After being presented with so much blood and guts in our previous games, it’s time to get really scared with more subtle horror in Tarsier Studios‘ puzzle-platformer Little Nightmares.
Little Nightmares (PC)
(Sweden 2017, developer: Tarsier Studios, publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment, platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch)
Little girl Six wakes up in the mysterious huge vessel Maw that is populated by grotesque creatures who hold children captive, so she has to find a way out before they decide to do something much worse than keeping her locked up.
Mysterious story, characters, and setting
Anyone who expects an intriguing storyline and interesting characters should look elsewhere, as both remain as obscure and difficult to identity with from start to finish. The setting isn’t explained in full detail either, as everything is left to the player’s imagination and interpretation. There aren’t any dialogues and audio-logs to listen to or documents to read, but the game doesn’t need these to still be immersive and captivating, as exploring the Maw and its grotesque denizens is enough to keep the player going. For example, after stumbling from one expansive room or crawling through claustrophobic corridors to the next, suddenly being outside, greeted by the screeching of seagulls and then climbing the massive chains of the ship is simply awe-inspiring. Making up one’s own mind about what the purpose of the creatures working and living in the Maw is or why strange passengers board the ship later on is also intriguing. Still, one will be left with more questions than answers at the end, feeling a bit cheated after going through all the trouble and being just as confused and detached from the main character as before.
Scary creatures and scenes
Childhood fears are usually the strongest to overcome, e.g. what is hidden under the bed or what lurks in the shadows, actually everything the human mind can make up if the horror can’t be seen. Little Nightmares plays with that feeling of unease by presenting various scenes in which one’s imagination is pushed into the unknown. So if one sees countless sacks big enough for children being transported via hooks to the kitchen section of the ship where flabby monster cooks await, it’s enough to be disgusted and terrified at the same time, as one dangles under one of them. It’s the stuff nightmares are made of, e.g. in another scene in which Six finds herself in one of many cages with other children, as suddenly two very long arms reach out from the darkness and take one of them away. While one can’t see who these arms belong to and where the child is dragged to, it makes one’s heart skip a beat or two.
When one is finally face to face with the grotesque creatures that were slowly introduced by sounds or were partly visible, they still remain terrifying thanks to their revolting facial features and large bodies which are reminiscent of the animated movie Spirited Away. Hayao Miyazaki’s movie might be aimed towards children, but it still had these strangely oversized creatures in the bathhouse scene that might look funny at first, e.g. in the way they wobble around due to their size, but at closer inspection they’re still something to be afraid of. The Japanese influences become even more prominent in the latter part of the game when one has to traverse a dining area where all sorts of gluttonous creatures sit around tables and stuff themselves with food like pigs. The ensuing chase sequence during which their fat fingers grab at Six while she runs on their long dinner table, then fall from their seats and tumble over each other, becoming an avalanche of grotesqueness in the process that picks up speed and smashes through doors, is as intense as it’s terrifying and one of the most memorable scenes in the game. Unfortunately, including a geisha ghost later on is a bit too much familiar Japanese horror, clearly inspired by the Ring movies, the effect of which isn’t as original as what one experienced before.
Hide, run, and puzzle
As one might already have guessed from the terrible creatures one has to avoid, the gameplay is a mix of stealth and chase sequences. But there are also a few puzzles that usually involve moving furniture, boxes, luggage, or other objects around in order to reach inaccessible places, e.g. doorknobs to open oversized doors or levers on walls to activate machines that are too high for Six. Unfortunately, these aren’t very original and end up to be quite repetitive. Sometimes one needs to find a key for a specific door, sometimes one has to throw an object at a button to open a door, but that’s about as far as it goes with variety. As there are many time-sensitive sequences in which these actions have to be done, usually because one is chased by the antagonists, it’s too bad that the controls aren’t as responsive as they could be. So in the case of throwing objects, one has to aim without a target marker while holding and releasing the “hold” button, which isn’t as easy to pull off as one might think. The platforming sections usually involve climbing bookshelves or drawers, the latter of which have to be pulled out and used as ladders, or simply jumping from one high platform to another in addition to slide through holes in order to escape enemies. Again Six’s movements could be a bit faster and the controls less sluggish.
