Naughty Bear: Panic in Paradise could be some kind of unwitting comment on the curious nature of videogame rating classifications. This is a game in which your primary goals are to stalk, murder and (occasionally) psychologically traumatise fellow sentient teddy bears into committing suicide. You can crush their fluffy heads in car doors, hold adorable faces in the fire until they combust, and wear the skins of vanquished foes like a crude mask. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) has (on the evidence of this review code at least) deemed all of that stuff to be appropriate for ages 10 and up.

For reference, that’s the same rating as Lego Harry Potter.

Replace the cuddly bears with more ‘realistic’ human models (or even humanoid aliens, really) and you’d be looking at a 17+ ‘Mature’ rating. Have Mr. Naughty Bear drop a few f-bombs and it’d be the same situation. Likewise, if you added some weird teddy bear strippers and, say, a Saints Row style dildo weapon you’d be back in mature territory. Are any of those things more morally troubling, or more graphic, than feeding a sobbing fuzzy bear through a lawnmower, tongue-first? Probably not.

It’s difficult to play Panic in Paradise without the sense that developers Behaviour (formerly Artificial Mind & Movement) are using the game to gleefully test boundaries. When you chase a whimpering bear into a pre-laid trap and ready your sharpened rake as he screams for help, the thought persists of the developers’ beaming faces. “We got a 10+ rating for this,” they seem to say. “Isn’t that crazy?”

It’s not crazy. Behaviour have just played the system’s loopholes (fantasy violence, lack of blood, no swearing) and, in doing so, revealed its absurdities. Naughty Bear: Panic in Paradise presents a cute, cartoonish image, but does nothing to hide the fact that its heart is set in the themes of vengeance and sadism. The ERSB guidelines struggle to deal with that unusual combination.

But enough about the minefield of videogame age ratings; does Panic in Paradise manage to improve upon the critically-derided Naughty Bear original from 2010?

That game was criticised for its excessive reuse of content (the same handful of areas would repeat throughout the whole game) in conjunction with a full, retail price tag, and the repetitive nature of its central conceit.

Panic in Paradise has addressed the price issue directly. Unlike its predecessor, it’s a download-only game with a cost of $15 USD. The other two problems have also been eased, to an extent.

As in the original, you play the psychopathic Mr. Naughty Bear, a fluff-filled lunatic who is driven by revenge and bloodlust for his fellow bears. The paper-thin premise for your campaign of terror is that the other bears have gone on holiday to Paradise Island and neglected to invite you (possibly because you have a bit of a reputation for indiscriminately slaughtering them, who knows).

Each level begins with the over-eager narrator (doing his best impression of a British children’s television presenter gone wrong) giving you a specific bear to target. Aside from the opening tutorial section, the target always has to be assassinated in a specific fashion, such as bludgeoned with an electric guitar, fired from a massive cannon while Naughty is disguised as a General, or slain while wearing his brother’s face.

Effectively, every mission plays like a simplified and more lenient Hitman, complete with donning disguises to bypass security, using environmental objects for kills (fires, vats of acid, large spikes and the like) and watching the patrol routes of your main target or other guards. Patches of woodland keep Naughty hidden from prying eyes, so if you begin to draw too much teddy bear heat a swift dash into the bushes will keep you safe. Darting in and out between bouts of carnage is a successful strategy on every single one of the game’s small levels.

The AI is relatively straightforward, but reacts broadly as expected to your campaign of destruction. If you smash something within range of a bear, they’ll inevitably come to either investigate or repair your handiwork. It’s also possible to lure bears towards your bushes with a soft ‘boo’ sound, enabling a swift disguise-grab.

As mentioned, the lack of different environments from the first Naughty Bear has been somewhat addressed. You’ll now take out the game’s 36 different targets across 11 levels, including a plant nursery, garage and fancy outdoor nightclub. Repetition still rears its ugly head (certain levels even seem to reuse exact AI patrol routes), but it at least takes slightly longer to reach the point where you’re a bit sick of a specific area.

A deeper problem is that the very game concept itself is repetitive and corrosive. You’re partaking in the same simple activities on every level (taking out a few bystander bears to raise your score and chase bonus trophies, then going for the mission kill), and it’s hard for Panic in Paradise to cover the emptiness at its core. At first you may be chuckling along at the gross-out kills juxtaposed with the cutesy bears, but as the hours stack up the appeal begins to drain away.

The title is stuck with the task of having to maintain an impetus for cruel torment across 10-12 hours or so. As the shock-value comedy wanes and the novelty of new level design vanishes, all you’re really left with is an unlikable tool of a main character being as violent as possible. Games with a similar ‘screw with people’ attitude like Skool Daze and How to be a Complete Bastard managed to keep their protagonist likeable by limiting themselves to more harmless hijinks, and titles that are more overtly violent usually try to find a balance between moral justification and the throwaway ‘no consequences’ tone of an action movie.

Panic in Paradise lacks even this level of nuance, and just feels mean-spirited and a little uncomfortable. There’s a big difference between cartoon slapstick violence and straight-up nihilistic atrocities performed by cute characters, and this title doesn’t quite seem to recognise the distinction. Trying to make jokes out of the latter results in an ill-judged and inconsistent tone throughout.

Scores of unlockable costume parts mean you can at least play an absurd game of dress-up with Naughty, leading to some truly spectacular outfit combinations. It certainly doesn’t hurt to be able to complete a mission dressed as a glam-rock policeman in a tinfoil hat wielding a pair of flaming fists, and each item has an effect on Naughty’s starting stats (health, stamina and the like). The clothing choices may not make a vast difference to how any given level plays out, but they’re one of the few features in Panic in Paradise to hit the right jovially absurd tone and raise a smile.

Major glitches, which afflicted the first game as well, return for this second outing. So far I’ve had one hard-crash per day (across four days) with the Xbox 360 version, and experienced another incident where Naughty was left stuck in a debilitating animation frame that looked like he was giving a Nazi salute (not entirely inappropriate for the character, but it did require a level restart). Less crucially, spoken dialogue periodically fails to trigger and the frame-rate seems prone to the odd dip.

So while Panic in Paradise is largely a better game than its progenitor in terms of structure, delightful hats and sensible pricing, this elaborate sandbox for sadists is not a great deal more enticing than it was last time. It’s as trashy as ever, without nearly enough charm or sharp humour to balance its unpleasant, vengeance-driven narrative.

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