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Alphabear: Word Puzzle Game (iOS) artwork

Alphabear: Word Puzzle Game (iOS) review

"Words with Bears. Cute bears. They wear hats and stuff, as bears so often do."

Alphabear: Word Puzzle Game is clever, like me. I really dig the title because it showcases the sort of infectious love of wordplay that the game itself fosters.

Developed by Spry Fox, the company responsible for past releases such as Triple Town and Road Not Taken, this newer endeavor is a free-to-play affair that I was only able to properly enjoy once I spent $5.00 on an optional in-app purchase. If you're not willing to take that plunge, you'll routinely find yourself waiting for energy to recharge so that you can play another round, which is irritating when you're otherwise having all sorts of fun.

The setup is simple, whether you fork over the dough or not. To advance through a series of themed worlds, you must play basic word puzzles. You'll defeat bears at a number of rounds and then you can stick around and continue showing them who's boss, or you can advance to the next chapter and theme. Each new chapter presents new opponents to square off against, and you can add them to your team when you defeat them. That gets tougher to do with each successive chapter, for reasons I'll get to in a moment.

If you've played the old Boggle board game, you already have a good idea how the puzzles work. A handful of letters appear on a board, each with a number assigned. That digit represents the number of turns remaining before the tile turns to stone and can no longer be used. Your goal is to clear the board with the most possible points. As you play words, they fuse together in the shape of one or more bears, potentially filling the entire board and offering the heftiest reward.

Naturally, the process grows increasingly complex as you advance. You'll encounter different hazards, such as a pile of bones that activates when you clear away any adjacent letter. That reveals a red-colored tile that must be utilized on the next turn or it will do its unhelpful impression of a boulder. Other blocks appear on the board as a round begins, but they can't be used until you activate them. If you aren't quick enough about that, they (you guessed it) turn to stone.

Many boards have no time restriction, so you can take as long as you like to play. Others feature a 60- or 90-second timer. Multiple hazards could easily combine, so you are in for some truly challenging situations as you advance through the chapters. The developers at Spry Fox don't want you to do it all in one go, either, even if you pay the $5 that I mentioned and eliminate some of the energy-based restrictions. On a given day of the week, only a few boards within a chapter are available, so you'll have to return often to access them all. That can keep later stages locked away for quite some time.

I noted above that as you clear boards, you can recruit bears. These come in a few varieties. Some can be used every 8 minutes, while others have a cooldown period of 3 hours or even 12. To level them up, you must collection multiple copies of the same furry friend. If you level them up sufficiently, you can apparently decrease the length of that cooldown period, but that's a tedious process to say the least. A chapter will have between 7 and 10 possible bears available, so you might have to play hundreds of matches over a span of several weeks just to power up a single one of them. After the first 15 or 20 levels gained, they also stop improving at a worthwhile rate. Investing too much time on a given bear feels like a waste of a time, especially since he'll still be quite weak compared to any new recruits you encounter upon reaching the next chapter.

Despite that complaint, I actually had a lot of fun with Alphabear, particularly when working through its early chapters. I'm a sucker for word games, anyway, and the interface here is simple and attractive. The board is cleanly presented and it's easy to tap tiles and form words without much likelihood for error, even when you're in a hurry. I sometimes have trouble text messaging my wife on my iPhone because I'll hit letters that are too close together on the keyboard, but that wasn't an issue with the game.

Spry Fox tends to do a good job where visuals are concerned, no matter what the game, which I recently learned is thanks in large part to its art director, "meowza." The publisher's games all seem to share a happy, carefree vibe, and that comes together particularly well in this case. The various bears are so cute that even if you face a frustrating round, their cheerful mugs make it easy to forget about any disappointment. I love how they dance around on the menus in their cute little outfits. And yes, I'm 36 years old, not 4.

I also am grateful that the dictionary is quite large. It even permits the use of some slang and mild profanity. I was delighted when it allowed me to play "shit" and other similar terms that other apps might not, but it didn't recognize some other impolite words I attempted to use. I'm quite the rapscallion. And remember? I'm 36 years old, not 4. Or 12.

One final thing I should mention is that at the end of each round, you're treated to something of a mad lib. A popular expression or phrase will be spoken by one of the bears, but with new words inserted that are based on those you played in the preceding round. The result fairly often reads as near-gobbledygook, but occasionally you'll see something fairly clever. In those instances, sharing to social media is a breeze, and might inspire people to respond if they agree that you're simply too clever for words. Alphabear is a handy tool for those of us who might want to be interesting without actually going through the trouble of being interesting. Or you can use the "Verses" mode to challenge your pals to beat your score, if you don't mind making a proper nuisance of yourself.

For several weeks now, I've made Alphabear: Word Puzzle Game a part of my daily routine. I'm pretty much done with it now, but that's only because it's taking too long to make any appreciable progress now that I'm in chapter 8. Still, I enjoyed the game immensely for quite some time, and I can imagine happily playing it in the future in brief sessions when I have time to kill while waiting at a restaurant or whatever. If you're also a fan of word games and you don't have something in that category already dominating your time, I definitely recommend giving Alphabear a try. It's bear-y good!


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (December 29, 2015)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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