There’s a new study out from Flurry Analytics that highlights the increasing dominance of free and free-to-play apps in the iOS environment. Free-to-play isn’t a bad thing; it’s an approach that lets developers put out a lot of game and players to pay what they want for it. But Tiny Thief makes a powerful argument for little games that offer a lot of value for the money.
You play a cute little thief in a kingdom of squat, angry people. They’ve taken an unreasonable dislike to your stealing everything that isn’t nailed down, and your faithful ferret is your only friend. Oh, there’s also a princess, and you’ll be rescuing her as the story progresses, because this is the cool kind of kingdom that has princesses and black knights and pirates and dragons.
The control scheme and gameplay are as simple as it gets. You tap the screen to go places and interact with objects. There are three stars to earn in each level: one star for stealing a particular object, one star for stealing a few other supplemental items, and one star for finding your ferret friend, who is hiding somewhere in every scene. There’s a brief tutorial, but you barely need it. This is one of those games that teaches itself.
That simple framework is enough to support two dozen superb game levels, though. The wordless storyline sends you through a bakery, a pirate ship, a mad wizard’s lab, castle dungeons and queen’s bedchambers and more. The locations are rich with detail, full of hidden items to find and mini-puzzles that have to be solved with good timing and creative item combinations. There’s a hint book with walk-throughs if you get stuck, but each puzzle can be solved with observation and a little patience.
There is an exceptional amount of polish in this game. There are unique animations in every level, from elaborate Rube Goldberg devices to the little victory dances that the thief does at the exits. Even the end-of-level score popups feature take a moment to show the thief and the ferret enjoying the spoils of their victories. There are so many places where the developers could have said “good enough” and used what worked a few levels ago, but they seem to have gone the extra mile every time.
There’s just one drawback to this kind of carefully crafted experience. Each of the levels is great, but there aren’t many levels to play. You’ll blow through the first half of the game quickly; the later levels are larger and require more thought, but this is a short game even by iOS standards.
There’s not much replayability, either. You might go through each level a couple of times so you can find your ferret and grab all the supplemental items, but once you’ve got three stars on a level there’s nothing left to see.
That said, it’s better for a game to have a few wonderful levels than a lot of mediocre ones. Tiny Thief plays out like a children’s storybook — short and sweet, with pretty pictures and lots to look at on each page. The world may belong to free to play games, but the App Store needs more little gems like this too.