Little Nightmares is an engrossing experience that explores themes of innocence and gluttony, in a dark, twisted world. It may only have a run-time of three hours, but Tarsier Studios has created something special that will stick with me for years to come.
The cold open of Little Nightmares will feel very reminiscent of Limbo and Inside to many gamers. And too right. This game falls within the same sub-genre (if you could call it that) of side-scrolling platformers. But don’t take that as a discouraging remark. Little Nightmares’ inspirations are clear but it’s incredibly unique in execution.
You fill the role of a young girl known only as Six. Trapped on The Maw, an enormous sea vessel for the utterly grotesque, you must find a way out with nothing but a lighter to guide you. The game is presented in a cutaway, dollhouse-like fashion and you’ll find yourself exploring every room with overwhelming curiosity.
And explore I did. Every room from the cargo hold to the kitchens has a story to tell. Furniture bends and distorts as if in a whimsical, childlike nightmare. These cluttered shelves and cupboards tower over you as trash and toys litter the floor. The beautifully rendered environments are complemented further by heavy shadows and bleak, directional lighting. I couldn’t help but poke around and interact with everything.
Throughout the levels there’ll be secrets and collectables to find so your nosing around doesn’t go to waste. You’ll find porcelain statues, lanterns, candles, and little creatures called ‘Nomes.’ They’re only valuable to completionists as they only unlock achievements or concept art, but hearing twinkly jingles when they’re, broken, lit or hugged (respectively (Come on, don’t be cruel to the Nomes!)) is satisfying enough.
The game is presented in a cutaway, dollhouse-like fashion and you’ll find yourself exploring every room with overwhelming curiosity.
Controls feel very natural, and coupled with how well Six is animated, aids in this engrossing experience. There is a tremendous amount of nuance to her mannerisms. From the way she sneaks, to the way she surveys a room with you. She feels very present and you can’t help but feel wholly responsible for her survival. Climbing is well executed too. Navigating your way over crates and furniture is tight, responsive and nicely animated.
Like the games that came before it, Little Nightmares offers no disposition. Instead, it leaves most of the mystery and intrigue open to interpretation. It is up to the player to build the backstory in their head, and there’s nothing more powerful than your own imagination. I found myself asking a lot of “whys” and proposing plenty of “what ifs” and it seemed to only get worse the deeper I went. This is under the proviso that I barely knew anything going in.
In each chapter, you’ll encounter some of The Maw’s gross inhabitants. Each with their own disturbing characteristics and preferred method of killing you. I can only describe the first fellow you meet as Tim Burton’s Mr. Tickle. With a metal plate engulfing the top of his head he is left blind, so he sniffs and clambers around, feeling everything and anything using his elongated arms. Without spoiling too much I’ll just say that these people are the stuff of nightmares. I was never entirely sure if they were actually human either. I mean, they look it, but they groan, breathe and screech like possessed beasts when they find you. Eugh! Gives me the willies.
The soundtrack and ambience harmonise in a way where you can’t tell the music apart from the creeks and groans of the vessel. Spine-tingling frequencies cut through the mix, yet sing with the rest of this dread-filled accompaniment. Little Nightmares’ presentation is nothing short of masterful and when all elements come together, I found myself completely engrossed. I enjoyed the moment-to-moment gameplay yet couldn’t wait to move through and see what was next. That’s a rare thing indeed.
It is up to the player to build the backstory in their head, and there’s nothing more powerful than your own imagination.
As you can tell, I am very impressed with this game, but it isn’t without its shortcomings. While I never felt disengaged with Little Nightmares I never really felt a sense of challenge. I found the puzzles, though enjoyable, were very simplistic and I solved them with minimal effort. It seems less about the developers being inept at creating puzzles, but more of their desire to keep you moving. This is perfectly fine and I cannot fault them for that, but I never felt that “aha!” moment.
Aside from the segments where you must sneak around enemies, everything feels heavily controlled. You are guaranteed to survive a chase sequence if you just keep moving, and the enemies move in such a way that you will always be just out of reach as you get away. Again, this is not a bad thing, it just feels obvious. With games like Limbo and Inside these moments always felt like you maybe could’ve been quicker. When you just make the escape it felt genuine. Little Nightmares tends to make these scripted moments more identifiable, but I’d be lying if I said the tension wasn’t there still.
Little Nightmares run-time will definitely feel all too brief for a lot of people. Personally, the game feels like it is missing a chapter as pacing seems to ramp up unnaturally. Whether this was intended or the developers ran out of time is unclear. Despite this, I think it hits the sweet spot of where I felt satisfied at the end but would happily have had more. This is where a lot of media goes wrong, they either under deliver or cause fatigue. Little Nightmares, like a macabre porridge, gets it just right. Hell. If it wasn’t enough then just play it again. The environments and world Tarsier Studios has built is so consuming that I felt a level of immersion I’ve struggled to find for a long time. I’ll definitely be going in for seconds.