Little Inferno (Wii U eShop) is the first game from newly established developer Tomorrow Corporation, an indie dream team consisting of Kyle Gabler and Allan Blomquist (World of Goo), as well as Kyle Gray (Henry Hatsworth, which I also reviewed.
) With a pedigree such as this, my expectations coming into the game were naturally high. Does Little Inferno meet my expectations? Well, the credits have rolled, and I can safely report back this: bringing expectations into this game is a pointless endeavor. Little Inferno will take all of your expectations and burn them to the ground. I’m not saying that Little Inferno is a bad game, not at all. Actually, it is possible to question whether it can be considered a proper game at all.
Prepare yourself for the greatest toy of all-time...
Upon powering up Little Inferno you will be greeted with a title screen that showcases both the art style and the music, which should be very familiar to fans of World of Goo. The same unique blend of silliness and epicness that we saw (and heard) in World of Goo is very present in Little Inferno, although the soundtrack is a bit more limited. After starting a new game you will be introduced to your fireplace, complete with a warmly smiling machine face attached to the back of it, which seems to somehow stare directly into your soul, despite the fact that his are not open. You may as well get used to this fireplace, as the entire game takes place here. A sign inside the fireplace will teach you how to create fire (using the Wii U GamePad, you simply touch the screen), and the first thing that you will burn will be, fittingly, the sign itself. If you find this cleverly ironic, well... this is just the tip of the iceberg. You will then receive a letter explaining the purchase of your new “Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace”, as well as a copy of the terms and conditions of owning it. Take a guess what you will do with these.
And then the game truly begins. You receive your first catalog and can start purchasing things to burn in your fireplace. When you burn objects, you gain money. What can you do with this money? Why, buy more objects to burn, of course! Burn and buy, buy and burn, it’s a dirty little cycle, and when you burn enough objects and save up enough money, you can purchase new catalogs which will let you buy even more objects to burn! And if you’re getting impatient, there are tickets that you acquire that you can spend to have your objects shipped to you faster. Methinks there may be a not-so-veiled message on the vapid nature of the endless cycle of consumerism contained here. Oh, there is much more than that, but I don’t want to spoil it for you.
Speaking of, the narrative of Little Inferno is presented through letters that you will occasionally receive from various people. A representative of Tomorrow Corporation, the company that manufactures the Little Inferno, who gives off a vaguely sinister vibe behind her corporate zest. A young girl who is pained with isolation, and seems overly interested in your doings, appearing to know a lot more about you than she should. The weather man, who appears to be the only one reporting on the state of the world outside created by this thoughtless cycle of consumerism, as everyone is too busy glaring into the fire of the Little Inferno to ever leave their house. I told you this was a clever game.
This guy knows what is up. Literally.
You can play Little Inferno with either the Wii U GamePad or the Wii remote, and I opted to play primarily on the GamePad, using my finger. There is something so much more tactile about creating fire through the touch of your own fingertip, and it makes you feel powerful when you slide across objects and watch them burst into flames.
Let’s talk about those objects (of which there are well over 100 to play with.) Your first catalog contains a seemingly random selection of objects, from an alarm clock to a toy pirate to “someone else’s family portrait”. Future catalogs are a bit more tailored to specific tastes, encompassing themes like toys, food, and style. The video game catalog is particularly interesting, and includes some subtle nods to gaming culture, as well as a handful of cameos that any red-blooded indie gamer should appreciate. While browsing the catalogs, each object has a small description next to it, which creates a sort of running commentary on the nature of these objects, not unlike the way in which the Pikmin games took advantage of their object acquisition for similar purposes (though things are a bit more tongue-in-cheek here.) Some examples:Cold Metal Heart: Best suited for those who need to make shrewd business decisions.
Uncle Sam’s Blam Blams: Anyone who doesn’t light up a box of these is probably a terrorist.
Gaming Tablet: Filled with “free” games that will cost you thousands.
Internet Cloud: Repository of all human hope and knowledge, now almost entirely cat photos and loneliness.
You get the picture.
