The heavy handedness of modern horror games can be a bit exhausting at times. The innumerable chase sequences through hallways laden with scattered obstacles. The complete reliance on jump scares to create terror. Over the top gore or violence in an attempt to upset the stomach. These are all factors of the “Let’s Play bait” games of the last few years where the developer’s intent is to scare rather than create authentic horror. An ever encroaching sense of dread that lingers even after you turn off the game. Little Nightmares, a platforming/adventure game from Tarsier Studios, seeks to break that mold with quite an impressive tale of gluttony and fear. Sporting intensely morbid visuals and a story that seeks to leave you with just as many questions as answers, it still manages to leave an impression despite a few downfalls in the gameplay itself.
Little Nightmares has the player guiding Six, a child imprisoned in a massive, labyrinthian sailing vessel called the Maw. After waking up and escaping from the vessel’s prison, you make your way through various different chambers inhabited by crew and passengers alike. The environments and visuals look like something out of Tim Burton’s night terrors as they seek to take familiar scenes like a family living room, a restaurant kitchen, or a mess hall and distorts the visuals in the fashion of a Salvador Dahli painting. Combining these dreamlike visuals with impressive lighting effects and an overall tone of oppression, the Maw is at times as beautiful as it is dreadful.
The game itself is a platformer that focuses on environmental puzzles. There’s a good deal of pushing and pulling objects to get to higher places or uncovering hidden pathways to escape the maze-like rooms. Door handles are often too high and require one to pull a chair or briefcase over to reach the handle. Dressers and cabinets function as ladders for the sake of traversal, while tables, boxes, or beds act as cover from pursuing abominations. Progression blockers come in the form of electrified or locked doorways where you must traverse the environment to turn off an electrical panel or carry a key back through a patrolled area respectively. The game lacks a HUD but makes up for it with a simple control scheme of sprint, jump, crouch, and grab. Your grab button being the main initiator when climbing or holding objects. This simplistic control scheme lends itself to the player being able to figure out pathways and chase scenes with ease while creating an impressively cinematic experience.
Despite the simplistic control scheme and visuals, the game’s camera angles can make exploring environments difficult at times where there is a lack in three-dimensional perspective. The camera itself has you looking at the gameworld much like a dollhouse, with one wall of the room torn away to show the detailed interior. The camera itself is fixed to be on the outside looking in. There were quite a few moments where it becomes troublesome to figure out if you’re appropriately lined up to make a jump where failure ends in death. Combine this with a spotty checkpoint system and failures can become frustrating quickly.
Where Little Nightmares truly shines lies in creating a morbid senses of reality where you never feel comfortable with what you’re looking at. The dismal bowels of the ship show the disgusting treatment of the children that are used for food and who knows what else. Their frail forms locked away in cages are often dragged off screen to some unknown, unmentionable fate. The kitchens run by obese, dead eyed chefs are disgusting with meat coming from unknown sources that look quite a bit like body bags. Then there’s the restaurant portions where you are forced to run in between the meaty fingers of corpulent slobbering passengers who will eat your still writhing figure. These denizens aren’t quite monsters but lack any real qualities that would make them somewhat human.
Most horror games have monster designs that become banal after your first few encounters with them. So most of the time you barely get glimpses of your pursuers or they’re blasted away via shotgun and become a target rather than a point of tension. Little Nightmares forces the player to confront the monsters directly. Their twisted forms are disturbing to behold and no matter how much time one spends in their presence, their uncanny visages never fail to upset. This is not to mention the story which is fairly straightforward in terms of progression, but without any dialogue its themes and message lend themselves up to interpretation. I found myself mulling it over the day I finished, wondering if Six’s path through the unforgiving systematic machine of the Maw justified the display at the end of the game.
Little Nightmares is a wonderful game if a bit short. It took me about five hours to complete my first playthrough and there is very little reason to go back and play it again. The confusing camera perspective can often be a hinderance and frustration, but more often than not the cinematic elements of the game lend to an engrossing, dreamlike atmosphere. I found myself spending time just staring at the different rooms in the macabre, dollhouse of the Maw and was reminded of the fear every child has of feeling small and insignificant in an uncaring world. A world that will metaphorically eat you alive. A fear that is made real in Little Nightmares. To be sure, Little Nightmares is a game that explores the true horror of helplessness and leaves you with a message wholly up to your own worried mind to interpret.
+Stunning visuals that are simultaneously horrifying and brilliant
+Creative level design
-Often confusing camera angles
-A short game for the price
Although a visually stunning and atmospherically well-executed game, the shortness of it makes it hard to recommend. I found myself torn between the dark cinematic nature that I found engrossing and the spotty quality in platforming mechanics.