What is it that makes a good game so much better than a bad one? This is a tough question, because the answer is not necessarily anything in particular. If you’re playing something unlike anything there’s ever been, what context is there to judge it against other than whether or not it “works” for you? Little Inferno is an eShop title for the Wii U made by the guys who did World of Goo and Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure where all of the gameplay that you ever encounter has to do with buying random things out of a catalog and burning them in a fireplace in the correct combinations, and yet it might be the most compelling and beautiful indie game I’ve played all year. It’s a totally unique concept that really just “works” for me.
The toughest pill to swallow for some will probably be that the focus of this game is not so much on delivering a fun playing experience as it is on executing a complex artistic vision. At times, Little Inferno is indeed pretty fun, but for the most part, the repetitive, low-stakes nature of the gameplay is an intentional aspect of an overall satisfying larger interactive experience. As such, it would be doing the game a disservice to separate out all the different elements of it and rate them apart from the whole. It’s also a tough game to review because sharing almost anything about the game that I found satisfying spoils the experience for you. It’s really just a game that needs to be played to be fully understood, but I’ll do my best.
Admittedly, as I reread it, the concept as I explained it before sounds boring, but it’s true. You do actually spend about 95% of the game burning things in a fireplace. There’s an expanding selection of items to burn, a list of vaguely named puzzle combos, and about 30 letters you receive from various characters that account for pretty much all progression you experience during this game, but when you really unpack all of that content, what you’re left with is a powerful and perfectly executed vision, as long as you keep an open mind about games as art, and what the definition of gaming can actually be.
For example, every last burnable item in the game, and there’s like 150 of them, has its own specific burning animation. Some are hilarious, some are cool, some are horrifying, and some are even poignant and moving, and all of them contribute in some small way to the overall theme of the game, which I literally refuse to ruin for you. It is fun to burn these things, in a simple sort of way, like a kid who does stuff just to see what will happen, but more than that, you gain insight as you do it. The combo challenges are an extension of this as well. The basic premise is that all you have to work with is the vaguely themed title of each challenge to use as a clue to help you locate the two or three correct items you need to burn at once in order to solve the challenge. Some are tougher than others, and it’s actually quite entertaining on its own sometimes, but the real reason you’re doing it is to read what the various characters in the game are writing to you about while you do it, and apply the scarce details and musings you receive about the world outside of your fireplace to your analysis of your actions. Little Inferno takes you on a shockingly universal and emotional journey for a game with such a seemingly bizarre premise, and it does it with such calculated and masterful strokes, that you don’t even realize it as it’s happening. I can’t even tell you how pleasant a surprise it was without spoiling it, but trust me, the game is well worth finishing.
On a more technical level, the graphics in this game perfectly match the nuanced art style, the audio mixing and sound effects work well with the absolutely staggering original score, and the touch screen controls are perfectly precise and responsive on the Wii U Gamepad. With the Wii Remote, I had a little trouble with more subtle movements, and sometimes I found myself getting frustrated because I’d accidentally throw something around the fireplace too hard and break it, but its was nothing too serious, though I’d definitely say the Gamepad is a much better way to play. I’ve also got to give special attention to the fire effects, which are the first in any video game that have successfully created for me that almost pyromaniacal awe that you sometimes feel when you light something on fire. It’s not the most exciting thing in the world, but there’s something to be said for the fact that just sitting and watching something burn to a crisp is enjoyable.
The only really significant problem I had with this game at all is the $15 price tag. It only took me 5.5 hours to totally complete the game, and even though I loved this game and would gladly recommend it to anyone at this price, I realize it’s a hard sell, especially for a game that’s so beyond the norm. When it comes down to it, though, I’d say that if you have any interest in this game at all, you should go for it, even if you’re worried you won’t enjoy it. It’s certainly going to be an experience you remember for quite some time either way, and if you’re anything like me, it’ll really impress you more than you probably even expect.