Do Feed the Bears…Your Fist!
For the most part, bears are pretty nice. Oh sure, a mother bear will fully rip your face off should you get in between her and her cubs, but usually the world’s largest land predator would rather just hang around waterfalls catching salmon and looking cute and stuff like that. But imagine waking up to a world in which bears were the dominant species. Walking upright, they dress as humans do, populate zoos with mankind, and learn to speak. That would be totally weird, right? And yet this is what happens in the aptly titled Fist of Awesome from developer Nicoll Hunt’s imprint, I Fight Bears – an indie publisher which proclaims from the title screen that they make “games for people with beards.”
Our hero, a lumberjack type named Tim Burr, is enjoying a reunion of friends and family when his fist suddenly explodes in size (think Foo Fighter’s excellent Everlong music video) and begins to speak to him. The fist goes by the name of Awesome, and he is here with terrible, bone-chilling news! At some point in history, the space/time continuum was disrupted resulting in an alternate present in which bears call the shots. Tim appears to be the one human left who can recall what once was, and he, along with his newly gigantic, wise-cracking fist must undertake a heroic quest to discover what went wrong and right this new and terrible bear-heavy world.
First of all, developer Nicoll Hunt needs to be congratulated immediately. According to the credits, most of the development duties were handled by Hunt (with three animators providing support), and the level of detail conveyed with the charmingly retro pixilated graphics is nothing short of astounding. Here is a developer who clearly loves the early days of gaming and has created a universe accordingly. Fist of Awesome reinforces this nostalgic feeling with a healthy does of humor as well. “What the Hall & Oates is going on!?” Tim exclaims early on, and the laughs build from there. Awesome is a great sidekick and provides plenty of jokes and sarcastic banter throughout your adventure in addition to his set of powerful moves.
Things start off slow in Fist of Awesome in both the combat and traversal. Tim moves at a painfully slow pace during the opening chapters, and even though enemies attack in fairly small numbers, fights wind up taking a little more time than you might like. Regardless, there are varying enemy types to sharpen your skills on (deer, bison, and dinosaurs pop up from time to time), and the more foes you fell with your powerful fist, the more experience you rack up with which you can upgrade movement speed, combo ability, health, etc. But whereas similar vintage-esque games like Fez rely on more D&D/RPG-like storylines, Tim’s system of upgrades is where any similarities to the fantasy gaming genre end.
This is a game about punching bears, plain and simple. Sadly, however, until you’ve leveled up a fair amount, you’ll be faced with no small level of tedium. Enemies approach from all sides, and until you’ve at least added some speed to Tim’s abilities, you’ll have a hell of a time slogging through. Luckily, I Fight Bears doesn’t stick you with the slow movement speed forever, and it becomes great fun to zip across the screen after you gain a few levels. Leveling up also provides greater combo variety and allows for anything from a flying jump kick to grappling attacks. All of these are accomplished with hysterical exclamations from both Tim and Awesome, and provides reference moments to legendary games like Street Fighter 2 (yes, Tim has a dragon uppercut-like punch during which he shouts, “Timmmber!”).
Movement and combat are accomplished with invisible virtual buttons on either side of the screen. Controls are satisfyingly responsive and have been utilized quite intelligently. Tapping the screen punches while swiping toward enemies kicks. The kick briefly stuns your foe, allowing for even better attacks including a throw which is invaluable once the enemy waves appear in greater numbers. You can even jump with a quick upward swipe and add a flying jump kick before you hit the ground. These are, frankly, some of the best virtual controls on the App Store, and usually counteract any frustration that would come from being outnumbered.
Once you reach the end of an area, a boss battle takes place. These are by far the funniest enemies found in the game. Perhaps it’s a gigantic jive-talking’ bear with an afro, a blues-singin’ grizzly in a suit, or a real king… either way, these encounters are usually hysterical and fairly challenging. Defeating a boss gives you access to a wormhole that deposits you in various places in time as you attempt to uncover how it is that bears could possibly become so intelligent and powerful. Time travel is a great addition, especially when you go toe to toe with caveman bears or medieval bear-revelers.
Unfortunately, the humor found throughout Fist of Awesome can’t save it from becoming repetitive. Every level is a walk from point A to point B with increasingly difficult bear waves in between and a boss at the end. This is, of course, a time-honored gaming tradition, but once later levels are reached and Tim is swarmed by a seemingly endless barrage of enemies, it becomes difficult to justify continuing the quest. Not to worry, though, because the included Arena mode is a great way to not only gain a reprieve from the campaign, but to sharpen your skills while leveling up. Arena contains maps from the campaign and requires the player to complete mini-challenges like kicking a set number of enemies in the nuts (seriously) or defeating them in certain ways. These timed matches are made more fun by including lots of playable characters which are unlocked by reaching various milestones within the campaign.
Fist of Awesome‘s campaign does come awfully close to wearing out its welcome, but everything from the pixely graphics to the challenging Arena mode is wonderfully humorous and created with care. It’s an achievement made even more impressive when you realize that the bulk of the game was created by just one person. Not only is Fist of Awesome an endearingly clever concept crammed with tons of pop culture reference, hours of gameplay, and more bear violence than you can shake a picnic basket at, it’s one of the funnier games we’ve ever played, period. Oh, and just in case all that wasn’t enough reason to play, take a tip and listen to the amazing song that plays over the credits accessible from the front menu. You won’t be disappointed.