‘Bear’s Restaurant” is a game I find fairly difficult to review. In retrospect it seems nondescript and hazy, which really says something when the game in question features several tragic character deaths rendered in disturbingly saccharine pixel art. I learned about its existence through the circle that tends to like what I call “empathy adventures” (“moon,” “Chulip,” “GiFTPiA,” “Captain Rainbow,” Chibi-Robo,” “Endonesia,” etc.), and while it certainly has some shared DNA with those games, it’s a lot more traditional in practice.

The primary gameplay in “Bear’s Restaurant” is a sort of visual-novel/adventure-game-y linear sequence of cutscenes, events, dialogues and short exchanges of getting items and using them a few seconds later. Its real focus is its narrative, which employs a similar simplicity. The player controls a cat working at the titular restaurant, a venue located in the nexus between heaven and hell in the afterlife. By diving into the memories of the restaurant’s different customers, you can take their orders and make last meals that help the cast overcome their inner turmoil. Unlike, say, VA-11 Hall-A, however, there are no choices to be made regarding orders, and dialogue options have no net effect; “Bear’s Restaurant” features one focused storyline that’s consistently engaging. It sort of reads as both a cynical bid for acclaim and a masterclass in storytelling minimalism: a no-frills, no-filler storyline covering broad themes, oscillating from chilling to heartwarming and back again.

If you ask me, this is the strongest connection it has to other empathy adventures — its cartoonish, surreal, exaggerate flair for macabre events with quixotic resolutions and unnerving humorous elements.

The Charon of “Bear’s Restaurant” might ferry damned souls to the Nihility, but he’s actually a very friendly guy. There might be a literal despair-eating manifestation of the void running amok, but it really just wants to play soccer. Several of the characters who go to heaven are shown as highly unsympathetic caricatures, as is the in-game living world, and yet these aspects of them are often played for laughs or shrugged aside. The strange mix of sheer unrelenting negativity with a relatively low amount of idealistic storytelling somehow ends up feeling balanced and natural.

Of course, this is also due in no small part to the visuals and soundtrack. “Bear’s Restaurant” has sprite-work comparable to a cross between that of a Kairosoft game and that of Stardew Valley, using lighter colors and simpler character designs to give off the air of a happier disposition, and its audio is largely composed of relaxing piano pieces and ambience. Through a number of clever design and narrative choices, “Bear’s Restaurant”manages to wrap its at times bleak interior in an approachable and optimistic paper. If any game could get someone into games, this is it. It’s a great introduction to Odencat’s other works as well, which incorporate similar storylines, themes and gameplay systems.

Bear’s Restaurant is available on mobile phones and the Nintendo Switch, and I’d personally recommend the Switch version for its removed ads and added epilogue despite the higher price. There are actually several interesting bonuses at the end of the game, most of which I won’t spoil (except the thinly-veiled developer reviews of several popular games). Especially recommended for beginning video game players.

Gaget is a video game developer and critic. He is a neutral game reviewer.

Gaget is a video game developer and critic. He is a neutral game reviewer.

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