Wot I Think: Alphabear – Hardcover Edition

The process from phone to PC is often a troubled one. But how does a long-time mobile favourite fare with its transition to Alphabear: Hardcover Edition [official site]? Here’s wot I think:

Alphabear is one of my absolute favourite mobile games. I played it to death, comprehensively completing it (before losing progress to a phone change), and even broke it in places by being really good at it. 15 letter words, it turned out, weren’t expected, and messed up the display at the end of games.

The game is a really splendid interpretation of the classic ‘make words from a grid of letters’ formula that’s been around since Boggle. Here, a grid of tiles each contain a letter, but are only displayed when you’ve formed a word using an adjacent tile. So not only must you discover words you can spell from the limited selection, but also select them tactically, such that you best open up more of the grid – or indeed, not open too much of it at once. Because tiles also have a countdown number on them, ticking down with each turn, and turning to immovable stone once they hit 0.

It’s the combination of these tactics, alongside the satisfaction of spelling out a good long word from the randomly selected letters, that makes it such a strong formula. Add in timed levels, and indeed grids with obstacles to make progress more tricky, and then the unlockable bonus bears from which you pick a selection allowing you to improve your final score (perhaps by increasing the likelihood of a particular letter, or adding more seconds to a timed level, or adding on huge percentages of bonus scores), and you’ve got a properly great puzzle game.

So news of a PC version, with the title Hardcover Edition, seemed splendid. It’s been two years since the mobile version was released, so there’s a decent amount of time that could have gone into reinventing it for a desk or laptop, perhaps with new game modes, new, larger grids for bigger screens, multiplayer options…

It doesn’t even have separate sound and music controls.

This is an anticlimactic, if very high def, port of the game, that absolutely takes no advantages of the new platform, right down to not even bothering with proper resolution options. (You can resize the window, but at certain sizes the in-game presentation breaks.) And indeed, it’s not possible to play with the useful sound effects on, without also having the irritating music, because, er, that’s how it is on the phone.

The newly landscape presentation takes little advantage of what it could offer, never making smart use of the new space, say telling you what type of game you’re selecting bears for on the bear selection screen. It’s still behind a button click, when there’s absolutely no need. In fact, the now wide rather than long screen should make much more sense for level selection, but instead it doesn’t automatically scroll to put the new main level in the centre any more.

What it has added is a learned bear who pops up with definitions of the words you’re spelling. That’s a nice touch, although it’s too slow to keep up with the pace in timed levels. It also has some odd holes in its dictionary. “HATSTAND”, “ORANGER” for instance, bemused it. That’s further odd because the game accepts these words, just doesn’t know them, which also includes a lot of those desperate might-be-a-word words you could try out in a tight spot. More annoying is completely absent words, like “MACARON” – familiar to any Bake Off fan, but not Alphabear. It’s also peculiarly shy, ignoring one particular swear despite including all of the others. I’ll leave you to discover which one that is – the definitions certainly make spelling out rude words a lot more entertaining.

One of Alphabear’s charming little features is the way it creates a sort of Madlibs-style collection of sentences at the end of a round, putting in words you’ve created to make silly statements. All the better when you’ve managed to make rude or unpleasant words. And on mobile, this then came with the super-smart option to plaster that image all over social media at a button tap. Smart because it’s fun, and smart because it was a great way of getting players to promote the game. So it’s especially odd that the PC version reduces this feature to a Steam screenshot. Why no Twitter and Facebook button?! I want to share the time I got it to say, “Ejaculation: it’s what’s for dinner”! (Fortunately I work for a website with millions of readers, but hey, some people are less fortunate than me.)

So in the end, this is still Alphabear, and Alphabear remains a lovely, smart puzzle game. It still sports Spry Fox’s utterly gorgeous drawings, and the bear designs – of which there are dozens and dozens – are still just as lovely. But it’s nothing new. There’s the Verses (the spelling deliberate) Mode, that lets you play a game and then challenge others, but again the obvious option of sharing that challenge on social media is entirely removed. Instead it ambiguously informs me my friends have been challenged, which I assume is via Steam, but not in any obvious way. And there’s the daily challenge, which is on the phone too.

This was crying out for a new version, an evolution of Alphabear better suited for bigger screens. Something that might make sense of the newly added “Hardcover Edition” mantle. Instead we’ve got a slightly less good version of the two year old phone game. Which is still a top game, but, you know, not really something to write home about.

Alphabear: Hardcover Edition is out now for PC and Mac for £7/$10/10€ via Steam.

