Playdead’s exquisite Limbo brought the 2D side-scroller genre back into relevance for many gamers. Limbo’s spiritual successor, the faultless and brilliant Inside, cemented the classic genre’s return as one of the most popular and sought-after game types. Sure, there have been other 2D side-scrollers before Limbo and Inside, but none of them had revolutionised the genre. Many developers have tried to create something near to the sheer brilliance of Playdead’s two works of genius, but none have succeeded or have really come close, until now. Under the original title of Hunger, developers Tarsier Studios dropped a teaser trailer for this game back in February 2015. The project remained a mystery with no mention of progress or any new videos published until August 2016, where Bandai Namco announced they had agreed on a deal with Tarsier Studios to publish the now renamed Little Nightmares.
In Little Nightmares, you play as a little girl known only as Six. Much like in Limbo and Inside (this will not be the last time this game is compared to Playdead’s releases), you awaken with no explanation as to where you are, what has happened or what you need to do. As the game progresses, you will start to piece together where you are and what is happening and, obviously, you will need to escape from this horror. The story in Little Nightmares is not as ambiguous or cryptic as the stories in Limbo or Inside, and as you progress through The Maw, the underwater resort you are trying to escape from, you begin to find out just what the hell is going on in this subsurface hell. This is by no means a criticism of Little Nightmares’ storytelling, in fact, the slow realisation of what is taking place in The Maw is horrifying and a highlight of Little Nightmares.
During your escape, Six will have to avoid the giant inhabitants of The Maw and solve numerous puzzles. Sounds familiar? Yes, that is the one downside to Little Nightmares really, the lack of originality. It doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, but anyone who has played Limbo or Inside will know exactly what to do when faced with a puzzle or when trying to sneak past an enemy. The one major difference from the Playdead games, however? Six can move around in all directions. Yes, Little Nightmares is a 3D platformer with a fixed side on camera. The majority of the time this is a 2D side-scroller, but there will be times when Six will need to move around to avoid an obstacle or one of the grotesque giants trying to kill her. Most of the time, moving around works pretty well, but there will be a few occasions where you will needlessly meet a gruesome death due to the camera angle. It is hard to judge the angle of a jump or walk across a precarious bridge when the camera is fixed facing the front.
The puzzles in Little Nightmares, I have to say, are slightly disappointing. None of them are particularly taxing, and they do not require much thought before you work them out. Once you have worked out the puzzles in the early parts of the game, you’re set for the rest of your escape, as there really isn’t much variety in them. Nearly all of them require you to move an object so you can either jump off it or use its weight to keep a switch pressed. There are a few occasions where the pressure is on, as you’ll have to do this while either being chased or having an enemy nearby, but mostly the puzzles are easily solved. One puzzle I did really enjoy, however, requires you to make a swing rope to reach a vent. This one didn’t take a long time to work out, and when you do figure it out, you can’t help but laugh.
There is another difference between Little Nightmares and the Playdead games. Where Inside and Limbo are puzzle games with horror elements, Little Nightmares is a horror game with puzzles. This isn’t a survival horror game like Resident Evil, and it isn’t really a jump scare game like Outlast. There are a few occasions when enemies will pop out at you, but there was only one moment that actually made me jump, and that was right near the end. It’s Little Nightmares’ setting and mood which classifies this as a horror game. Instead of numerous moments of shock and dismay, you constantly feel on edge. Floorboards creak so loudly that you feel anybody close by will be alerted to your location. The grotesque images in the background will keep you feeling uneasy, and just the sheer size of everything will make you feel vulnerable. The last level is an excellent example of how mood can scare you. Creeping around a living quatre, the music, lighting and props will have your heart beating out of your chest as you slowly move through this level, trying your hardest not to alert anyone to your presence.
Nothing is more intimidating, though, than the monstrous inhabitants of The Maw. Armed only with a lighter, combat is a no-go in Little Nightmares, so every time you encounter one of these ‘people’, you will have to run and hide. There are some fantastic chase moments where hiding just isn’t an option and you will have to make a break for it. While running away, one slip up, like bumping into an object on the floor or slipping your finger from the sprint button, will result in death. When you’re not running away from these monsters, you will get past them by either sneaking or by distracting them by making a noise, then hiding and running. A great moment came when Six was sneaking through a library, making it to another room and finding the crank needed to progress. Stuck in this room, as you came through a vent with no means to get back up, the only way to escape is to lure the giant chasing you by turning on the TV and hiding in a dark corner. My heart rate sure shot up as the creature came slowly into the room looking for the source of this noise.
The Maw itself as a setting is just damn right creepy. Some of the environmental set pieces will make you feel incredibly uncomfortable, especially once you learn of the horrors that take place in this resort for gluttony. Once you escape the sheer terror of the kitchen area and venture outside to discover The Maw is, in fact, at sea, you climb up this vast ship and really see how small and vulnerable you are in this world. There is one particular area which, intentionally or not, will force you to think of the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. If it wasn’t for the unseen creature chasing me, I would have stopped where I was to contemplate this link. I am not sure if this was Tarsier Studios’ intention, but after leaving this relatively early area, this thought process was on my mind a lot, and it made me look at Little Nightmares’ setting and story in a completely different way. This one environmental set piece transformed this story from a horror tale to a story about an unspeakable inhumanity.
Developer: Tarsier Studios
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC
Release Date: 28th April 2017