I consider myself somewhat of a connoisseur of horror; I indulge in a lot of media from the genre, so I’ve seen it done very well and I seen it done very poorly. Very rarely do I come across a game that absolutely crawls under my skin and makes me feel a genuine, unnerving tension. Little Nightmares, the latest effort from Tarsier Studios, delivers this in spades.
Little Nightmares stars a vulnerable 9 year old girl named Six, trapped in the twisted world of “The Maw.” She is armed with nothing but a yellow rain slicker and a small lighter. In The Maw you will quickly realize things aren’t at all what they seem; Bookshelves and doors stretch to great heights, faces are distorted into horrific motifs, and cannibalism runs rampant all while Six is comparatively the size of a mouse.
Immediately upon starting, Little Nightmares draws comparisons to Playdead’s Limbo and Inside. A defenseless, silent protagonist struggles to solve puzzles and survive, all while a completely unspoken lore unravels around them in a beautiful, artistically crafted environment. In Little Nightmares, Six has her lighter which she can use to illuminate dark rooms and light lanterns which act as checkpoints, she can also crouch to evade enemies, and grab items to push/pull and throw or grab walls to climb.
Tarsier Studios expects its players to know these things and wastes no time in getting straight to the meat of the game. I actually went through the entire first chapter without ever seeing a tutorial pop-up; a rare sight in the industry these days. I was given a certain amount of freedom to explore. It’s as if Tarsier Studios trusted me as a gamer to know how the game controlled, which is fair considering the controls are fairly basic.
The simplicity of Little Nightmares’ control scheme is in no way a fault against the game. It takes those few mechanics and polishes them to where the game feels like a decent platformer in its own right. Six controls well as she stumbles across items in universe, jumps across gaps, grabs ledges, and clambers up makeshift ladders of books or dinner plates. Tarsier Studios uses this simplicity to drop you into tense situations that require you to take action without getting bogged down with controls.
Six can be on the run from a demonic little man with insanely long arms, trying to snatch her up, and you’ll have to guide her through platforms and obstacles to survive. Little Nightmares is without a doubt a very tight controlling game doesn’t overstay its welcome with a very modest playtime. For example, I played through the game twice in about 5 hours in total.
While the playtime may seem fairly low at a glance, Little Nightmares benefits from multiple playthroughs as well as really digging into the maps and searching for hidden items. The game has no spoken dialogue, and very rarely displays text, so it is very much up to the player and their interpretation of the events on screen to fill in the blanks of the story. Why is this room filled with shoes? Who was hanging from the noose? Why are these people trying to eat me?
All of these are questions are left to the player to answer, based on what they find. Little Nightmares seems like it is built for the ground up for the gamer possessed of both both patience and a highly inquisitive mind. To get the most out of the experience you have to want to spend time in the beautifully creepy environments exploring and trying to learn from what it shows.
However, while this game does so many things competently, I ran into several technical issues during my playthrough on the Xbox One. The loading times were absolutely punishing, often times asking me to wait over a minute for the game to load after a death. This made it overly frustrating to explore with different gameplay approaches, as I feel that I was punished severely for any flub that would cause a reload. Along with the atrocious load times, I had also experienced very noticeable frame rate drops at seemingly random times that brought the crisp visuals to an ugly choppiness.
Little Nightmares is truly one of the most unnerving games you’ll play this year. The weirdly macabre atmosphere and inventive platform puzzles are somewhat soured by technical hiccups. But when it is all said and done, these issues could be fixed with a future patch, thus leaving a superb little horror experience for those with patience and nerve to poke around in unsettling environments.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Little Nightmares, Big Scares
Visuals - 9/10
Controls - 8/10
Plot - 7/10
Little Nightmares offers a fantastic, yet short, experience that is sure to leave you checking under your bed before going to sleep at night.