I really appreciate when games don't hold your hand. They don't waste time insulting your intelligence, they just set you loose in their playground. They let you strike out on your own, figure things out for yourself, and create something valuable with your own two paws.
Bear And Breakfast doesn't hold your hand. It wraps you up in a gigantic bear hug, and refuses to let you out of its smothering embrace until long after your enthusiasm has evaporated.
It's a hard truth to admit, because the game holds such a wealth of untapped potential. In Bear And Breakfast, you play as Hank - a well-intentioned and curious brown bear who decides to open a bed and breakfast for the humans that have begun to return to the valley. Hank's time is split between taking care of the various motels he has set up, crafting rooms, adding furniture, booking guests - and venturing out into the wild to collect resources for crafting and cooking. Too few management games give you the mix of building and exploration that Bear And Breakfast seemed to promise, and after seeing the charming hand-drawn cartoon artstyle of the game's trailers, I was raring to give the game a try.
After a lengthy opening cutscene and tutorial sequence, during which I sampled some of the dialogue's groan-inducing attempts at humour, I arrived at the site of my first motel. It was broken down and dishevelled, and waiting for me to fix it up. I felt a small pang of disappointment that the place had been pre-built for me, and I couldn't expand the building in any way to make room for more stuff. All I could do was partition the building into different rooms - or rather, different bedrooms, since that was the only room type available to me.
Every small step in the process of repairing this dilapidated motel was rigidly structured in the form of quests, and after each quest I had to run back to the supplier of the quest and click several buttons to explain that I had, in fact, completed the quest. I came to loathe the dialogue portions of Bear And Breakfast with a fiery passion. They spent far too much time indulging in remarkably unfunny and predictable gags, which often boiled down to "I'm a bear, you're a human, we can't communicate properly, hur-dur how droll!". Often I was prompted to pick between two dialogue options, and in every case they clearly both led to exactly the same response, so it became a nuisance more than anything because I was forced to click one more time every time I wanted to get to the next stage of my current building quest.
Not that I found much joy there, either. The building system is unwieldy and needlessly regimented. Before I could start building, I had to repair an existing workbench outside the house, and from then onwards every time I wanted to make a change to the motel, I had to return to that workbench to do so. At the workbench, the first thing I did was try to draw out the area for a nice bedroom that my first human guest could sleep in. Nope, said the game. I needed to place a bed in the room before I could confirm the changes to the building. To make a bed, I needed to exit the building screen, and open up a separate crafting screen, make the bed, then go back into the building screen and remake the room before placing the bed, and then confirming the whole thing. Oh, and once you've placed a room, it's there forever. You can add to it, but you can't take it away. So if you make a mistake with room placement, you just gotta live with it.
Things didn't improve when it came to placing decorative objects. These objects have a global effect on the appeal of your motel, which allows you to book needier guests who will apparently pay more to have their bedroom look like a yard sale, just filled to the brim with plant pots and other knick-knacks. It's presumably important for getting good reviews from your guests. Though I don't actually know for sure, because I got five stars from everyone without trying. I'm not even sure the reviews matter anyway.
Anyway, you can purchase decorative objects at dumpsters in exchange for scraps of garbage, thanks to a raccoon NPC with some very questionable priorities. But these decorations are little more than sprites with attractiveness values tacked on. The guests don't interact with them, and neither do you. I mean, I get it. They're decorative. Sure. But when you place down a mirror in a bedroom, or a jukebox in a foyer, it'd be nice to see guests acknowledge their existence in some small way.
Far from enamoured with the building side of Bear And Breakfast, I finished up my cumbersome repairs, booked my first couple of human guests, and then set off into the wilderness to explore. This, after all, was the thing I was really looking forward to doing, and what I saw as the main selling point of the premise of roleplaying as a bear in a management game. I had guessed that there would be no fighting of enemies, but what I hadn't predicted was just how vehemently the game would discourage exploration.
What I hadn't predicted was just how vehemently the game would discourage exploration.
