I hesitate to even write a review about Little Inferno. Ideally, you would experience the game just as I did, which is to say go into it knowing next to nothing. The little bit that I did know was that in spite of whatever preconceptions you or I may have about the game on the surface, it will be worth it. Through various Wii U launch videos and some word-of-mouth communique, that was all I managed to gather about Little Inferno, and I think I was better for it. It starts out with just a flicker, but like the flame in your Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace, it soon burns brighter than you ever thought it could.
Little Inferno is a game all about fire. Imagine all that fire propagation fun you had in Far Cry 2 and put it in a little fireplace. You can create fire at will just by clicking on the screen, but you keep the flame alive by liberally applying the heat to whatever you toss in there, like toy pirates, spider eggs, and cell phones. You never really leave your view of the fireplace save to open the mail-order catalogs from Tomorrow Corporation and to check what combos you’ve yet to discover, so it fits perfectly with the touchscreen of the Wii U (or just the mouse of the PC).
Combos are just groups of items you need to burn together to get a star. Those stars do little else but symbolize your progress as they, in conjunction with the coins you earn from burning things, unlock more catalogs and more of the game’s story. Within each catalog, there is a sizable set of items for you to order, and each item generally has a unique reaction to the fire. Every once in a while, you’ll get a letter from the CEO of Tomorrow Corporation, the Weather Man, or your precocious neighbor, but usually it’s just you, isolated in a cold, dark house in a cold, dark city with nothing but the fire in front of you to heat your body and warm your mind.
And that last bit is what makes Little Inferno so compelling. If you think this is just a game about setting things on fire, then you’re dead wrong. There is an achingly beautiful and bittersweet tale hidden in here, one that I wish I could talk about with each and every one of you. It’s sad and poignant, but also abstract in a way that lets everyone’s heart fill in the cracks in whatever way they see fit. Miss Nancy, the CEO of Tomorrow Corporation, sends out these strange missives that vacillate between motherly and crazy (so, I guess still motherly). The Weather Man, reporting up over the smoke stacks, over the city, gives way to ominous imagery, but imagery that fills your head with fantastical notions and pressing questions.
Then there’s your neighbor Sugar Plumps. She has an unhinged psychosis about her that instills you with fear, a fear that I assume is similar to when you feel like you might have a stalker, but also a fear that you are falling in love with that stalker. She intrigues and terrifies and endears all at the same time. And these three simple characters form such an interesting and cohesive world that I wish I could spend all day wandering about it. I mean, how did the Weather Man get his job? Why are there always one-eyed spiders and, uh, heli-spiders coming down my chimney? Why does no one go outside?
That’s not to mention just how fun it is to simply burn things. Like most children, I used to like playing with fire despite my mother, the television, and many printed warnings espousing safety concerns suggesting I do otherwise, and Little Inferno ignited that old illicit passion once more. The way things weaken and crumble as they burn to ash, the way the flame jumps from one object to another, and the way everything is as different and as unique in the fire as they are out of it; these are what interest me most within the flickering embers, and they are all brought to fruition in Little Inferno. And since this is a video game, you can have crazy stuff like nukes and giant mustaches to burn.
The problem comes with the waiting. Every time you order something from a catalog, you have to wait for it to be delivered. It’s almost always there in around a minute or two, but even that becomes unbearable. The first catalog has some stuff that can arrive in a matter of seconds, but the last catalog has stuff that requires five minutes or more of sitting and waiting. You can collect stamps to get things instantly, but I found that either you collect them while unlocking everything and then spend them while solving combos or vice versa. You can also try to manage your time more carefully and order stuff as soon as you move delivered stuff to the fireplace, but 1) that kills the slow, percolating pleasure you get from just sitting and watching things be consumed by the fire, and 2) things can burn past the bright, explosive phase faster than most delivery times.
This waiting makes experimenting to find the solutions to the combos almost annoying enough to use a guide. I mean, most of them are easy enough to solve either by outright telling you its individual components or by having an easily interpreted pun for a title so you won’t lose much by looking them up, but that also shortens an already brief game. $15 might be a bit much to ask for a game like this, but you can usually find it on sale on Steam anyways.
But all of that tends to flow into the Little Inferno experience. It’s brief, just like the lifespan of your fiery sacrifices. It’s about savoring the slow burn of every portrait, stuffed animal, and bear trap you burn, just as you would savor the delivery of an order after anxiously awaiting its arrival. It’s about how the music fits into every story-hungry hole in your heart, just like how the fire fills every gap in the ash. And most importantly, it’s about sparking that little flame that burns and burns, brighter and brighter, just as the world of Little Inferno unfolds bigger and bigger into your thawing heart.