Every now and then an iPhone game comes along and pleasantly surprises me—most recently the jaunty new point-and-click adventure Scarlett and the Spark of Life. It's got a great protagonist, snappy writing, hilarious jokes, and ill-tempered, headbutting Llama-monsters. Yeah, I know. Always with the Llama-monsters.
Released a few weeks ago for the iPhone and iPod touch, The Spark of Life is the first (and so far, only) episode in Launching Pad Games' Scarlett Adventures series. The game's narrative set-up is nothing you haven't seen before—protagonist Scarlett is a princess in a slightly screwy fantasy kingdom, and at the game's start she finds herself kidnapped by a couple of haplessly nefarious dudes on horseback. In the hour or so that it took me to play through The Spark of Life, I helped Scarlett make her escape, visited a small mountain town, dealt with the local fauna and enlisted the help of the locals in order to assemble a too-humorous-to-spoil means of transportation.
If all of this sounds a bit rote, well
that's because it is. And on top of the been-there-done-that storyline and basic adventure gameplay, there's also the fact that this game is a cinch. I don't just mean that it's unchallenging, I mean that it's a skip-right-along, never-pause-for-a-moment, spoon-feed-you-the-answers-to-every-single-puzzle breeze. Between its hand-holding design and borderline-extreme brevity, it almost feels like the tutorial level to a larger game. Which, when I think about it, it kind of is.
But although Scarlett and the Spark of Life is a piece of cake, it's also
well, a piece of cake! Cake is delicious. Throughout my time with the game I found myself smiling, laughing and generally enjoying the hell out of myself. I didn't pause once from beginning to end and I would've happily kept playing after the credits rolled.
That's primarily because the game sports some of the most effortlessly humorous writing I've seen outside of a Double Fine game, with a strong feel for wordplay and loads of whip-smart one-liners. In addition, Scarlett is a supremely likable protagonist, a capable young princess with goggles on her forehead and enough mud on her hem to impress Elizabeth Bennet. She doesn't take crap from anyone, and her wry asides and excellently terrible puns recall Guybrush Threepwood in his heyday.
Much of the game's humor stems from the sort of self-aware genre-lampooning that Ron Gilbert pioneered in his Monkey Island games and recently perfected in the hilarious Deathspank (a game which, while perhaps not for everyone, I liked more than David did.) For example, Scarlett's trusty crowbar is named "Chester," and one of the game's bumbling villains is revealed to have a "Henchman Report Card." (He received good marks in "Horse Craft" but a failing grade in "Sycophantic Laughter.")
And yet despite similarities to its point-and-click predecessors, Scarlett and the Spark of Life's tone is very much its own. Despite many zany characters, the gags are more droll than delirious, and much of the humor is surprisingly understated. In the following exchange, a mysterious local street-sweeper quizzes Scarlett about the local customs before allowing her to pass.
Man: "Our village is famous for a certain animal. What is the name of the beast?"
Scarlett: "I think it was a... Pocalcos?"
Man: "Correct, if a little prosaic."
The Spark of Life's flow is aided greatly by a few small but clever design decisions. The game offers no built-in hint system, instead offering players the ability to highlight all of the objects in the room with which Scarlett can interact. The puzzle solutions themselves are entirely straightforward and common-sensical, and though I would've preferred a bit more of a challenge, at least the designers never indulge in the ridiculous flights of illogical fancy that have been such a bugbear in older, more obtuse adventure games.
The game's story is told via text-filled voice-bubbles, which pop across the screen as quickly as players can tap. That may seem like a small detail, but it is not—speedy readers can move through the game's conversations at a brisk pace, which saves time and gives the dialogue a screwball rhythm that significantly enhances its comedic energy.
What's more, Scarlett and the Spark of Life's presentation is damn near flawless. This is a vivacious game, featuring a colorful Cartoon-Network palette and animation-style as well as some fantastic musical cues. Transitions between chapters are seamless, and there isn't a moment of downtime or a single loading screen in the entire episode. In fact, the whole experience is so polished that it's hard to believe it's the work of an independent studio comprised of just two guys—writer/designers Tristan Clark and Tim Knauf—along with one artist, James Ellis.
You'll notice that this review doesn't have a score—that's because with an episodic release like this, it simply doesn't feel quite right to issue a final verdict on the game without seeing more. Only time will tell if the full Scarlett Adventures collection can maintain the light, joyful inertia of its first episode, and I do hope that subsequent installments will dial up the puzzles' complexity a bit without sacrificing the game's breezy energy.
Given how remarkably assured Launching Pad's first outing feels, I can find no reason not to feel optimistic. And given its surprisingly low $3 price-tag, there's almost no reason not to check it out for yourself.
Scarlett and the Spark of Life is available for the iPhone and the iPod Touch. The iPhone version of the game was reviewed. It was developed and published by Launching Pad Games and is available in the iTunes App Store for $3.
Kirk Hamilton is a musician and writer in San Francisco. He can be found at Kirkhamilton.com and on Twitter @kirkhamilton.
Watch the trailer for Scarlett and the Spark of Life: