Little Nightmares is the kind of dual-layered unsettling that only the Swedes can manage. Much like the incredible and equally Swedish Year Walk, Little Nightmares presents its discontent upfront, making sure its terror is immediate and shocking. But as you continue to wade deeper and deeper into its dripping, seeping horror, it affects you in ways you didn’t expect.
Developers Tarsier Studios, though, does manage to inject a bit of light for all the dark. Having worked previously on the LittleBigPlanet series and Tearaway Unfolded, they have an innate understanding in how to make small things feel big. And here, we have a tiny girl named Six, striking in her yellow raincoat against the brown and grimy setting of The Maw. She stands almost as a stoic hero against the creeping darkness.
And there’s a lot of darkness. The Maw is some sort of…building that holds just about all that is evil and twisted in the world. It most likely is a cruise ship of sorts, given the nautical elements, massively varied room types, and stomach-turning rocking the entire world indulges in as you play. It’s gross and oversized in a surreal way recalling a great deal of Aaahh!!! Real Monsters except far more menacing.
It’s hard to put into words how critical it is that these antagonistic figures’ designs are to crafting the precise and specific feeling of playing this game. They’re vaguely human, but just enough to be comforting in a strange way. That is until you get a closer look. And then you realize those aren’t bandages but sagging folds of skin. And those aren’t piles of your average detritus but stacks of, well, you’ll see.
Bravery ends up being an unexpected theme because of this. The game rarely uses darkness as a scare tactic. It becomes something of a comfort, in a way, so you don’t have to stare down into its ghoulish decor and denizens. It instead splashes its terrors in color and light, making sure you have to confront the world head-on. The sickly greens and reds that cover the butcher’s rooms are more halting than the knife-wielding fiends themselves.
The expectation that you’d be only crawling and hiding in crevices and corners is quickly subverted, too. As a constant pull to the next grotesque diorama, the gameplay changes up at every step. The world is rendered consistently high fidelity and the puzzles depend on any given component strewn on the ground or on a wall that exploration plays a key part. You’ll tug on every switch and try to climb every crate and pick up every bauble. It creates the sensation of a fully realized and interactive world.
This variety is crucial to making sure the deluge of petite nightmares doesn’t become low hum of bloodied white noise. In every moment you are immersed in a new scene of dripping horror, your brain is also confronted with a fresh and untold interaction. It gives a more effective backdoor avenue for the atmosphere to seep into your brain.
It manages to be appropriately difficult for most of the time. The checkpointing system can swing hard between finely tuned and infinitely aggravating, but the challenge of figuring out how to circumvent or even totally best a new terror was enough to present a satisfying reward at the end. It doesn’t help that the controls can be floaty and imprecise in that LittleBigPlanet sort of way, but it rarely becomes a true offender to the experience.
By the end of its four-hour run, it was pretty clear that any more of Little Nightmares would have been too much. It’s fairly one-note and it exhausts a litany of small but neat ideas with a sort of subdued fervor, but it does so with a purpose. And as much as that purpose is just to make you feel pretty gross for an afternoon, it does that pretty dang well.
+ Art direction is spot-on for this reality-adjacent nightmare
+ Sound design nails every creak and groan of the ship
+ Every interaction and puzzle is something new
– Controls can be frustratingly floaty and imprecise at times
Final Score: 8 out of 10
Game Review: Little Nightmares
Release: April 28, 2017
Genre: Puzzle platformer
Developer: Tarsier Studios
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC