Little Nightmares is a macabre puzzle-platformer in which you control a small child navigating through a dark world where your sense of hopelessness is only matched by the sense that you’ve played this game before. Yes, because while I greatly enjoyed my time with Little Nightmares it would be dishonest of me to say that it didn’t remind me of both Limbo and Inside. However both of those games are some two of the strongest independent video games of the last decade, so that’s like saying “this amazing pizza reminds me of these other two amazing pizzas”, but this case instead of comparing sauce or dough we’ll compare Lovecraftian horror and brutal child murder.
In Little Nightmares, you play as Six, a small girl in a yellow raincoat that wakes up in a mysterious vessel known as The Maw, with little explanation and even less direction. Speaking of explanation, the only way I even knew the main character's name was some pre-release information. There is almost nothing in the way of story in the game, at least explicitly, instead Little Nightmares reveals its narrative through level design and occasional morsels of context that give hints to the wider world.
It contrasts surreal visuals and character design with illusions to safe places, like a bedroom or a library, but this is far from a safe place. It doles out its horror subtly and effectively, don't expect any YouTube videos of grown men screaming at jump scares here, Little Nightmares horror is all about what you can't see.
The game begins with a blink and you miss it cut scene in which a distorted maternal figure looms in shadow. We are never told her name, her connection to Six or her role in the wider world, but it's a strong and intriguing catalyst to begin the journey. Most of Little Nightmares narrative is depicted like this. I found the games illusions to the wider world interesting, but some of the hints the game gives to you regarding the state of things veers slightly on the side of too obscure. The final moments also come out of left field somewhat, with a fairly short by comparison final environment, which is a shame because the final enemy the game introduces is probably it's best in terms of pure horror.
Levels consist of a series of puzzles and platforming challenges that are often accompanied with enemies that you must distract and avoid in order to proceed. The puzzles are somewhat basic, but the added element of monsters in pursuit adds tension and genuine fear to proceedings. The only way I realised I had finished a level and was starting a new one was the Trophy I received for completing them. The whole game feels very cohesive and if possible I’d recommend playing through it all in one sitting. It’s not the longest game in the world but it never outstayed it’s welcome. Only once was I ever stuck on a section for more than a few minutes and that was because I was too afraid to get too close to the 500ft long arms man, as he is affectionately known
Puzzles require Six to pull, climb and carry various objects in order to advance to next stage of the level. Thankfully the grabbing mechanic is rather forgiving, so instead of launching yourself to your death on a regular basis, you can grab on to the various platforms, only for a demonic chef to eat you alive. Six also has a handy lighter she can use to illuminate the occasionally pitch black levels. It can also be used to light collectable candles and lantern throughout the game. Little Nightmares use of light sources is dynamic and striking, creating one of the most picturesque game worlds in recent memory. It’s things like this that contribute to the sense of a macabre painting come to life.
As is the tradition in horror platformers featuring children, death in Little Nightmares is utterly grim. While not reaching Play Dead's fetishisation of cold murder, Tarsier has instead opted for a bleak, inescapable grasp. Monsters feel genuinely dangerous and enormous. They’re also slightly faster than Six’s running speed which simultaneously evokes the theme of never being able to truly escape your nightmares and also adds a stealth element to proceedings that make encounters feel genuinely tense.
The game uses a bleak range of dark colour palettes which contrast against Six’s luminous yellow raincoat. Levels feel oppressive without ever resorting to cheap scares or gratuitous gore. The game's monsters look like someone look at the rubber suits from The Garbage Pail Kids Movie and decided they didn’t quite look horrifying enough. They’re vaguely human looking but, they're so grotesque when compared to Six it re-enforces the idea that no one in this world is your friend, and danger is everywhere. The game’s camera is also very slightly tilts from side to side occasionally. This adds to the sense of unease and is also world building that is paid off well in the games later areas. The soundtrack is reserved and melancholy, matching the game’s tone. Sound effects are often muted or distorted, which gives the effect of being submerged underwater. The game’s monsters wail in chorus’ of blood-curdling screams and howls and serve to heighten the games pursuits.
Little Nightmares is an unsettling, memorable and satisfying journey. It combines interesting puzzles and harsh environments that while evoking its contemporaries, carves its own place in the canon of recent independent games. Tarsier has produced a haunting series of levels that makes me yearn for more from them. In a year dominated by several excellent, but extremely long games, Little Nightmares serves as a perfect, if utterly unsettling palette cleanser.
|+ Genuinely creepy.||– Short final level.|
|+ Incredible art.||– Slightly more story would have been appreciated.|
|+ Memorable monster and level design.|
|+ Compelling use of audio.|