original multiplayer tirades.
The game’s cheerful cast of grizzly racers resurfaces unchanged. Whilst it certainly can’t compare to the diversity of Mario Kart, Bears Can’t Drift?! extends a charming collection of drivers with just enough variety to heighten the goofy humour. Not only can you take to the wheel as a chunky, chocolate grizzly or a harmless panda-fellow, there are also chromium robots and prehistoric sabre-tooths on offer, to suit the whims of the wacky. I continue to opt for the Crash Dummy, myself. I’m destructive like that.
Proffering a neat, cell-shaded aesthetic, the game’s nature-themed pickups appear more defined on the PS4. Like Diddy Kong Racing‘s balloons, stockpiling certain items allows weapons to grow in power. Pickup stacking seems to have been made a touch easier too, now requiring only two of the same item to receive a supercharged attack, instead of the previous four. Catching two lizards sees your bear taunting opponents with derisive chicken calls, while doubling-up birds enables you to take out first place with a decimating mortar-strike. Dick Dastardly, eat your heart out.
But if clobbering your enemies begins to wear thin, there’s also two alternative modes to dive into. While the looping Time Trial proves a punchy arcade romp, those in the mood for silliness can sink their teeth into Picnic Mode: an amusing add-on that sends players zooming about a basket-strewn track in the ultimate food fest. Armed with a satiety bar at the bottom of the screen, players must consume as much as possible, by driving into baguettes, hot-dogs and various sweet treats in a race to beef-up. The more grub you guzzle, the fatter your character becomes, and though multiplayer matches can get a little heated – the tension soon turns to hilarity as bears are encumbered by their new-found flub.
While not a terrific amount has changed since my gambol in Early Access, it must be noted that Bears feels much cleaner than was previously seen. The unresponsive visual options have been binned, sorting the handful of freezing glitches that made it impossible to adjust settings – at least on the PS4 version.
The buffery-PSP loading screen has also seen a slight revamp, and while still a far cry from the spangling aesthetic of the main game, it now fits in well enough not to mimic an error screen.
Character AI also seems to have calmed down since leaving Early Access. Where before I found myself dive-bombed by multiple pickups at once, these fluffy combatants are marginally more sympathetic, with rocket launchers, shields and beehives activated more evenly across solo matches. Races feel more fluid as a result, with any blips in framerate now minor and certainly not game-breaking. There was one instance in which I was prevented from ending a race due to laps not registering correctly, but the problem gratefully abated after a quick re-do. Thanks to Bears‘ autosave mechanic, lost progress is nary an issue.
The soundtrack remains as cheerfully afloat as ever amongst the game’s airy visuals. The main theme wouldn’t feel out of place in an N64 menu screen, with each distinct realm carrying its own melodic quirks. From the bouncy techno rhythms of the main warp room, to the festive sleighbells of the Arctic region, Bears’ feel-good soundtrack is overlain in a welcome simplicity that prevents its repetition from grating. The odd static hum crops up to distract now and again, but it’s a generally minor niggle amidst the otherwise pleasing score.
Bears Can’t Drift!? is an endearing mashup of kart-racer memories, flaunting the bygone systems of the PS1 and N64, without the technical hangups. Whilst it’s true some issues remain, they’re now far from game-breaking, and having successfully bridged the gap from Early Access indie to PS4 newcomer, it’s even easier to enjoy the ride with friends in the backseat.
You can check out Strangely Named Studio’s official website here.