Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), PC, Xbox One
Well, Playdead has done it again. Little Nightmares is the indie studio's latest offering, hot off the heels of 2016's Inside, but despite some similarities… Wait, what? Oh, this game wasn't developed by Playdead? Um, well, that was awkward. Okay, let's try again, shall we?
It's easy to see how Tarsier Studios, the actual team behind Little Nightmares, was influenced by Playdead's Limbo and Inside. There's a whole lot of both of those games in Little Nightmares, but there's also a lot more to it. This isn't just a clone of Playdead's indie hits, but rather a game that isn't afraid to be influenced by a great game like Inside, while still telling its own story in its own world.
Little Nightmares follows Six, a small girl trapped in a horrific world of nightmares and monstrosities known as the Maw. It's up to you to guide Six through this terrifying land, which is riddled with deadly hazards and creepy enemies. A big part of what makes the game so worth playing is the atmosphere itself, but it definitely helps that the gameplay mechanics and challenges you're up against are genuinely entertaining.
Sometimes all you need to do is test your platforming mettle. Other times you’ll need to solve a simple puzzle. Doing either of these things is usually fun, but the best parts of Little Nightmares happen when you encounter your monstrous enemies – a disturbing creature with grotesquely long arms, or a heinous, bloated chef … thing. These cat-and-mouse scenarios force you to hide and wait for an opening to escape. It's intense and thrilling, and making it out of an enclosed space where it was just you and a big, bad enemy will make you release a sigh of relief.
Like any game with successful stealth implementation, Little Nightmares delivers a sense of urgency and claustrophobia. Because you're playing through a child's perspective as she hides from gigantic beasts that literally want to eat her, you also constantly feel like you're trapped.
Thankfully, you've got some slick controls to make your escape as smooth as possible. Well, most of the time. While I didn't have problems moving around for the most part, sometimes Six's movement resulted in me missing a timed jump and falling to my death or getting stuck on a piece of the environment for a brief moment. It was never anything game-breaking, but having to return to a checkpoint because I missed a jump by a hair was a tad annoying.
Limbo and Inside both played with light horror themes, but those worlds were more grim and somewhat post-apocalyptic in their overall designs. Little Nightmares doesn't just tease horror, it straight up revels in it. This is a horror story first and foremost, and its world of eerie little gnomes and twisted, long-armed, slender-fingered, soul-sucking terrors makes that instantly apparent.
That's why it's such a shame that sometimes the world of Little Nightmares is kind of boring. That's not to say it's a stylistically bankrupt world. No, the individual set pieces – like the giant kid's room with a bed you could hide under, and the industrial building with big leeches trying to eat you – are all very bold and sinister. But sometimes there's nothing going on for long stretches of time.
Like a good horror movie, Little Nightmares doesn't just give players scare after scare with no tense buildup. And we all know that shock value for shock value's sake is a desperate practice. That said, a little more of these scary encounters and disturbing stages would've really helped to eliminate what sometimes feels like too slow of a burn while waiting to get to the good stuff.
Though Little Nightmares may not always deliver the best frights, when it does, those frights are expertly presented. This isn't a game that's all about the instant gratification of a jump scare or two, but rather an experience that makes you feel uneasy whenever you bear witness to one of its many heinous creations. Its world of wonder and fear is one I personally look forward to revisiting, partially because I'm a big fan of horror, but also because Little Nightmares is just a lot of fun to play.
Note About the PC Version
I started playing Little Nightmares on my laptop for the purposes of this review. I had no problems with the game during the first few hours, but when I returned to it following an update on Steam, I could no longer get past the startup loading screen. At the time of writing, I'm not sure if this has been addressed by Tarsier Studios, and I don't know if it's affected a large portion of players, though I have read on some forums that this problem, as well as a fatal error issue, have popped up for some folks.