Little Nightmares Review – Truly Grotesque
Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Developer: Tarsier Studios
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Release: 28th April 2017
Disclaimer: Review Copy provided by Bandai Namco
With Little Nightmares, the swedish developer Tarsier Studios try to create their first original game. Previously only known for ports or tinier games, they set out to challenge the very best of the horror Puzzle Platformer genre. Let´s just say, “little” Nightmares was an understatement for this gem.
When the yellow hooded Six, at least that´s what her name seems to be, awakes, nothing is as it seems. Trapped in the mysterious Maw, inhabited by bloated and bizarre creatures it´s soon clear, that we have to escape. Will we be the first to escape from this place or will we fail like everyone?However, that´s pretty much everything we will know about this world. Little Nightmares never makes the effort to tell us anything about its lore or story. There are no log files, no text and no dialogue, instead it focuses completly on the atmosphere.
From the surreal big, dark and twisted rooms to the giant residents of the Maw, everything exists to hunt you in your dreams. Like Limbo or INSIDE the whole design wants us to feel helpless, trapped in a world of which we know nothing. The rooms overshadow the little innocent Six, letting us feel like a mouse in an unknown, intimidating world. With its warped environment design Little Nightmares tries to recreate “little” Nightmares. Every room offers an own design, often completly severed from an overall theme, never offering us the possibility to understand or get to know this world. Often you will yourself in a dark room with only your lighter to light your way, while you discover more and more of the intimidating environment. Especially the handful of enemies, all feature their own unique abilities and characteristics. We fear the unknown, and Little Nightmares is a game that truly understood this concept, throwing us in a dark and unknown world. Its a game that knows how to hunt you.
Additionally, with the help of the Unreal Engine it can create these environments in a shockingly beautiful way. The sharp textures combined with great looking shadows and lighting effects provide the foundation to properly represent its world. Tarsier Studios optimized it pretty good too on PC, I could play the whole game on Ultra on 4K with my GTX1070 on mostly stable 60fps. Where INSIDE or Limbo rely on stylized graphics Little Nightmares offers an own surreal but amazing looking graphic style. Combined with the atmospheric sound design, with squeaking wood or creepy enemy clicking creates an atmosphere on par with other giants of this genre. Also worth noting is the feeling of heaviness it can convey, no matter what you carry, be it a huge key or a puppet, every single object just “feels” right and impacts your movement as you would expect it. Little Nightmares simply masters atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the praise ends here, since Little Nightmares fails at one important point: Representing its creative design in its Gameplay. While it certainly tried to offer a wide array of different mechanics, with new mechanics getting introduced every few rooms, they seem to not have many ideas what to do with the world. Instead of puzzles or mechanics that would only work in this game, like Shadow puzzles, Little Nightmares copies nearly everything we saw from previous (horror) puzzle platformers or other games. Things like “Avoid the light” or “Avoid the squeaking wood to not attract the enemy” are not new nor surprising. In contrast to the surprisingly great art-design and atmosphere the puzzles are just disappointing and bring nothing new to the table.
However, the design itself is also flawed to an unhealthy level. On one hand the checkpoint placement works against the game and the emotions it wants you to remember. For example, you have to escape an emeny, distracting him with an object, to climb up a shelf, but if you die, you have to restart from the beginning of the “puzzle”. The problem is, that such moments live from the created tension, which rapidly sinks the more often you have to repeat it. So, if you die 2-3 times because you maybe forgot, you had to grab the edge with a 2nd button (ye, that exists for some reason), due to the tension, you will end up being more annoyed by the puzzle and the game rather than entertained. On the other hand the puzzles seem to actually hide the solution from you. When you have to find a key you expect it to see it somewhere, right? Well, Little Nightmares doesn´t agree, placing the key on a shelf, that you can´t look up to, until you actually climb up. Resulting in minute long walks around, searching for the object you need, which is often placed somewhere you won´t see it. During the second half, the game replaces most of the puzzles with chases, to create a more tension packed experience, that still suffers from the bad checkpoint placement for such a game. All in all, Little Nightmares can´t offer a really good gameplay-experience, when it works, it´s fun but often it´s just flawed by so many things.
Tarsier Studios created a truly unique game with Little Nightmares, showing how good horror could be. It creates an atmosphere, unchallenged by most games from the genre, with great artistic-design and creativity. Yet, the gameplay is too flawed to crown it as one of the best, too many bad design decisions and copied mechanics hold it back. Especially due to the short 3-5 hours long story with little to no replay value for a stiff 20 euro price tag make it hard to recommend it for everyone in an instant.
A grotesque game, that will hunt you in your sleep for certain but not nearly as great to play.