Adventure games have been going through something of a renaissance lately, partially in thanks to the rise of episodic content. A small studio can easily put out a two or three hour game, and once the engine has been built to run the game on, it becomes much easier to complete the rest of the episodes in the series with a faster turnaround time. Price the game right, tell a good enough story with good gameplay to back it up, and the people will respond favorably, leading the lucky developer to a land of wine and honey . . . or something like that.
Couple this trend with an ever growing portable gaming market, and it was only a matter of time before episodic adventure games started popping up on the world’s phones. The fine gentlemen at Launching Pad Games (all two of them) have provided the world with their own foray into the portable episodic adventure gaming world with the release of Scarlett and the Spark of Life, which is the first in what will presumably be a series of titles for the iPod/iPhone owning crowd.
The game opens with a kidnapping, or more accurately, the aftermath of one. The heroine of the story is the eponymous Scarlett, one of a pair of princesses kidnapped for reasons that aren’t really all that important at the moment. Scarlett must free herself from her bonds and escape, which in turn lands her in a bizarre alpine town where the psychopathic polcalcos (a cross between a llama and the devil apparently) are revered. The game then becomes simple: find a horse and escape the kidnappers. The only problem is that there are no horses in the town, meaning the only solution is to build a mechanical one. Build the horse and with the aid of a rather grumpy spark of life, make a break for freedom so that Scarlett can focus on rescuing the other princess.
Our bold heroine bravely engages in a bit of sexual innuendo
Scarlett is a good heroine for the tale, and it is a nice twist to have the princess save herself for a change; apparently she is both grumpy enough and capable enough with machinery to do so or at least capable enough to be able to build a mechanical horse. Not once does Scarlett play the damsel in distress, again, a refreshing change from the way stories with princesses normally work. The narrative itself is sturdy enough to carry the game, and the sense of humor displayed sparked memories of playing old Lucasarts titles, complete with occasional references to the originality of the narrative itself. A little meta-humor goes a long way, however, and the game wisely does not overuse this particular technique very often. Yet, the setting and art reminded me of another gaming series, the Kings Quest titles. Between these two associations, the Scarlett Adventures provokes some fairly positive nostalgia while playing. However, other characters are not so well rounded as Scarlett, although the real star of the game might very well be the mechanical horse whom Scarlett names Gherkin.
Gherkin is more than a match for the psychopathy of the polcalcos, as he has his own megalomaniacal plans for the world, which are continually frustrated by the poor quality of his own body. Once Gherkin’s body is complete, the game is pretty much over — save for a final sequence in which Scarlett must convince Gherkin to assist her. There are other characters apart from these two and a few of the puzzles (such as the final one) are completely dialogue based, but it is a shame that this is so, as apart from an old man who is “More Than Meets the Eye”, there’s not a real interesting character in the bunch. A few show sparks of good characterization (the beekeeper springs readily to mind) but the development of characters otherwise seems rushed (as with the two feuding sisters). It helps, however, that the quality of graphics is good, and the near constant smirk on the heroine’s face suggests that she, too, is somewhat amused by the strange demands being made upon her by the villagers.
The puzzles to be solved in the game are fairly simple. I think that the longest that I was stuck on a puzzle was two or three minutes. Then, I found the item that I needed to use a few screens back (and I am notoriously slow at adventure game puzzles almost as a rule). Yet, given the platform, having a game that can be worked through in small, easily beaten chunks is a good thing. There was enough to the puzzles to keep me interested and enough variety in the solutions that it never felt like I was just doing the same thing over and over again. The touch interface is excellently executed, and the addition of a button that reveals all of the items that one can interact with on screen is useful too. As an interesting bonus, the developers included a director’s commentary option that provides some interesting insights into the process of designing the world, characters, and interface.
Simply put, this is a solid game. It is not amazing, but it is good enough that I would consider continuing the tale when the second episode releases, if only to find out whether or not the princess Scarlett will succeed in saving the princess Lavender.