Review: Little Inferno (Wii U eShop)

Burn, baby, burn

"Your Little Inferno is not like other games. There are no points, there is no score, you are not being timed. Just make a nice fire, and stay warm in the glow of your high definition entertainment product." This opening letter from Tomorrow Corporation - the real-life developer and in-game mega-conglomerate from whom you've just purchased your Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace - is all the introduction needed for this beguiling blaze of an eShop title. That, and the fact that as soon as you read the letter, you get to burn it.

Set in a world of dystopian whimsy, where it's been snowing for as long as anyone can remember, Little Inferno places you in front of its eponymous fireplace and lets you get to work. It's as much a sandbox or digital toy as it is a game; using the GamePad's touch screen (a Wii Remote works too), you'll drag objects into the pit and hold down the stylus to create a flame wherever you touch, setting them ablaze.

Burning things nets you coins, which you can in turn use to buy new items to burn from the game's wonderfully clever catalogues. These have loose themes like food, toys, video games, and "the World of Tomorrow", and each item has a witty one-line description which is well worth reading (sample: "Discount Sushi - pairs well with a nice bag of wine!"). Keep an eye out for winking references to the developers' previous projects, like World of Goo and Henry Hatsworth, as well.

Just like with real-life catalogues, your purchases will take a bit of time to arrive. Smaller and less expensive items will be ready to burn in seconds, while the game's biggest ticket takes four real-world minutes to reach you. You can speed up this process by using stamps you'll find in the fire to get a package delivered right away, and while the system might bother particularly impatient players, we used quite a bit of "express shipping" and never ran low on stamps.

The puzzle element comes from the combos you'll need to put together to unlock more catalogues, so you can buy and burn more things. It's very light puzzling, and nothing that should stump you, but it's fun; each combo has a pun-y name, and you'll need to find two or three objects to burn together that fit the theme. For example, to get the "Movie Night" combo, you'll need to set fire to corn (creating popcorn) and a television at the same time. They get much cooler (and more pun-based) from there, but we don't want to spoil anything.

There are an awful lot of things you can burn up in Little Inferno - 140 in total - and a powerful physics engine matched with creativity and care means that each and every one reacts differently. Some items will explode, some will burn slowly; some will move and some will sing; some will change the colour or appearance of your flame, and some will alter gravity. All are presented with a healthy dose of humour. There will be crackling fires, glowing embers, sullen ash, and even some ice. As an "Entertainment Fireplace", Little Inferno succeeds completely, and will absolutely delight budding pyromaniacs.

But it ends up being much more than just the world's most permissive fireplace simulator. As you play, a quiet narrative unfolds through letters that show up on your "to burn" shelf, sent by the Tomorrow Corporation, an intrepid weather man, and a good natured neighbour. We don't want to reveal anything about the story or the surprisingly affecting conclusion, but believe us - it's a wick worth burning to the end.

From start to finish, the whole game is wrapped warmly in a chimney-swept aesthetic that's dark, smoggy, and a little creepy - but somehow appealing. Little Inferno's flames are the star of the show, and they look gorgeous in HD, as do all of the varied fire effects you'll produce. It's oddly captivating watching things burn from their original form down to charred remains, fine ash, or melted pieces, or noticing glass shards from a light-bulb you've just burned in an otherwise homogeneous pile of soot.

The atmosphere owes a lot to the wonderful musical presentation as well. While the fireplace itself mostly crackles along unaccompanied, the 1960's TV jingle music of the catalogue screen (where you'll spend a lot of time) and the drunken phone-ring shuffle of the combos menu are a perfect audio embodiment of Little Inferno's thematic contrasts: equal parts saccharine and coal. On the rare occasions when music does fill the hearth, it's to soaring effect.

The game streams everything to both the GamePad and the TV, and works just fine on the GamePad alone. This will make for some cozy nights of bedside burning for players with Wii U-friendly floor plans, but it also points out a small issue with the game. The GamePad is the best and most tactile way to control the game, but a big screen TV is the best way to look at it, and it's hard to reconcile those two facts. It feels disjointed to try to look at the TV while using the GamePad, and while the Wii Remote is a perfectly serviceable control option, it's just not as satisfying to "point" something ablaze as it is to use the power of touch. Luckily, Little Inferno is a lot of fun to watch even if you're not playing, so the TV view won't be lost on couch-side companions.

It's worth noting that Little Inferno is not a long game. In fact, it's easy enough to do a full play-through without having to charge your GamePad. Players who enjoy the combos will undoubtedly be back to finish the full set of 99 (only 45 are required to complete the story), but beyond that any replay will come from your own desire to return to the fireplace. It's in keeping with the theme of the game, really, right from the introductory letter: "Just make a nice fire, and stay warm in the glow."

Conclusion

Little Inferno is a surprising game. It's surprising both for the simplicity of its concept ("burn things"), and for the fact that such a coherent and lovingly crafted experience has been built around that idea. It's also surprisingly different from what we traditionally think of as a game, and because of that, it isn't for everyone. But players drawn to the flame will find a fun, funny, and even moving experience in Little Inferno. It's a lot like setting some of the game's more spectacularly flammable objects ablaze, actually; a fast burn, but beautiful while it lasts.