Despite its impressive visuals and delicately spun aesthetic, shaky mechanics make this spooky puzzle platformer more frustrating than frightening.
The latest title from Tarsier Studios (Tearaway Unfolded, Little Big Planet 3), Little Nightmares is a side-scrolling horror adventure in which a young hooded girl attempts to escape the clutches of The Maw, an otherworldly hotel that serves grotesque but powerful monsters. It succeeds at creating a grisly, gruesome atmosphere that draws the player in but is noticeably hindered by unreliable and inconsistent mechanics.
Originally announced under the title Hunger, the game was intended to be an independently made PlayStation exclusive when first revealed in May of 2014. But after well over a year of radio silence from the developers (with the exception of a brief teaser trailer in early 2015), Bandai Namco announced that they would be publishing the game worldwide under the title Little Nightmares last August.
At the start of the game, a young girl named Six wakes up in what appears to be the pipeline system of a structure clearly intended for beings much larger than normal. With nothing on hand but a lighter, the player must evade various horrors and escape to freedom. There is no formal tutorial, which wouldn’t be so bad if the controls were more intuitive. Help bubbles appear in a select number of areas, but only after the player has had a fair amount of time to struggle. Though the game’s atmosphere is curiously sinister, its mechanics make the whole experience an uphill battle.
But in a world where sidescrolling platformers are a dime a dozen, it’s quite nice to see a title with its own distinct flavor. As the title suggests, many of its features are interesting and take on common childhood fears, and much of its appeal comes from how well it makes the player feel, well, little. The paper craft art style is very reminiscent of Tearaway, yet the overall aesthetic is more similar to Inside or Bioshock. The lighting and environment are very dynamic and leave much more room for movement than a typical sidescroller. The small but critical amount of vision that the lighter provides is impeccably designed and feeds into the lingering sense of fear the game seeks to instill.
The story behind the visuals isn’t bad, but Little Nightmares would certainly have benefited from a stronger narrative. It isn’t the first game with a vague exposition that leaves the player on its own, but it simply takes far too long to reveal anything that resembles lore. What was so nice about Inside is that while it was eerie and unclear at the beginning, it gradually left the player hints – the actions of the forces opposite the player served as a breadcrumb trail that led to the overarching plot. In Little Nightmares, close to no attention is given to the plot itself in the initial portion of the game, then when the player is finally given some semblance of a story past “general creepiness,” the plot chimes in with the subtlety of a brick to the face. In essence, it’s not that the story isn’t good – it’s just paced very poorly.
However, the most obvious disappointment in the game lies in the mechanics. Many aspects of the game – especially in movement and interaction – are either inconsistent or simply underdeveloped. The grabbing function is finicky (at best), which makes climbing more difficult than necessary and jumping to ledges a Herculean effort. Using the lighter to illuminate otherwise obscured portions of each level is both a unique and aesthetically pleasing mechanic, but is only used for vision and lighting lanterns. It never runs out of fuel, is seemingly unaffected by water, and doesn’t affect the likelihood of enemies noticing you. The concept of light provides so much room for creative detail – be it through fire, shadows, et cetera – but for some reason, it’s virtually untouched. Since there are already relatively few ways to interact with the world itself, these mechanical hiccups are quite difficult to ignore, both in terms of detail and on a larger scale. The puzzles themselves alternate between being deceptively simple and complete non sequitur, often walking a thin line between challenging and frustrating. Combine these with the sparse number of checkpoints, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for preteen-on-Call-of-Duty levels of vexation. Of course, some degree of frustration is to be expected from a puzzle game, but ideally it would stem from the puzzle itself rather than unresponsive controls. The world is well crafted, the sounds are well placed, and the lighting is impeccable, but it’s so difficult to find room for the anticipation and fear Little Nightmares wants to give me when the mechanics are constantly testing my patience. The premise and atmosphere are enticing, but the game itself kills my desire to explore further.
Overall, the game’s gruesome tone and interesting take on gameplay leaves you in the dark in more ways than one. Little Nightmares certainly looks promising, but the shoddy craftsmanship is a noticeable stain on an otherwise fulfilling experience. Recommended for those seeking a bit of terror – provided they possess the patience of a saint.