Release date: November 18, 2012
Developer: Tomorrow Corporation
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Wii U, Mac & Linux (soon)
In all honesty, Little Inferno is something I probably would have missed had it not been for Kotaku's review. I had seen the game in previews and trailers, but it just seemed like a quirky minigame, albeit a fun and interesting one, beefed up for a full release. Admittedly, the game comes from a great pedigree - Kyle Gabler, who was creative director on the brilliantly well received World of Goo, and Kyle Gray, the man behind the fun DS yarn Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure, have teamed up with another EA veteran Allan Blomquist to found developer Tomorrow Corporation. But it wasn't until reading the review on Kotaku, however, and seeing it compared to Portal (another personal favourite of mine) that I decided to check the game out. I can gladly say that Little Inferno has been one of the nicest surprises in gaming I've experienced all year.
The premise of Little Inferno is simple: it takes place in front of a fireplace and sees you order items from various catalogs to burn for your pleasure. This is surprisingly satisfying; the fire effects are fantastic, and actually strangely comforting - once or twice I genuinely found myself huddling closer to the simulated warmth on the screen. When the novelty of setting the often funny and bizarre objects alight and watching them crumble into ash wears off (though it took me a good 30 mins), puzzles are incorporated in the form of combos. By burning 2 or 3 items together in certain combinations, hinted at by the combo's title, you can earn stamps (which can be spent making products from the catalogue arrive instantaneously) and check the combo off the total 99-strong list. They range from very easy to extremely obscure - for example the Bike Pirate combo tasks you to burn a bike and a pirate together, but later on when items from all 7 catalogs start being combined, there are some real head-scratchers.
A gleefully oddball (and often quite dark) sense of humour permeates the game throughout - my favourite item has to be the trick snake can, the trick being that there is no foam snake that jumps out, instead just a bunch of broken hypodermic needles. As many other reviewers have noted, the art style is cute and charming, and really helps warm you to the game - there is also a great soundtrack, with really emotive pad sweeps and swells during salient story parts, and cheery 50's shopping mall music to accompany you browsing through the catalogs.
So far, so minigamey. However, there is also an engaging and surprisingly deep story present here, in the form of letters received from another user of a Little Inferno fireplace. These little snippets of story, drip fed as you work your way through the game, help to hold the players attention through until the last catalog. That, and the constant, nagging feeling that something isn't quite right, that something darker and more sinister is smoldering away beneath the gaudy catalogs. I am not going to go too much into the story because spoiling it would deprive you of a truly unexpected surprise, but suffice it to say that at one point I felt genuinely guilty at my actions as the story neared completion, and the game ended up making me think about my actions a lot more than I had expected it to.
Overall Little Inferno manages to keep things fresh by constantly introducing new combos, catalogs and items, but I found frustration with the fact that items ordered from the catalogue can take up to 5 real world minutes to arrive (without the aforementioned stamps). It seems a bit of a free-to-play strategy incorporated into a paid game, with no discernible advantage other than artificially lengthening the time spent on the game. In a way my irritation with this is testament to how gripping the story is; I was impatient to progress through the story and it felt like the catalog delivery system was just getting in the way of that. It also made me feel less inclined to experiment and chase down combos, as ordering a wrong item would punish me with another 4 or 5 minute wait for my next guess to arrive.
The only real issue in my opinion with the game is the price versus the longevity. I have played for just under 3 hours, have found around half the combos and completed the story. Stretching it, then, the game would last at best around the 5 hour mark, with little to no replayability as the combos are set and remain constant. If the game were half the price it is now, I would be recommending it no questions asked, and in my view it is still worth its current price of admission. However, I can imagine a $15 price point putting a lot of people off taking a chance on what is a great, funny and thought provoking piece of digital entertainment.
Little Inferno is a unique experience. It's an unexpectedly reflective story wrapped up in a fun little package and caught me completely off guard. It is bemusing and yet enchanting - the more I consider my time with the game, the more I find to take from it. It is not perfect, doesn't last long and will not suit everyone, but for those of you who find yourselves intrigued by the reviews, I urge you to try it for yourself. As Christmas draws near and the game's message becomes more poignant, give this brightly burning tale a chance; in the depths of the flames you might just spot the flickering of a masterpiece in storytelling.