It's everyone's favorite toy this holiday season: My Little Inferno. The world is getting colder by the day and the only thing keeping everyone warm in their houses is burning whatever they can get their hands on. Brilliantly, the game starts off with you burning the instruction manual for My Little Inferno in order to get your first set of funds.
As you work through the catalogs of consumer goodies to set ablaze your only contact with the outside world comes from letters delivered along with your packages: a weatherman telling you about the dire state of the snowy landscape outside, a representative from the Tomorrow Corporation that sold you the My Little Inferno, and notes from a neighboring girl. The first two give some useful background information and global updates but it's the interactions with the neighbor that become the most interesting. How her story plays out and the final moments of the game are the high points of the entire experience, it's just a shame that the story doesn't play a greater part in the gameplay, but more on that later.
The controls use the touch screen on the gamepad, which works well except for the fact that it forces you to stare at the miniature screen instead of the TV. That turns out to be a slight benefit, though, because the game actually looks prettier and features fewer blemishes on the smaller screen. Overall the visuals are interesting and there's plenty of style (the almost-horrific nature of some of the things you can buy, like a creepy-looking bug-eyed rabbit doll with terrible teeth, is great), but there are noticeable issues, including a framerate that grinds to a glorified slideshow when you start burning too many things at once.
When you're looking at your fireplace your touch becomes a flame that lights up anything combustible nearby, and this is how you'll spend the bulk of your time. As I alluded to earlier, the gameplay is a simple matter of buying things from a catalog and burning them to get more money to buy more things to burn, and so on and so forth. Different items have different visual, sound, and special effects, like freezing everything nearby, pulling everything into a gravitational pull, or even a marshmallow that gains sentience only to run around screaming as it's incinerated.
Finding out what each item does as you light it up is interesting, but there's no real strategy because the special effects never really change anything. No matter what happens in the fireplace you'll still get the same amount of money from the individual items you put in, along with any spiders that happen to crawl inside. This is the main problem with Little Inferno - there's a complete a lack of strategy or meaning to what you're doing.
Advancing through the game is just a matter of buying everything in a catalog and then getting enough money to buy the next one (up to a total of six). Your only challenge is to find enough combinations to be able to buy the next catalog. Combinations are pre-defined from a list and your only hint is based off of the name of each of them. For example, for the “Elderly Couple” combination you might buy an old adventurer doll and a doll of an older woman, then burn them together to get credit for the combination (as well as some tickets and money).
But while these are combinations according to the game, the two dolls don't actually do anything different when burnt separately or together, which takes away a potential sense of wonder that would encourage experimentation. They feel less like meaningful combinations and more like arbitrary couplings made up by the developers. If the two dolls, say, held hands and looked like a couple before they were lit up, it would make the hunt for combinations much more fulfilling.
The other major problem with Little Inferno is that the story feels completely separate - almost disjointed - from the gameplay. The idea is that everyone is at their My Little Inferno fireplace burning everything in order to stave off the freezing temperatures outside, but the gameplay offers no sense of urgency. You're just burning things for the sake of it. Something like a life meter constantly ticking down as you get closer to hypothermia could have led into some kind of deeper strategy, but there's nothing like that in the game.
Stranger still is that if there's no reason to manage time, why do some items take longer to get to you than others? Everything has a shipping time, but without some impetus for me to constantly keep burning it's just a pointless metric. You can use tickets to expedite the shipping but you'll burn through them quickly if you use them all the time and I'm still left wondering why the wait time exists in the first place. It's rarely a good sign when I'm watching youtube videos while I wait for the game to progress. It makes me wonder how quickly I could have beaten Little Inferno if the developers hadn't put this artificial time filler into it, but as it is Little Inferno took me two hours and 45 minutes to complete.
Little Inferno is one of the strangest games I've ever played. All you do is sit in front of a fireplace buying things from a catalog and then burning them to get more money. It felt like there was a fantastic puzzle game just waiting to burst out - and there's certainly an intriguing narrative and backstory - but as it is it's more like an app you mess around with aimlessly for no apparent reason. If you're a pyromaniac you're probably going to buy it anyway, just make sure you have easy access to something entertaining for when your Little Inferno loses its luster.
This review is based on a Wii U download of Little Inferno.