Occasionally, a game comes along that refuses to let a concept as restrictive as genre bog it down. Little Nightmares is one of those projects. Blending various different styles, Tarsier Studios has created a gorgeous platformer, filled with puzzles and soaked in grotesque imagery.
Horror is a niche genre that tends to focus on fostering a tense atmosphere over gameplay. Puzzle-platformers are typically the exact opposite. Consequently, few of the former try their hand at the latter. This makes Little Nightmares incredibly unique, but is it a great game?
Split into five chapters, Little Nightmares centers around a starving young girl named Six, who seeks to escape from a strange prison run by even stranger people. Little Nightmares may evoke memories of Studio Ghibli’s phenomenal Spirited Away, though the tones and premises differ. Both properties blend the fantastical with a hint of reality to create an almost dreamlike state of wonder.
Little Nightmares’ story primarily takes a backseat in support of the game’s surreal tone, but Six’s journey produces truly intense and traumatic moments. Chapter 4 is particularly effective, at least when it comes to the horror aspect.
In fact, Little Nightmares works best as a pure horror game. In truth, the adventure is not conventionally scary. Due to its 2.5D platformer nature, Little Nightmares cannot quite replicate the level of immersion found in games like Resident Evil 7 or Dead Space. That said, Little Nightmares is unrelentingly intense. There is seldom a moment when Six feels safe.
Any given chapter sees Six traversing a series of rooms to try and escape the Maw, a ship catering to the cannibalistic tendency of a vile subsect of humanity. Putting aside thirteen friendly creatures known as Nomes — who unwillingly produce the narrative’s darkest moment — Six comes across an array of opponents either working for or visiting the Maw.
Each chapter centers around a particular enemy for Six to stealthy slip past on route to escaping the ship, whether a janitor or twin chefs. Tarsier Studios deserves credit for creating multiple unique and consistently nightmarish opponents to ensure the player struggles to get a good night’s sleep.
The locations are quite impressive and shake things up with each new chapter. Little Nightmares’ levels maintain a certain degree of thematic consistency while still managing to offer enough diversity to stave off boredom. Considering the campaign should not require more than four hours to complete, any repetition would have definitely been unacceptable. While there are a handful of collectibles, Little Nightmares lacks much in the way of replay value, with a return trip mainly centering around a handful of decent (and paid) DLC levels.
Visually, Little Nightmares is thick with detail and atmosphere. Be it a dusty library or a disgusting kitchen, layers upon layers of data fill the screen. The majority of the visuals might as well be paintings, although Six can interact with a few choice objects or climb the occasional wall or table. The thick sound design further heightens the visuals’ impact, allowing for the Maw to truly feel like it is a living place.
Viewed as a platformer or puzzle game, Little Nightmares falls a bit short. To be clear, the gameplay is far from terrible. However, it is not great, either. Along with the standard running, crawling, climbing, and jumping, Six has access to a lighter and can lift certain objects to complete puzzles.
Most rooms just require the protagonist to jump on a few boxes to reach a crawl space, but there are some that test the player’s critical thinking skills. Admittedly, the majority of these boil down to creating a distraction to lure the enemy away from the area Six actually needs to enter. As rooms can usually only be completed using a single method, puzzles rely on trial and error more than anything else.
While the puzzles are not going to test anyone with even a modicum of experience playing this type of game, the campaign’s short length permits these moments to remain interesting until the very end.
Little Nightmares is a great horror title, a decent puzzle game, and a slightly below-average platformer. Permitting nothing too taxing is involved, Six controls well-enough to not be too great of a nuance.
Unfortunately, things begin to fall apart whenever any actual platforming is involved. As a result of the 2.5D perspective, a scenario will eventually pass when a jump is missed as a result of the camera angle. Rather than Maw’s terrifying creatures, Six’s greatest foe is a lack of depth perception. The platforming sections are likely to produce a fair few frustrating deaths. Nothing is fun about accidentally plunging a scared girl down a bottomless pit. This issue is exacerbated by an infrequent checkpoint system.
If you are a fan of horror, Little Nightmares should be deemed a must-play. Although it will never win any awards, the gameplay is serviceable and does not detract too greatly from the overall experience. At the end of the day, a few cheap deaths can be forgiven.