It’s always awesome when a friend recommends something new, but there’s a special joy to be had when a: you’d never heard of it before, b: it’s not the kind of thing you’d usually buy, and c: it turns out you frigging *love it. So it was for me and Little Nightmares, a cute yet terrifying game from Tarsier Studios.
The game begins in the bowels of a creaking metal hulk, when our character – a child, by the looks of it – wakes up on a filthy mattress. Water drips. The light level is low. Hm…better have a look around. The scenery is gloomy and atmospheric, the soundtrack mournful and ominous by turns. There’s no dialogue, no opening scrawl explaining what’s going on, we’re just thrust into this situation. All we have to hand is a small zippo lighter. We can walk, run a bit, crawl, jump, grab, climb and slide. There’s no button to push for attack – and that missing element – along with the over-sized scale of the location – is key to impressing upon us a sense of deep vulnerability.
We don’t know what we’re going to face yet, but in this world of rust and blood, it seems that stealth is all we can rely on. Keep that lighter handy, because this thing gets dark.
The game is essentially a side-scrolling platformer. Like **Little Big Planet, there’s a degree of three-dimensionality which helps to lend a sense of space but, with the exception of a few larger rooms, the freedom it grants is limited at best. Whilst characters race through LBP, popping bubbles for points, discovering secrets and collecting items, Little Nightmares is a more of a cautious, sparsely-populated affair, where your sole purpose is find a way out of this grimy hellhole.
The first antagonists we come across are leeches, each as long as our character. They drop from the ceiling or squirm across the floor with unnerving intent. It is simple enough to avoid lone creatures, but nerve-shredding to find yourself swamped by them. As the game progresses, we find ourselves pursued by our true enemies, the gigantic humanoid horrors who seem intent on capturing and butchering children for some grand banquet. The design work for these is superlative: the blind janitor with his twisted grin and monstrously long arms, feeling his way around with his skeletal fingers; the squat twin chefs whose dull eyes peer out through masks of human skin; the corpulent Guests gagging for flesh, and the white-faced Lady in her full and terrifying glory.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so viscerally repulsed by game bosses before, nor have I felt the need to take so many ‘breaks’ to calm myself the fuck down. Yet, I repeat – this is a cute game. The horror elements are there, but it’s hardly graphic or extreme. When the character dies, it is usually just grabbed and then we fade to black before any true nastiness can be witnessed. It’s childish, but it resonates with those earliest of fears – being seen and caught by the boogeyman. It certainly freaked me out. The resurrection process is one of simply waking up at the last checkpoint, as though all the tension and the fear and the death were little more than nightmares themselves—and that concept made it seem all the more claustrophobic somehow. Inescapable. Endless.
It’s a shame that the game itself is so short, but that lends itself to replayability, immersing yourself once more in the atmosphere, less nervous now and more prepared to explore. It’s an incredibly immersive game, made more so if you play it with headphones. Hah! There was ***one level that I simply could not complete with the sound on. I don’t want to rock your world or anything, but it turns out I’m pretty lily-livered. Doesn’t mean I don’t know how to have a good time though – and Little Nightmares is precisely that. A damned good time.
I can heartily recommend it.
Buy it now for pc, Xbox One, PS4 or Nintendo Switch.
Gaming experience: 4/5
* Bonus points if it’s gifted. Thanks, Myk!
** A game series with which Tarsier was peripherally involved – creating downloadable content packs at the behest of Media Molecule, the original creators.
*** The chef’s inarticulate cries of outrage properly shat me up whenever he spotted me.