20 Comments

  1. lancelot says:

    I used to like checking if a dictionary contained my favorite naughty words. But then again, I was 7.

  2. Drib says:

    It’s too bad they just directly ported it without considering how much better the PC can be for a lot of things.

    Still, it’s a cutesy word game. Have to admit I’m pretty tempted.

  3. Neurotic says:

    Is it UK or US English?

  4. icarussc says:

    John, one very important bit you left out (though I quite agree with you otherwise!): you can play directly with the keyboard, and don’t need to click/tap on letters. This makes the game much faster to play.

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    Don Reba says:

    Exactly what the pedobear would say.

  6. Danc says:

    Designer for Alphabear here. Appreciate the review! Very fair and raises some good points. We’ll see what we can do to make the game better.

    The dictionary completeness is a fascinating problem. We’ve pieced together multiple word lists and dictionaries with tons of manual editing. But the lists of valid words always ends up being more complete than the dictionary definitions. Language is awesome in its vastness.

  7. Ooops says:

    Coming from the studio that brought us Triple Town, I’m not surprised by this review. That game, when transitioning from freemium mobile to PC, kept all of the grinding and ruined a great game idea in the process. I hope they learn how to do a PC version of their games, eventually.

    • Eight Rooks says:

      Uh, Triple Town’s basic design has nothing to do with “grinding”; that just depends on how badly you want to be top of the leaderboards. The mobile version was exactly the same. Pay for one IAP, never pay anything again unless you’re utterly desperate to beat your friends’ high scores for some reason. I thought it was a bad choice – I’d have removed high score chasing from it entirely, tbh, since it is basically pay-to-win, for want of a better expression. But resigning yourself to the fact you’re probably never going to get the big points otherwise hardly ruins the game.

      Oh, and while I can’t remember what bells and whistles the PC version of Road Not Taken did or did not have, it ran fine for me, the UI never once felt compromised or awkward or limited in any way, and while the game was not without its flaws I still absolutely loved it.

    • Danc says:

      Interesting history on Triple Town. Originally it was the first indie games on the doomed e-ink Kindle game platform. Ha, that didn’t work out! But we liked the game, so eventually we built versions for mobile and PC. But it turns out that the PC version and the mobile version are two totally different code bases. Different engines, different graphics.

      For the PC version, we experimented with a town building meta-game with collecting crafting resources. And of course there was no IAP since it was a freemium game.

      With Alphabear on Steam, we also made a bunch of changes.
      – Made it premium and took out all the purchases and timers.
      – Rebalanced the campaign for a lot less grind. The hope was you could play through like a typical PC campaign and feel you ‘beat’ the game. There’s a game plus feature as well for folk that want to keep going.
      – Added keyboard support and the dictionary. Dictionary is my favorite addition.
      – Updated the layout to be PC friendly

      Amusingly, our goal was to make this the most PC version of Alphabear we could. But that’s game development. Sometimes you hit the ball. Sometimes you miss. Best we can do is listen and try to improve.

  8. JB says:

    The best rude(ish?) end-game Alphabear screen I ever managed was this one. Still makes me chuckle.

    link to i.imgur.com

  9. Dave Mongoose says:

    I am slightly bemused by the definition “Male Semen”: I wasn’t aware there were other kinds of semen?

    Also, ‘oranger’ should not be a word no matter what the dictionary says. ‘More orange’, never ‘oranger’.

  10. DancesWithSheep says:

    I used to love this on iPad but they suddenly overhauled the scores with such large numbers they became meaningless. If I scored 9500 aiming for 10000 I knew where I was but then I was suddenly scoring 1067891 out of 11674412. With the former score I knew the values of slightly improving but the big numbers made it meaningless so I deleted it.

  11. Merus says:

    When I played it on my phone, the value of creating words was marginal so long as you could keep ahead of the timers, and what actually scored you points was the massive score bonuses from the bears. It really robbed the game of its fun once I realised that making tricky words didn’t matter. Did they revise that design in this version? It’s unclear.

    • JackMultiple says:

      I got the game on my iPhone, and then downloaded it on the iPad hoping for a greater experience. But it’s portrait-only, and I only use my iPad in Landscape mode. So I had to delete it on the iPad. Really hoped it would work on iPad, but it didn’t.

      Oops… meant to reply to Merus above. Oh well.

    • Premium User Badge

      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      That’s how any crossword game works though. Scrabble is the same way. You don’t win by the words you make but how you play the board.

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