Platforms PC, PS4, XBO (reviewed)
Developer Tarsier Studios
Publisher Bandai Namco Entertainment
Release Date April 28, 2017

Little Nightmares is an atmospheric puzzle platformer where you control Six, a tiny protagonist trapped in a nightmarish world that is far bigger they are. Players need to guide Six through the disturbing Maw, a mysterious underwater prison called home by some incredibly warped, grotesque creatures who want nothing more than to turn Six into their next meal.

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The best horror games trade in slightly altering the familiar, taking those things that are recognisable to us and twisting them slightly, keeping players suspended in a feeling of uneasiness that something isn’t quite right. Little Nightmares pulls the same trick by trapping its protagonist in a dollhouse-like environment. Every place you visit in Little Nightmares will be familiar, with plenty of recognisable environments and objects, but at a much larger scale.

It’s familiar but just different enough to never let you get entirely comfortable. As you guide Six through the nightmarish Maw you’ll see plenty of otherwise mundane objects everywhere. But you’ll never be able to shake the feeling that it’s not quite right. It’s all just a little bit too big and you’re just a little bit too small. It’s a fantastic trick designed to keep the player just a little off balance at all times.

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Little Nightmares is a triumph of presentation. It manages to evoke the same kind of imagery as a waking nightmare. Its environments, antagonists and sound design are ripped straight from dream logic, run through a nightmare fuelled filter and presented to you as a nightmare you probably had when you were a child. This isn’t a traditional horror game filled with jump scares and monsters that try to claw you to death. Little Nightmares’ horror is more subtle than that.

It’s the sense that everything is just wrong. From the scale of everything around you to the layout of the various rooms and corridors. It’s familiar but it doesn’t make sense, which can be the most effective kind of horror. A sense of dread is your constant companion throughout Little Nightmares. It’s always at the back of your mind as you move between rooms. It’s at the very forefront of your mind when you have to run from or sneak past the various denizens of this monstrous world.

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The enemies of Little Nightmares are fantastically well designed. There aren’t many, but that just makes them all the more memorable. Combining some spine-chilling creature designs with the truly horrific noises they make, simply being in the same room as them (or being able to hear them in the next one) is enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention. I cannot credit the aesthetic, sound design and soundtrack enough for creating a powerfully atmospheric game.

Unfortunately, Little Nightmares is very much a case of style over substance. While the presentation is fantastic, the game that has been built around it leaves a lot to be desired. Mechanically Little Nightmares is a puzzle platformer, with elements of stealth and fast-paced running thrown into the mix. You’ll spend your time alternately solving environmental puzzles and dodging creatures ripped straight from your nightmares (one way or another).

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There are some significant problems with the camera and the controls in Little Nightmares that significantly detract from the overall experience. Controlling Six is a needlessly convoluted affair, seemingly adding extra button pushes to most sequences simply to give the player more to do during gameplay. Jumping and grabbing have been separated for no real reason. If you’re not holding both buttons when you jump then Six will collide with a ledge and fall to her death.

Throw in the fact that you’ll also need to hold a third button down to sprint in order to actually make a jump and you’ve got some awkward controls. What should have been straightforward is complicated for the sake of being complicated. This combines with a wayward camera that doesn’t always manage to keep with Six. Rather than stay directly to her side, the camera frequently lags behind or moves ahead of her, causing odd angles that shift the controls just slightly enough to frustrate your efforts at survival.

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I’ll be the first to admit that the odd camera angles can occasionally create some truly remarkable visual spectacles, but it does so at a detriment to actually playing the game. Running across pipes or making simple jumps become unnecessarily difficult because it becomes harder to judge things like walking direction or distances. You’ll veer off course, fall off ledges, miss jumps and run into the environment during critical chases because the camera is setting itself up for a pretty shot at the expense of your movement (the infrequent framerate drops on Xbox One don’t help).

This is also about the only challenge Little Nightmares actually offers. Without the camera or control issues the game is without difficulty. Puzzles require little thought, stealth requires minimal concentration and more action-oriented moments are generally resolved through trial and error rather than any underlying challenge. In those latter moments you figure out what to do or where to go by simply learning “don’t do that” a second too late, rather than via any sort of communication from the game.

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This trial and error gameplay is frustrating enough without a laborious checkpoint system that can cost you significant progress, forcing you to replay fairly long sections of the game because you couldn’t line Six up with the specific pixels needed to pass the next section (for example). Between these issues, the platforming woes and the fact that Six will occasionally not do what you want her to do, it all combines to create a frankly frustrating experience.

And while the excellently crafted atmosphere could pull you through the otherwise annoying gameplay, the lack of any meaningful story and incredibly abrupt ending may well kill any enthusiasm you otherwise have for the game. Little Nightmares is far too short, with a single playthrough clocking in at around 2.5 hours (less if you solve areas faster, slightly more if you go looking for collectables). While there are plenty of great games that last that long or less, Little Nightmares is unfortunately not one of them.

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There’s no story to latch onto. The only reason I know the protagonist is named Six is because of the Steam store page. There’s symbolism in the game which seems to indicate a deeper meaning, but it’s rendered utterly hollow as there’s no context or information to actually latch onto. And then just as it feels as though the game is about to open up and really get going, you go for a short walk up some stairs and into the credit roll.

While the first four areas of Little Nightmares are lengthy affairs, with a series of puzzles, stealth sections and run like hell moments that can feel pretty good, the end of the game is a waste. The fact that it feels like the middle of the game until you come to the realisation that you’ve beaten it should tell you all you need to know. The last area of the game introduces The Lady, who promises to be the most disturbing, terrifying foe you’ve encountered thus far.

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Instead of a lengthy new area in which you must avoid The Lady, you walk to one end of a corridor, retrieve a key, open a door and then engage in a poorly implemented boss fight. The whole thing takes about 5 or 10 minutes. This would have been forgivable given the series of scenes that follow, but rather than continue the game just ends. Right as Little Nightmares is getting truly interesting and you’re ready to see what’s next is where the game cuts you off. It sets up a fascinating scenario but decides to roll credits.

Summary

Little Nightmares is an excellent experience wrapped in a fairly frustrating game. The world that Tarsier Studios have constructed is excellent – trading on its dollhouse-like environments, terrifying antagonists and incredible audio to create an incredibly atmospheric and disturbing horror game. But this otherwise great presentation is let down badly by poorly implemented gameplay and a story that feels like it goes nowhere.

Moving through the Maw is made difficult by overly complex controls, a wandering camera that causes poor perspectives and some infuriating trial and error gameplay. While the monstrosities you face will disturb you, getting by them will do nothing but irritate you. There’s also a sense of pointlessness to the game – there’s no narrative beyond some meaningless symbolism, and just as the game gets interesting it ends.

6v2


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