While still pumping out Final Fantasy titles at an alarming rate, since becoming Square Enix the software giant certainly can’t be accused of failing to also try and penetrate the market in different ways. With The Tales of Bearsworth Manor, they’re again setting out to demonstrate they aren’t just about endless rehashes of their RPG heritage. In fact Bearsworth Manor is so far removed from that concept, it might take you a little while to get your head around what they’ve done here.
Currently the Tales of Bearsworth Manor consists of two separate games, subtitled Puzzling Pages and Chaotic Conflicts. The player is required to purchase them separately, but both are heavily interlinked – so much so that if you buy them out of sequence or one without the other, then you won’t have much of a clue what’s going on with the concept or story. It’s either a very clever idea for a download service, or one which could backfire horribly.
You get the feeling that, with its fairytale like themes and heavy emphasis on the cute bear characters that inhabit the world, the games almost feels like they’re aimed at a younger audience. Except that the story surrounding them is laced with a heavy sense of foreboding and seems to suggest everything from Armageddon to Demonic possession and being stuck in Purgatory. Not exactly the kind of themes that would traditionally form the backbone to the story for a child’s game, but there’s no escaping that Bearsworth Manor has that Tim Burton-esque air about it.
In the Puzzling Pages episode the player becomes involved in the sad story of Pina, a little girl who suddenly finds herself all alone with only a magical book to keep her company. Inviting the player to explore the book with her forms the basis of the game – a series of puzzles in which she must use the bears at her disposal to collect the gem like candies that litter each stage.
Like a bear-centric version of Boom Blox, this involves using the remote to throw the bears onto the open pages of the book and, if you get them in the vicinity of a candy, they’ll automatically wander over and pick it up. Similarly for the loose pieces of paper which lay around the stages and, when collected, allow the player additional bear units to toss onto the page. Collect each candy without running out of the very generous allowance of bears and it’s on to the next one.
This sounds very basic until the game starts mixing in other elements to up the ante. So alongside the need to be accurate with your aim in order to get bears onto platforms or lob them behind unbreakable obstacles, you also have to be mindful of fire and water which will kill them. The game rapidly introduces more challenging elements such as needing to collect elemental gems which can then be used for burning through wooden cages, or using water to douse fires. Throw in other challenges like moving platforms, bombs and springboard flowers which require you to perfect the angles on which the bears approach in order to launch them in the right direction, and the game rapidly goes from being pedestrian to challenging. Thankfully it never becomes frustrating, mainly because of the aforementioned generous allowance of bears to complete each level.
Puzzling Pages certainly provides a lot of fun while it lasts, but it’s not a title which will necessarily result in any longevity. However the overwhelming sense of charm and intrigue, along with the rather unique dark tone, does go some way to elevating it and leaving a lasting impression.
What does stick in the throat slightly is that Square Enix still aren’t averse to pumping out day one DLC for their titles, just like they did with My Life as a Dark Lord. While value is highly subjective, charging for extra bear types and stories stages straight away does seem a little crazy, along with giving your customers the impression that it’s little more than content that’s been deliberately cut from the game. Of course they aren’t needed to complete the game and can be totally disregarded if you wish, but all the same it still doesn’t do much for the image of the title.
Whether this style of producing a title actually proves to be a success, only time will tell. But it would be a shame if Puzzling Pages were totally lost in the ever growing crowd of mediocre WiiWare releases that we have to endure on an almost weekly basis, since it’s one of the minority titles that succeeds in standing out as being genuinely intriguing and entertaining. While Square Enix may not have got it quite right, you certainly can’t fault them for trying.