The world is divided into a dozen or so regions, each of which you can cross in around 30 seconds, so it's not a terribly large map to begin with. I lumbered north of my starting motel and found a sign directing me to a place called Highlake. The way was barred by a road sign, which as we all know is a bear's kryptonite. I ventured south instead, and found a similar sign pointing to the A24. Nope, that area is barred as well, until I complete a certain quest. Fun.
So I spent most of my time shuffling around the three or four areas that I knew I could access, looting whatever I could find. Almost every loot pile I found contained a plethora of items, all of which looked very similar to one another. They all just seemed to give me varying amounts of differently coloured wood or tiles. It made me want to just click "Take All" immediately without even checking what I'd picked up. There didn't seem to be any limit to how much stuff I could carry in my inventory. I'd just go around scooping up everything, and because every piece of loot was highlighted on my minimap, there was no searching involved. I was just moving from point to point, picking up random materials, instead of thinking about what I was getting and where I was getting it from. The only times I found any loot more interesting than just some planks of wood or bricks, it was clearly a unique item that had been placed there for a fetch quest.
Speaking of quests: Bear And Breakfast is a very linear game. You have to complete quest after quest in order to unlock the new areas and advance the plot, but the quests were all so dull. The quests I saw all boiled down to one of three menial tasks: either collect this material from this location; or build a new room in your motel; or sit on your furry arse and wait for X number of guests to complete their stays. At one point, I received that third quest type, so I pottered irritably around until nightfall (because only during night can you skip forward in time), skipped to morning, and watched as my guests all woke up simultaneously and walked straight from their bedrooms out of the building and to the bus stop where they poofed out of existence. I returned to the supplier of that quest. My reward? A pair of pants. And exactly the same quest to complete again.
My reward? A pair of pants. And exactly the same quest to complete again.
The most fun I had playing the game was laughing at some of the bugs and glitches that arose. At one point, a guest leapt into their bed, which was on the opposite side of a wall from them. Another time, a guest walked down the corridor to his bed, but the nosy fucker opened every other bedroom door on the way as he passed them by. And perhaps my favourite flaw: during dialogue sequences, the expressions of characters would change to ones of surprise or rage or embarrassment, but then wouldn't revert back to the default expression when they were clearly meant to do so.
But what about the whole premise of the game? You're a bear. A bear. Surely that means something! Well, after several hours of play, I can answer with a definitive "meh". As far as I can tell, for the most part you could take this game and replace Hank with a human, and only the story would have to change. Almost everything else could stay the same. All it really means to be a bear is that guests hurry past you if you approach them (and even that stopped a little way into the game, as I guess they started to get used to me?), and all the NPCs are rude, mistrustful, and frequently demeaning to you. It's not easy being ursine.
To its credit, the art style never lost its charm. I still love the look of the game, the world, and its characters. The regions were all vibrant and looked full of interesting experiences. They weren't, of course, but that's not the art's fault. Similarly, the sound design and music were clearly made with thought and love, and they helped keep the whimsical charm of the game on life support, even while the game itself began to bug the hell out of me. The music at times felt a bit like a more upbeat Binding Of Isaac, which sacrifices a bit of creativity in order to become much more wholesome. It was pretty good stuff.
Eventually, things did get a little bit better. I unlocked a few new buildings in different regions to build in, and unlocked some more room types besides just bedrooms. I couldn't revisit my first motel and add those new rooms for some reason, but at least I had a teeny tiny bit more freedom and complexity in my new building. I also discovered that buried halfway along the story is a cooking mechanic, which plays out in the form of a very simple minigame where you match actions like "BOIL" to ingredients like "POTATO". It was hilariously straightforward, but at that point, I would happily accept anything that added even a tiny bit more complexity to Hank's day.
Sadly though, I couldn't find any satisfaction in either the building or the exploring. Everything is just so on the rails. Want to go off and do your own thing? No, silly bear. You're not clever enough to do that. First you need to prove yourself by fetching 10 sprigs of sage. There was none of that satisfying management game feeling where everything was slowly expanding and working and coming together. I longed for the freedom to ignore everything that all the rude asshole characters were demanding of me, and disappear into the wilderness and start a new life. A wilder, more open life where my choices mattered and I couldn't predict what the next day's work would bring. But no. There was no breaking free from the well-intentioned but suffocating bear hug.