Bear Winter might be the most romantic Match-3 game I’ve ever played. This is especially unexpected, because just below the surface of its genre conventions, Nevercenter’s minimalist little gem is about the inevitability of death, and the insurmountable power of nature. But like the blankets of snow padding the wilderness in which you play, there are hidden layers to the experience — a wistful, almost imperceptble sense of longing for a simpler life. A romance.
All you need to know about the granular mechanics of the game can be summed up aptly in the four promotion lines describing it: “I gather fire for warmth. I gather acorns for sustenance. I gather arrows for defense. Then the bears come.” A survival story, splayed out on a 3×3 grid. Swipe three like symbols to collect fire, which depletes each turn, acorns to restore health, and arrows which can be deployed to clear the board of bears. Craftily collecting three bears in a line and tracing over them nets you a “catch”, but box yourself in and be forced to swipe a row with less than three? Say goodbye to a heart. Keep everything in careful balance until something, inevitably, gives way, and you freeze. Or until the bears come.
It’s not revolutionary, but in many ways that’s what I love about Bear Winter. Instead, like nature, it’s *evolutionary*. Rather than add itself to the ever increasing list of Match-3 titles that have cross-pollinated with another genre, Bear Winter focuses on making a connection with the player. By turning swipes into the gathering of crucial resources, and keeping you focused on maintaining the harmony of what you’ve collected, the game transcends the competition to see how *many* things it can get you to do, and instead adds meaning to the things you’re doing.
Each play session feels like a micro-story. Moves are tracked in increments of time, long winter days dragging on as you warily swipe your way through the unpredictable forest. Each day you survive brings with it new challenges, both in gameplay and narrative. Little bits of story hinting at a lost love, and a search for meaning amidst the orderlessness of nature. Pervading it all is a moving, downbeat piano soundtrack that evokes a sense of slow, sure forward propulsion, broken up only by a twinkling crescendo of the harp which leads circularly back to the start of the tune. Like each session, like a forlorn trip into the woods: a hunt for more.