Purchase the objects that you want, wait for them to arrive, and then comes the fun part: the burning. A huge part of the appeal of Little Inferno is the “sandbox”-like nature of the fireplace. It truly as, is the advertising states, an “Entertainment Fireplace.” Every object contains its own properties, and there is a real sense of anticipation that comes from selecting your objects and watching the many ways that they react to space, each other and, of course, the fire. For example... popcorn will pop in fire, the “Drill Chain Thrower” (a glorified chainsaw) will chop apart anything that it touches, “Zesty Beetles” change the color of the flames, and my favorite, the moon, will float in the air and attract everything to it, spinning all of the other objects in orbit. I could go on and on with more creative examples, but really, why ruin it for you? The joy is in the discovery, and Little Inferno will definitely reward your curiosity.
This is the part where you save the woman from... just kidding, everything must BURN.
In order to unlock each new catalog, you must perform “combinations”, which is to say, burn two or more objects together that the game recognizes as being linked in some fashion. Aside from a few minor exceptions, creating combinations and trying out every object in your current catalogs are the only things that you will need to do in order to continue progressing. Little Inferno has a handy dandy checklist that will help you to keep track of how many of the 99 possible combinations you have created, with a small hint for each one. These hints can range from essentially giving it to you (Bike Pirate COMBO = Wooden Bicycle + Toy Pirate) to being a bit more abstract (LOL Kitty COMBO = well, I’ll let you figure this one out.) In most cases, you can figure out the combination without too much trouble by using the hint system, at least as far as the early combinations are concerned. Some of the later ones can be a bit trying. To be honest though, a huge part of the appeal of Little Inferno is the thrill of discovery, which for me includes looking at the available objects and trying to deduce on your own what might make a good combination. You will start to get a sense of the mindset of the developers, and there is a real feeling of accomplishment when you put 2 and 2 together and hit a combination on your own, although on occasion some objects that seem like they really should create a combination just fizzle and burn instead. This can probably be looked at as a commentary on something as well, intended or not.
The single-minded nature of Little Inferno, necessary to create the narrative that the developers were shooting for as it may be, is also one of the major weaknesses in regards to the gameplay. Although there is a lot of creativity involved in the way the objects interact, you will be sitting in the same single environment, doing the same thing (burning stuff) throughout the vast majority of the game. Personally I found the game compelling, and I was anxious to see what objects were coming next and how they would react to the fire, as well as where the narrative would take me. But at times it does drag a bit, and I suspect that many gamers who are not hooked by the core concept and narrative will find the game a bit repetitive, perhaps boring even. Furthermore, Little Inferno is fairly short, and will only give you about 3-4 hours of gaming if you simply want to see the credits, and a few hours beyond that if you want to get all of the combinations. Whether that is worth the $15 asking price or not is up to your own discretion.
It’s horrible! Horrible! And yet I just... can’t... turn away...
I generally try not to burn
(sorry, I had to do it!) through games very quickly, but Little Inferno kept me hooked. Admittedly, my first half hour or so with the game was spent thinking “is this really all that there is to it?”, and whether or not you will break out of that mindset and start to “get” it, as I later did, I really can’t say. I suspect that the loose, fairly goal-free system, combined with the lack of any core gameplay variety beyond “burning things”, will make this a divisive game, especially if it is viewed as a follow-up to the much loved World of Goo. Do not view it as such. Little Inferno may look and sound very similar to World of Goo, but it is definitely its own beast, and it does not put the focus on concrete stages and puzzles, instead creating an open sandbox for pyromaniacs. At the beginning of this review I questioned whether Little Inferno could be considered a proper game or not, and I don’t have a definitive answer to that question. Whatever you want to call it, it is definitely a unique and daring piece of software.
In the end, I believe that despite some weaknesses, Little Inferno works, and it does so on two levels. On the first level, you have what is perhaps one of the most poignant commentaries that we have seen in video games, taking corporatism, consumerism, isolation, environmental concerns, and more and tying them all together in a brilliant (if understated) narrative. On the second level, it taps into the primal urge to BURN EVERYTHING IN SIGHT.
Our ability to recognize and appreciate the subtext of the game while still enjoying the gratuitous nature of the gameplay may just add a third level to the mix, revealing the hypocrisy in us all.
Now leave me be. I need some more time to bask in the warm glow of the flame...
BWA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HAHAHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA