Scarlett Adventures: Episode 1 - Scarlett and the Spark of Life review
Long before Apple iDevices ushered in the modern era of mass-consumed independent applications, the adventure genre was way ahead of the curve in the enthusiasm of its user-creation community, resulting in a host of charming medium-length games, particularly over the past decade. These adventures have typically been free--true labors of love, and I can remember so many times where I would play such a game and say “You know, I really wish I could have paid at least a couple bucks for this game.” When some developers finally attempted to take their projects commercial, however, there was often enough difficulty in finding the right market price that success levels have been mixed, at best.
Which brings us to one of the few original point-and-click (or point-and-tap, such as it is) adventures for the iPhone/iPod Touch, Scarlett and the Spark of Life. It is a true indie adventure, shining with the same independent spark that so many freeware adventures have had, exposing some of the same flaws that indie projects often struggle with—but pointing the way in an important and overdue direction, as a delightful and amusing bite-sized commercial adventure with an equally bite-sized price point.
Developer Launching Pad Games, a small New Zealand studio with a modest resume and no full-fledged adventures to date, shows a keen instinct for what makes a worthwhile adventure experience. Spark of Life is the first in a planned Scarlett Adventures tetralogy following the events of our titular heroine, a princess with a bad attitude and a knack for putting herself in troublesome situations. All the details of her backstory clearly have yet to be revealed, but we do discover right away that Scarlett is being abducted (escaping from her captors is the focus of this first episode) and we learn more about who she is and what has happened to her sister as the story develops.
The game takes place over a very contained environment in the simple medieval town of Monteil, but there’s no lack of imaginative characters populating the setting. The game features eight supporting characters and ascribes detailed personality traits to each. There are the snooty quarreling sisters, the sneering village troublemaker who wants nothing less than to be helpful to anyone, and the mysterious village sweeper Galadaemus, who is certainly more than he seems. The game even invents a new race of zombified goat/horse mixes, called pocalcos, who end up playing an essential role in the game’s final chase.
There is lots of dialogue, and this is definitely the game’s strength; character conversations are always amusing, often absolutely hilarious. It falls flat at times with a juvenile tone, and tries too hard with some jokes, but soars much more often than it sinks. The mechanical “horse” Gherkin, who is set up to be a significant ally in future episodes, is one of the funniest supporting characters in recent adventure memory—he brings a Strongbad-esque mania and insanity, and even though the game lacks voice acting, that’s probably for the best because his voice in my head is likely funnier than it would have been on my iPod.
With very few real peers to speak of on the system, I can’t draw many useful comparisons for the visual quality of the game, which is good but not great. All the backgrounds are uncluttered, bright, and colorful, drawn in a simplistic children’s fairy-tale style. Character designs are simple, and animation is sparse. Music is almost totally absent, with a few sporadic sound effects here and there, which is disappointing. The game is built to minimize resource and size requirements, and won’t be impressing anyone on the technical side, but it is never unpleasant to look at or listen to.
It’s hard to go wrong with the simple tap mechanic of the iPhone/iPod Touch, and Scarlett uses it well. Tap on a person or item to interact with it. Tap on a location to walk there. Tap on specific screen icons to access your inventory or highlight all available hotspots (always a useful mechanic, though one that probably won’t be necessary). The only minor frustration is using items on hotspots, which requires tap-and-dragging items and releasing them in the right spot. Unfortunately, unless your fingers are the size of toothpicks, you’ll find yourself completely covering up the item you’re trying to use and therefore guessing what you’re dropping it on. It would be nice to see a re-engineering of this mechanic, as the iDevices don’t lend themselves to dragging and dropping.
This little interface quirk will almost surely provide a good deal more challenge than the game itself, which is remarkably easy. There is certainly a natural ease that comes from being a bite-sized adventure—you can hardly introduce a mass quantity of locations or items to stack up the challenge—but Scarlett is really, really trying hard to be a resistance-free game. The game’s only substantial puzzle is disappointingly solved for you directly by a dialogue sequence. In fact, you’ll find that pursuing dialogue trees to their completion will solve almost all of the game's puzzles. This isn’t the worst idea, especially for the introduction to a series, but let’s hope for increased challenge and puzzle imagination in future episodes.
Ultimately the game’s strongest impression is left by its dialogue writing, which is the right note to emphasize. The characters have strong and consistently laugh-worthy personalities, and the writers have no fear in painting Scarlett as a somewhat unlikeable, but amusingly flawed, princess stereotype. Glowing with the sparkling charm of the independent spirit, this is a simple game that I finished in three half-hour sessions, and with a $2.99 price point for a game that is never dull or frustrating, I don’t have any doubt in declaring that it is worth the price. Scarlett and the Spark of Life points the way not just to a promising series and new developer, but to a very exciting change in direction for the future of the independent adventure community. Adventure fans will have a hard time finding a better way to spend a few dollars in the App store.
Although quite short and light on challenge, this is the kind of sparky, fun adventure I hope to see more of on iDevices very soon.
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