Alphabear is Great, But Its Model Feels Lopsided

Jul 15, 2015 by

Alphabear Share Picture

Clearly a member of House Bolton.

UPDATE 07/18: As of the latest game update, players can now freely select which chapter they want to play. This makes a big difference and Spry Fox clearly listened to players. My one quibble with the select is it tends to drop you back into latest chapter, but it’s easiyl changed.

I’m enjoying Spry Fox’ latest game, Alphabear, which has launched a partial takeover of both my Twitter feed and private messages with friends lately with its sharp, current selfie function when acquiring new bears. Some of your spelled words appear in a preset line or two, Mad Libs style, often leading to amusing results. The game is cute, it’s fun, and several aspects of it both keep some players coming back for more and others taking issue with gameplay and the way the developer monetizes the game.

When you start Alphabear, the tutorial takes you through the word-puzzle game’s basic premise. Pick a board, spend a resource (honey) to play that board, score enough points, win bears that you can use for boosts, and repeat. Some boards are timed, and each chapter allows you to collect certain bears from the currently available collection of 67 . After playing through enough of the daily challenges, you’ll unlock a boss battle. Beat the boss score, win, and move to the next chapter. There is, however, no chapter select, and certain bears can’t be obtained outside their respective chapters. There’s no warning in the tutorial for this, and one belongs there. After the first two chapters, chapter three’s difficulty ramped up by a lot, and I have lingered within it playing and leveling my bears, getting a better win rate but falling short of good bear scores frequently as well. Spry Fox responded to an inquiry about this saying that no chapter select was an oversight and that while there are no plans to include a chapter select, some way to obtain bears you accidentally missed out on will be coming.

The daily challenges aren’t just candy-colored Scrabble either. Several are clever and can affect your strategy. On Sunday, an indicator mentioned the letters W-O-R-and K wouldn’t appear at all. If you’re used to using certain bears that might boost points for specific letters, you’d have to adjust. The bears themselves go to “sleep” for a predetermined amount of time after each use, which ranges from one minute to one day. Getting duplicates of a bear strengthens the bonuses that bear brings to a round.

I’ve seen some complaints about Alphabear’s gating, since honey is restored over time, up to the 120 you would need to play each of the daily boards once each several times a day. You can also watch an ad to get more honey or pay $4.99 to unlock infinite honey, thus letting you play as often as you’d like. Some felt tossed into a paywall early, but I haven’t. My problem with the monetization is that there is no corresponding unlock for the game’s other resource, coins. In order to gain coins, you must play through the game, watch an ad, or purchase a coin bundle. Coins are what you use to wake up a bear early from its slumber, making it usable once again. Infinite honey is a great option, since it lets you play more and thus win more coins, but if you have a limited collection of usable bears for your current chapter (chances of this are current high since there’s no chapter select and it’s easy to miss out on bears early), you’ll have to either wait up to an entire day or use your purchased or earned coins to wake your bears.

Some might argue that an unlock for coins might make the game too easy or lead to an imbalance of sorts, but as a single-player game, having just the one unlock makes the game feel lopsided in that paying for a whole game isn’t an option. I’m sure many of us would, just as I’ve noticed lots of infinite honey players.

Alphabear is still officially in beta, so there will be some changes coming in response to player feedback. Spry Fox is doing a good job listening so far, and fixing other issues promptly. As a side note, I’m happy that Alphabear is on Android and glad to have the option to support games on the platform.

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Her Story: A Compelling, Fragmented Search History

Jul 3, 2015 by

The following is spoiler-free.

A still from Her Story

A still from Her Story.

Sam Barlow’s Her Story is a game that relies upon a scripted narrative out of sequence and the player’s self-directed discovery of the fragments in a criminal investigation.  A woman is presented in old, grainy taped police interviews on seven occasions after her husband disappears. The mystery is set in 1994, but as presented in its spare lack of directed play (Barlow himself posted a development note saying he wanted to create “a game with no meaningful ‘state’ change”.), it is modern and lean. Indeed, there are no real instructions, no direction, no real goals, and no fixed end, no epilogue, and no easy answers. The only direct input from the player consists of keyword searches that bring up video clips containing that word. This sounds deceptively simple but the best, often most compelling thing about Her Story is that most of the play is not based on directed input, instruction, or even taking place within the game. The work is done by you as a response to the clips you watch, listen to, scrutinize, and finally, begin to stitch together in your head (or on paper – I have seen multiple people work with extensive notes and mind maps).

The clips are time and date stamped, and most searches turn up clips out of order. Putting together which clips come from which day is also helped by the subject’s clothing, as well as words you can search. Survey the scene, figure out what words you think might have some meaning, and then off you go into an experience that will likely be all your own. The experience can be uneven, depending what you decide to search for, with some highly revealing clips possible to reach within the first minutes of playtime. Yet, these don’t dampen the experience as much as whet appetites and open the gates to more clues.

There is one element that definitely reminds you that you’re playing a game, however. When you watch a clip of something highly relevant to the main thread of the mystery, a semi-transparent image of a face accompanied by sound will flash onscreen for a second or two. This means you’re on the right track, but it can also serve as an inadvertent jump scare. It did so for me, even after seeing it several times, because of its inconsistent appearance. It’s helpful as a way to let players know they’re making progress, but it can be startling.

A still from Her Story showing a seated woman in a white blouse.

A still from Her Story

Even after hitting on most of the major pieces, I still felt myself motivated to continue searching, to continue watching more clips. The sense of archived research, of time I spent in tiny microfiche booths, in video labs at school, listening to the voices of yesterday, came back in this experience. The mystery novels and TV shows that I grew up with and I’m still happy to dive right into to this day came back. The narrative here, a past delivered in fragments, sometimes repeated, sometimes strange, surprising, or even subtly sinister reminded me a little of the work of the late Ruth Rendell.

Without treading into spoiler territory, there are several theories as to how it all fits together and  you’ll likely come away with your own idea of how to process what you just experienced. There is a point in the game where you are asked if you’re satisfied, and a message pops up with a final piece if you say yes, but neither saying yes or no prevents you from further investigation. In other words, you’re doing research, you have questions, and it is your choice when you stop. The nature of Her Story means that once you’ve been through it, watched all the clips, and come away with your version of the events, it is essentially spent for replay value. The price, a modest $5.99, is thus, well set.

Her Story is available for PC, Mac, and iOS now.

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