Little Nightmares Review
Microsoft Xbox OneAlso available on PC and Sony PlayStation 4
From the creators of the cute and mischievous Little Big Planet comes another little adventure. Little Nightmares follows the tortured tale of the pint-sized escapee, Six. Hunted constantly by a cast of abject horrors, Six must escape The Maw, a huge submarine-like object beneath the sea. Her pursuers include a blind Janitor with hauntingly long arms, murderous, phlegm-filled chefs, and a whole bunch of leeches. Don’t let the little yellow raincoat fool you. Little Nightmares earns its title: this world is far from cute.
The game begins when Six wakes in the very bottom of the submarine, where life is hard for children like her. Walking through the first few rooms, Six is dwarfed by all items of furniture. She is just tall enough to climb onto the sofa of one of the first rooms, and when she does, the player can get a good view of the dangling feet of an unidentified man that has hung himself - he is presumably the owner of the huge slippers Six can pick up and throw around. It is the first of many images that will take you by surprise. Little Nightmares does not hold back.
Without any dialogue or narration to shape the player’s imagination, the game relies on this strong, almost photorealistic imagery to construct an impression of the world Six exists within. The use of what the creators have called the 'dollhouse perspective' elevates the game beyond just a side scroller with 3D effects. While you can, in a limited fashion, look around for yourself, most of the camera direction is automatic. Throughout, the camera pans in and out, sometimes claustrophobically close to Six and her struggles, and at other times swooping out enough to reveal the dizzying vastness of the Maw itself. There are only a few moments in which this camera work is restrictive to gameplay, and generally, if the camera can’t shift to where you are, you’re not meant to be there. The seasickness-inducing movement of the submarine also rolls the environment back and forth, an effect that plays into some puzzles, making quick judgement and timing essential.
Combined with the tangibly atmospheric animation of Six's environment, Six herself is totally believable as an uncoordinated toddler, lost in a dark world. She is disarmingly cute in her yellow raincoat, which seems to shine with moisture throughout her journey. When she interacts with her environment the animations seem perfectly natural. Each interaction produces a small animation so that, when she picks up items you can almost feel the weight of them yourself, and when she jumps to grab a ledge, your heart thumps in worry. It is perhaps because she is so small and cute that the horrors inflicted on her, and around her, seem so starkly haunting.
There are lots of ways to get Six killed in this world, each as visceral as the last. If you don’t feel bad initially, the lengthy load time between each death gives you plenty of time to feel guilty. There's a whole host of characters interested in killing, eating, cooking and embalming Six. After a night of playing, your mind will be haunted by long reaching arms, dirty kitchen knives, and the huge bloated bodies of Six’s attackers. The Maw's characters are a lesson in the different types of wretchedness and while not all of them are scary, they are all impressively revolting.
The extent of the Maw and its inhabitants are revealed steadily as Six progresses through the ship's structure. The game splits The Maw’s environment over several levels, and in each level Six travels through a series of inventively connected rooms. While this is a fairly pedestrian way of unfolding the horror story plot, the game rarely feels formulaic or predictable. Each new environment is as detailed and haunting as the last, but in subtly different ways. Unexpectedly, the later levels take a sharp turn into the narrative realm of Ghibli’s Spirited Away, so much so that the film must have been a source of inspiration. However, if Tarsier Studios was influenced by Miyazaki’s work, it has effectively taken its most haunting aspects and shaped them to their own use.
The gameplay itself mixes platforming, stealth, light puzzles and some good old fashioned running away to keep you interested. Each level contains a main nasty character, and as Six progresses, the challenges that need to be completed to get past them become more difficult. This makes both mechanical and narrative sense, particularly when it comes to characters like the Janitor. To get past him requires a mix of stealth and quick platforming. The more times Six encounters him, the harder it becomes to bypass him. You can fool a long-armed blind janitor once, but more than that and he will get wise to you. Some levels are harder than others, and while you might get stuck on some, others are a breeze.
Overall, Tarsier’s tale is never short on intrigue. Six intermittently gets extremely hungry on her journey, needing to eat anything she can get her hands on. These scenes increasingly make it difficult to judge our protagonist’s moral compass, and as the game progresses, you might be left wondering who the real nightmare is here.
In the end, Little Nightmares is only let down by a few faults. The lengthy load time between deaths is an unfortunate and constant frustration. The game does not hold your hand through gameplay, and so it is always up to the player to work out what is required for each level. Therefore, each level necessitates a few deaths to work out just what Six needs to do. How can you navigate these nightmares when the load times themselves are a nightmare you must get around?
There are also a few of what appear to be collectables in the game. Six has a lighter that you can ignite at any time, and with this she can light any lanterns or candles that she comes across. When a candle is ignited, a small melody plays and the save icon appears. However, the lanterns, along with a few other collectables, appear to have no effect on the gameplay overall. Perhaps, we just didn’t use them correctly, but after the effort of finding as many as possible, it was frustrating to discover that it had made no impact.
Yet, there are moments in Little Nightmares that truly take your breath away. The gradual turn of the game’s narrative was totally absorbing, and the ending was a truly brilliant surprise. The gameplay and puzzles are light enough that you can truly focus on your surroundings, but the chase scenes will still get your heart racing. As scary as it is smart, Little Nightmares is a strangely joyful playing experience.