You stand a child adorned in a yellow rain coat, the only piece of colour amongst a wash of browns and greys in a dimly lit room littered with cloth, cages and a suspicious man with clumsily long arms and a face wrapped in bandages. He’s known as The Janitor, and up until now other than the odd suspicious shadow or rodent he is the first resident of The Maw that you have encountered. He stands, facing away from you hurriedly gift wrapping dolls in cloth before impaling each parcel upon a suspended conveyor belt. Occasionally he’ll reach back with his arms, feeling around a pile of cages for his next item to wrap. Confrontation isn’t an option, with capture resulting in a premature death. Instead, you’ll need to find a way to sneak past unnoticed. As you creep gently forward, the controller vibrates in unison with the pulsing audio of a beating heart, increasing in ferocity as you get ever closer to the disfigured horror. As you gently tiptoe forwards your foot sets upon a loose floorboard which lets out a sharp creeks, breaking the eerie silence. Suddenly you’ll need to make a choice. Do you make a mad dash to the door or try and hide amongst the shadows to evade capture?
Little Nightmares was initially announced in May 2014 under its working title of ‘Hunger’, but since that initial announcement was picked up by publisher Bandai Namco and underwent a name change. The game has been developed Tarsier Studios based in Stockholm, whose portfolio includes most notably work on the LittleBigPlanet series. You play the role of Six, a Nome trapped deep within the bowels of The Maw, a submerged ship of horrors that serves as the setting for the game. From the start the game draws immediate parallels to Limbo and its more recent sequel Inside, albeit with the once major difference being the ability to move in the 3rd dimension.
Much like the games that inspired it, interaction with the world is limited to simple movement and using a single button to grip surfaces or pick up objects. The world is presented as a series of interlinking rooms, corridors and vents which you must stealthy navigate as you make your bid to escape from the bowels of this nightmare you find yourself trapped in. Progression though is seldom a simple task, with your ‘Nome’ size limiting your ability to simply open doors to progress between areas. As such, progression requires you to make use of the furniture and objects in the room to gain access to the next.
As the game progresses, you’ll be steadily introduced to the ships residents, a series of grotesque characters intent on capturing you if they can. These characters tend to have the size and speed advantage, as such you need to leverage your size sneak, wriggle and squirm through spaces in bookshelves or beneath furniture to evade detection. Moving unseen isn’t always easy, hence you’ll need to be clever and make use of the various objects littered about to create distractions, or buy you enough time to make a quick dash for it. Each room tends to be its own compartmentalised puzzle, and as such you’ll need to study the environment to find a path ahead. At times a little trial and error will be required, but reasonably generous checkpointing ensures that failure is nothing more than a minor setback.
Presentation wise, the game looks stunning. Each room a pristine diorama of horrors that is simply a joy to admire. Distinctly dim lighting, alongside a faded, grainy look gives The Maw a grimy atmosphere befitting of a world forged in nightmares. This is married up with a sharp and effective use of audio that although light touch really makes an impact, with almost a fingernails scraping a chalkboard level of resonance. As you move through the game, this never lets up with the high level of polish remaining continuos throughout. Character animation is also excellent, and just observing the actions of the characters in the world is both a pleasure and equally harrowing. During the games mid point you navigate through The Maw’s kitchen just as the resident chefs are preparing a meal. Todays main dish is fish, and as such the chef is busying away gutting the fish. The whole sequence is grotesque, but fascinating and it’s a testament to Tarsier just how much atmosphere the setting oozes.
Overall, the presentation and polish on this game is sublime. The setting of The Maw feels perfect, delivering the player into a nightmare world reminiscent of something Tim Burton dreamt up. It’s simply fantastic to look at, with a real feeling that not a single stone has been left unturned. The only real criticism is that overall the game does feel slightly short, with a single play-through clocking in around the 2 hour mark. It really could benefit from just a little bit more, as sadly just as things really get going it feels like the game very much rushes to a sudden conclusion.
To conclude, Little Nightmares is a beautiful but short experience thats solid from start to finish. It’s a decent puzzler with some platforming elements that oozes atmosphere. It’s got broad appeal, and despite its length it’s still very much worth experiencing for yourself.
Little Nightmares was reviewed using a personal copy of the game bought by the reviewer on Xbox One.