The thing about a nightmare is it can linger, it can stay with you even when you wake up, and the more it crawls around inside your waking thoughts, the more terrifying the nightmares to follow become.
This is the case for Little Nightmares II, which takes what the original Little Nightmares accomplished and amplifies it to frightening new levels. In every respect, Tarsier Studios have decided to avoid copying what came before but instead building on it to take you to new places that you should dare to tread.
You begin the story as Mono, a small boy with a paper bag on his head. Mono is lost in the woods and must make his way out. A sinister aura permeates your every step, soon it becomes apparent that something very twisted is going on in these woods. Huddles of bodies are dangling up in nets, gnarly traps are littered everywhere, and then you come across a cabin in the woods, where nothing bad ever happens.
Inside the cabin, this is where you meet Six, the lead protagonist of the original Little Nightmares, now free of The Maw. Together, you must make your way the world of Little Nightmares and stay safe. Tarsier did not want to repeat Little Nightmares, it was always made clear they wanted this game to chart its own course, so Little Nightmares II is not another escape story, it is more of a journey.
Little Nightmares was set on The Maw, a monstrous underwater lair inhabited by grotesque monsters. Through exploring The Maw, you started to realise it was actually something of a holiday resort for these creatures. The more you understood the world that surrounded you, the less it made sense, and the more it unnerved you. That is very much the same approach to Little Nightmares II, only expanded to cover a far greater scope. With Mono and Six, you will explore the world outside and pass through a wide range of familiar, yet troublingly unfamiliar environments. Much like how The Maw warped our perception of a resort or hotel, the locations in Little Nightmares II distort our perception of places we are supposed to feel at ease, filtering out our sense of safety and leaving only our darkest and most irrational fears.
The School plays on how these institutions first instil our understanding of power structures, it’s less about learning and more about learning there are rules, that there are people to fear and people to obey. The wards of a hospital prey on the fear that we are putting our bodies in complete strangers’ hands and how easy it could be for someone to abuse our trust. The rooms and hallways of a dilapidated apartment complex toy with our paranoia of what exactly your neighbour might be up to behind closed doors. It takes us through the mundanity of our world and twists it into something hideous and threatening, and then it takes us to places you would never expect. Or even dare to imagine.
The use of more open spaces, rather than The Maw’s more cramped confines, allows more opportunities for exploration within the frame. You can run up and down, left and right, as far as the environment will allow. You will only ever find your movements boxed in by design, and that’s when you should really start to worry. It also presents more opportunity for verticality. This is evident very early into the Wilderness stage and is crucial to the layout of future chapters. It allows Tarsier Studios to create more layered and elaborate puzzles and more inventive set pieces.
Much like the original, and its DLC, the world and creature designs tell the story rather than any narrator. With the new broadened scope, the potential for stories being told has been enhanced. There are more hints about what this world used to look like in the ‘before times’. There are even suggestions at what is responsible for all this, but it never gives anything away. It’s Lovecraftian horror in the truest sense, it’s not about tentacle monsters, it’s about catching a glimpse of just part of something bigger, something unimaginable, and your mind running wild at the possibilities. The ever-escalating unease of what the rest of this thing could be, and endless questions of what it has planned for you. It’s the unspeakable terror of the unknown.
The world of Little Nightmares II would struggle to grab you, like a hand around the throat, if it were not for the incredible design choices made by Tarsier Studios. There are many significant technical improvements over its predecessor here. The stunning use of light, including plenty of natural feeling light, adds new dimensions to the world. It is remarkable what a hint of moonlight can do to anchor you, it tells you this bizarre and dreadful world is not so far removed from our own as we may like. Light is not only there for creating atmosphere and moments of terror, but it is also sometimes used as a crucial gaming mechanic. The beam of a torch can very well be the thin line standing between you and death.
The sound design is also used expertly to create a constant sense of fear. The sounds of branches breaking or floorboards creaking so that the classic Little Nightmares sense of claustrophobia can still be felt even in open spaces. There will be times where familiar sounds, such as the sound of a television playing in another room, will mix with something far less familiar. Ominous unknowable droning. Grounded, earthly ambience meeting an inhuman hum.
The overall presentation is leaps ahead of the original, down to a more tangible quality to the textures, and more elaborate camera movement to create cinematic moments. The visual and audio design of each area feels intuitive without betraying any internal consistency. You can almost always tell what parts of a place are interactive and where you need to go without the game telegraphing it with inorganic visual markers that break immersion. This makes the puzzle-solving a lot less stressful.
Some key mechanical improvements add new layers to the gameplay. Firstly, combat is now possible. On your travels, you will find objects that can be dragged by Mono (they are all too large for his small body to carry comfortably) and desperately swing at any oncoming creatures. This mechanic can also break down barriers, which is used to expert effect during some tense chase sequences.
The use of Six as an AI companion adds new possibilities for traversal and puzzles in the game. Tarsier wanted to ensure Six still felt like a character in her own right, with her own agency, rather than blindly following Mono or even leading Mono around. There is a healthy balance of cooperation between you and your companion, sometimes you lead the way, and sometimes Six will know what to do. It all feels rooted in character rather than merely being a mechanic to progress through the game.
The game engine was also rebuilt from the ground up to ensure the game loads a lot faster, something that is becoming as common a trend in the new generation as ray tracing. This helps keep your momentum going, even after a nasty death. If you mistimed a jump or something scary caught you off guard, you don’t have time to cool down, you are dropped into your checkpoint almost immediately.
Of course, the scares are the main attraction of this series and Little Nightmares II offering a bigger world to explore means more variety of frights. From the eerie level design, the somehow even more despicable monster designs, and the ability to prey on genuine human fears and experiences rooted in something recognisably human, the game always knows how to get under your skin at the right moment.
And the use of Six as an AI companion compounds those fear. The level of responsibility you feel for Six also enhances the tension a great deal since you can no longer control her as you could in the original game. You now feel like you have to work even harder to keep her safe while also keeping yourself safe. It plays on the fact you have some level of attachment to Six from your time with the first game like it’s exploiting a weakness you had locked away in the back of your head. Every scare in Little Nightmares II feels like it is rooted in true nightmare logic, in that nothing makes sense except for your fear. Your fear is the only thing that’s real in the world.
And, most crucially, the moments of horror never outstay their welcome. They are perfectly paced moments of creeping dread or sustained terror. Some mechanics needed to survive in a particular area are unique to that area, so even your survival strategies are continually refreshed. It always keeps you on your toes, it never lets you get complacent. You are never allowed to feel like you are in control, you will always feel like you are in danger.
As any good sequel should, Little Nightmares II expands on what you already know, even extending into the realm of cosmic horror. Not only toying with your sense of safety but toying with your sense of time and space, Tarsier Studios have found all-new ways to unnerve you. Maybe some fans will miss the more restrained approach, but I absolutely adored where they chose to take this series. It was bold and ambitious and, at least as far as storytelling choices go, it made sense.
As much as anything in this world can make sense. Tarsier knows the real power of Little Nightmares comes from trying and failing to make sense of things. The series teases out the faintest glimpse of an answer, never the whole answer, and the mere suggestion of an answer only comes with new questions.
Questions that will burrow deep into your head, perhaps only reemerging when you go to bed that night.
The thing about a nightmare is it can linger, it can stay with you even when you wake up. And after playing Little Nightmares II, you should be afraid of what might come to you the next time you fall asleep.
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