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Little Nightmares (PlayStation 4) artwork

Little Nightmares (PlayStation 4) review

"The best kind of nightmare."

Tarsier Studiosí Little Nightmares is a deliciously dark, impressively realised platform puzzler. Itís far from perfect, and its 2.5-D gameplay mechanics may cause some frustration along the way, but it achieves so much during its short run that it has already become one of my favourite games of the year so far, and deserves to be played by both platform and horror fans alike.

Set in a giant, floating resort called The Maw, Little Nightmares puts the player in control of Six, a nine-year-old girl dressed in a bright yellow raincoat and equipped with only a pocket lighter to find her way. Visibly emaciated and using an old leather suitcase as a bed, Six wakes at the start of the game with a jolt, a vision of a ghostly, kimono-clad woman having just come to her in a dream. She climbs out of the suitcase--onto which, we then notice, a pair of pictures has been tacked, suggesting that she may have been here for some time--and sets out in search of escape, her tiny feet pattering along the cold, concrete floor and splashing through pitch-black puddles.

Little Nightmares (PlayStation 4) image

Sixís vulnerability is immediately apparent in Little Nightmares, telegraphed through everything from her small stature and spindly legs to the way she shields her lighter from the wind as she runs. Everything in the world around her appears tall and menacing, with simple objects such as chairs, beds and chests of draws looming over her, their forms twisted and exaggerated like something from the set of a Tim Burton movie. While the upper decks of The Maw may serve as a resort for paying guests, the lower two-thirds are a sinister blend of prison and playground, their interiors cold, wet and stacked high with crates and tiny, child-sized cages. We may not know much about Six, but we know right from the outset that she has no option but to run, and hide, in order to survive.

The gameís inhabitants, however, are the real horrors of Little Nightmares. Every level of The Maw is presided over by a different character who plays their own part in the resortís operation, each one beautifully, grotesquely, rendered and oozing with malevolent personality. Early on, we meet the janitor, a short man with a giant head and bandaged eyes who uses his nightmarishly long arms and spindly fingers to fumble his way about the place as he performs his routine tasks (Iíll leave you to discover what horrors these are). Later, Six must evade a pair of grotesque cooks as they hack at chunks of meat, check their ovens and stir their soup. Later still, we come face to face with some of The Mawís paying guests -- row upon row of sallow-skinned gluttons whose pig-like eyes pop out of their heads the second they catch sight of Six, their mouths agape as their chubby hands frantically grab at her. Rather than relying on jump-scares to thrill (though youíll certainly jump a few times before the credits roll), itís this combination of monstrous characters and Sixís vulnerability that is played upon to create tension and fear in Little Nightmares... and it works perfectly.

Little Nightmares (PlayStation 4) image

In terms of gameplay mechanics, Little Nightmares is fairly straightforward. Anyone who has played Playdeadís Limbo or Inside will feel immediately at home here (more on that in a moment), with Six able to run, jump, crawl, grab and drag objects, and in some cases even throw them to activate switches. Little Nightmares throws a third dimension into the mix, however, by allowing Six to traverse the Z, as well as X and Y axes during her platforming, leaving a little more room for exploration than in either of Playdeadís titles. This layer of depth makes some of Little Nightmaresí best moments possible, allowing Six to scurry under tables and kitchen counters or hide behind the back of a torn leather sofa as the legs of The Mawís monstrous inhabitants pass by, the controller thumping in your hands as they search for her.

Unfortunately, this same addition of depth is the source of Little Nightmaresí problems. Although traversing large, open spaces is no issue whatsoever, navigating narrow platforms in 2.5-D can be an incredibly hit-or-miss affair. At times, the gameplay reminded me of LittleBigPlanetís lower moments (not surprising, really, given that Tarsier Studios worked with Media Molecule on the PlayStation Vita version of said game), wherein seemingly easy jumps were missed because my character passed either in front of or behind them. Especially during sections of the game where the camera pulled back to view the action from afar, I often found myself slipping off the edge of pipes, platforms and staircases in Little Nightmares. Even when playing the game through for the second time and knowing that they were coming, I fell to my death on the exact same set of steps purely because I was unable to tell where on the Z-axis Six was positioned. I have every intention of going back to find every collectable item in the gameís world (breakable doll statues, gas lamps and Ďnomesí which can, weirdly, be hugged), but with jumps so easily misjudged, I doubt Iíll have the patience to pick up the achievement gained by clearing the entire game without dying.

Little Nightmares (PlayStation 4) image

Thankfully, though, these infrequent moments comprise the extent of my frustrations with Little Nightmares, and in retrospect, part of the reason that I found them quite so frustrating was because I had such a good time otherwise. The game isnít particularly long (I took my time and finished in under five hours), but the environments, characters, and set-pieces are some of the most memorable Iíve seen and played in years, and all of them are incredibly well executed. It would have been nice to explore another deck or two of The Maw, and I couldnít help feeling that the upper levels of resort borrowed a little too heavily from Hayao Miyazakiís Spirited Away, what with its bloated, pig-like patrons feasting endlessly in its Japanese-style setting, but overall the gameplay is tight, the puzzles varied, and the feeling of tension and being hunted relentless.

Itís inevitable that comparisons will be made between Little Nightmares and Inside. Both are highly stylised platformers with juvenile protagonists attempting to escape from a brutal world, and many of the same gameplay mechanics appear in both. But I think thereís room for each title in gamersí hearts and hard drives, and, while Inside is arguably the tighter, more visually striking of the two, Tarsierís effort is a better breed of nightmare. Its gameplay is deliberately slower and tenser than the often adrenaline-fueled Inside, and there is a real Grimm's fairy tale vibe about the whole thing. This is a world of giants, keys, meat grinders and missing children; of creeping through the dark and remaining deathly still lest he, she, or it hears us and cooks us for dinner. Little Nightmares set my heart racing as much as any po-faced horror game Iíve played in recent years, yet at the same time created in me a morbid curiosity and a desire to see more.

For me, Little Nightmares is the best kind of horror: the kind that leaves you holding your breath and dreading what comes next, but unwilling to look away. It reminds us what itís like to be small and vulnerable, and it does it all with a degree of commitment and style that few games would dare. For that, Tarsier Studios has to be applauded.


otokonomiyaki's avatar
Freelance review by Philip Kendall (May 01, 2017)

Writer & video game junkie based in York, England. Read my game-related ramblings and ill-advised political rants on Twitter @otokonomiyaki.

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