The stealth sections might not tread new ground, but they’re still the most suspenseful ones. Since Six can’t fight and the enemies are much bigger and often faster, one has to learn their patterns and plan in advance where to hide, e.g. under tables or beds. Of course one can use the environment for distraction as well, e.g. throwing objects, which is particularly helpful against the creature with long arms that is blind but has an impeccable sense of hearing. If one accidentally stumbles over objects or walks over louder surfaces than carpets, one should better think of an escape plan fast, or one should simply walk as slowly and as much in the darkness or behind things as possible. In some cases, running away is still the only option to survive, though, and these scripted sequences make one’s heart pound as fast as one’s frustration level rises as high in equal measures due to a checkpoint system that often requires replaying long sections. As there are quite a few trial and error passages that can’t be overcome in those short time frames to react and hints aren’t given to the player in any way, e.g. which parts of the environment can be interacted with, one should be prepared for failing more than a few times.
More exploring and some collecting to do
Even if the Maw ship is a big location, one won’t be able to explore it as an open-world. There are a few puzzles that require a bit of backtracking, but in general, one goes from one specific part of the ship to the other, while a new enemy is introduced that has to be avoided or even defeated by making use of the environment. Still if one has the patience, one can look for small creatures with pyramid heads running away from Six, then catch and hug them if one is fast or thorough enough to find their hiding places. One can also pick up geisha statuettes that are well-hidden in the levels, too. Both serve to unlock concept artwork, but don’t provide any background information or have any impact on the story or ending, which is a shame because both these pyramid heads and the geisha play very prominent parts in the storyline and remain mysterious throughout Six’s adventure.
Seeing and hearing the horror
The graphics are fantastic thanks to the excellent play between lights and shadows, but also the very smooth and realistic creature animations, while the backgrounds are just as detailed, evoking the feeling of being in a dark storybook or fairy-tale story with the sleeping or living room-like quarters and the dining area, while the less colorful and more industrial locations have a more realistic feel to them. The unseen horror is usually down to the way how backgrounds and camera work together, as the former always seem to be out of focus, while the latter is just close enough to Six that anything can suddenly emerge from the corner of one’s eyes. A technique that is used to make the player feel the sense of scale is how the camera zooms in and out, as can be seen when climbing on the gigantic chains outside the ship.
The sound design is just as great, with so many echoing sounds adding to the immersive and creepy atmosphere. The music is amazing as well, being a mixture of synth sounds, hummed tunes, and more traditional instruments like trumpets, being reminiscent of bands such as Sigur Rós in the arrangement of the instruments, but without any sung parts, and just scarier to listen to. The way how the music accompanies the action on screen is also remarkable, often staying in the background in the stealth/exploration sections with drawn-out monotonous parts and then building to a crescendo in the chase sequences, therefore perfectly carrying emotions like unease, fear, but also awe.
Little Nightmares is a great example of how terrifying creature and terrific sound design can make it a heart-stopping experience to explore a setting that is just as mysterious as it is believable. Many survival horror games have been toned down in terror with a more action-focused approach, but this game delivers the pure essence of being scared and helpless, with the only way out to slowly move, run away or hide. However, the gameplay itself isn’t the most refined, as the physics-based puzzles and platforming sections aren’t as engaging as the stealth or chase sections, often making the player do the same thing all over again. With a very short playtime of just 3-4 hours, there isn’t much of a story or character development to speak of, either, so one plays the game for the nightmarish atmosphere and unique setting alone.
Buy the digital version for PC on
Buy the digital soundtrack on
Buy the standard retail version on
Amazon Germany (PS4)
Amazon UK (PS4)
Amazon UK (Xbox One)
Buy the retail Six Edition on
Amazon Germany (PC)
Amazon Germany (PS4)
Amazon Germany (Xbox One)
Amazon UK (PS4)
Amazon UK (Xbox One)
Amazon USA (PS4)
Amazon USA (Xbox One)
Buy the complete retail version (incl. DLCs) for Nintendo Switch on
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