Developer Tarsier Studios has received a lot of attention recently for its arcade horror platformer Little Nightmares, and for good reason. Trailers for the game showed off a Burton-esque nightmare world in which you play as a little girl in a yellow raincoat. She wakes up alone and you navigate her through a world of cages and grotesque giants who are out to kill you. It was an incredibly intriguing concept, so I was eager to get my hands on the game and try it out. With similarities in both aesthetics and mechanics to Limbo and Inside–games I love to death–I was sure Little Nightmares was going to be a slam dunk. I was wrong.
The game starts strong. The girl wakes up in the bowels of an area you soon discover is a prison. Cages and filth litter the area, and strange black tentacles periodically crawl out of the walls to attack you. The entire area feels dirty, an effect amplified by the sounds you hear.
Sounds which are, to say the least, phenomenal. There’s been a huge surge in quality of sound design lately out of smaller games, a fact I’m ecstatic for. Sound is often overlooked in video games since you can’t, well, see it, but it is absolutely vital to many a game’s success, particularly for smaller games that lack the budget of a blockbuster.
Little Nightmares delivers in this category. The music is low and sinister, managing to be creepy and unnerving while also still fun to listen to. It’s a delicate balance, maintained by rarely pushing itself to the forefront of your focus. Instead, it chooses to simmer in the background while the game’s many noises assault you.
And assault you they do. The prison, and the later levels, must be leaking something fierce, as there is a relentless dripping that crawls into your ears whenever your attention is spent on maneuvering through the environment. This isn’t a bad thing, again because of the delicate touch with which it’s used. There’s enough dripping to set you on edge, but it’s quiet enough to ignore even if it’s constant as long as there’s something else for you to do.
The noises also work brilliantly as a game mechanic, often cluing you in to what’s happening around you. Enemies make noises that at first seem random, but you quickly realize it’s an indication to their current action. It’s not a new idea in game design by any means, but it’s done well enough that it feels natural in this game wherein others it feels, for lack of a better word, gamey.
If it feels like I’m spending a long time early on sounds, that’s because things like sound design are the elements that bring Little Nightmares up in a very real way, and why it’s so disappointing that it doesn’t stay up. We’ll get to that later.
Moving through the world is simple. The levels are designed in a 2D fashion with a limited amount of 3D maneuvering that adds to the complexity of the setting without giving you so much rope you hang yourself. (Although that wouldn’t be surprising. You run into a lot of hanged people in this game, and for the life of me I don’t know why.)
The controls are easy. You move around, jump and climb, hide under things, and can pick up small objects or push over large ones. The game bills itself as a puzzle platformer, and while none of the puzzles are hard at all, there’s enough meat to most of them that you have a sense of accomplishment when you manage to bypass one.
The set-piece of each level, however, is inevitably a confrontation with the one of the game’s enemies. There are five in total, most of which act as bosses you must escape from in order to continue. In an expert bit of character design, these enemies are simultaneously goofy and horrifying. The jailor, for example, is the boss for the prison you begin the game in. He stands several times as tall as the girl, and has arms easily ten times as long as they should be for his height. To top it off, he doesn’t seem to have any eyes.
After first encountering him, the girl is forced into a terrifying game of cat and mouse. Each room becomes not just a puzzle to be solved, but a death sentence you must avoid. The girl doesn’t have a health bar and can’t fight back. If any of the game’s enemies manage to catch you, it’s game over.
Fortunately, the levels are designed in such a way that you can avoid the enemies. This isn’t to say that it’s easy, however. On the contrary, working around these monsters while also trying to get to the next room is where the game shines. Sometimes it’s as simple as running down the correct path, but often you’ll need to distract your opponent to give them the slip.
Moments like these are where Little Nightmares shines. In the moments where the creepy sound design, the lovely horror-cartoon aesthetic, and the clever levels all come together to create a sweet little Neapolitan ice cream blend of flavors that leave you happy.
Sadly, however, those moments don’t last.
This is where the review turns, and we’ll start with the level design we were just talking about. The game has excellent levels, don’t get me wrong. I was just telling you about them, and they’re really quite good. Unfortunately, they’re also at the beginning of the game.
The game somehow finds itself in the strange position of getting both easier and simpler the farther along you get. While your fights with the jailer are complex (relatively speaking, remember the how big of a game we’re talking about) and tense, the fights towards the end of the game are not. The core “mechanic” used for the second to last level is basically just running a whole bunch. The final boss is beaten using one concept that you figure out almost instantly.
It’s baffling, and incredibly disappointing. The game opens so strongly with how it is presented mechanically that it leaves scratching your head trying to figure out where it went wrong. It almost feels like the developers had an idea they really liked but then couldn’t quite figure out what to do after that.
Which, frankly, is true for the entirety of the game’s story. You may have noticed that I’ve done a relatively poor job of telling you what you’re doing in the game. That’s partially to avoid spoilers, but it’s also large because Little Nightmares does a frustratingly poor job of explaining anything to you.
I’m neither a stranger to nor an opponent of minimalist storytelling in video games. I already told you Limbo and Inside were games I love to death, and both managed to tell the hazy outline of a brilliant story through subtle clues you worked to put together. Those games, particularly the latter, don’t so much tell you what’s going on as offer you hints. The act of coming to a conclusion on your part almost feels like managing to fit in that last puzzle piece perfectly when you don’t know what the puzzle looks like.
Little Nightmares, by comparison, feels like a haphazard assortment of puzzle pieces from different boxes altogether. The central thread of the story never quite comes together, and although it has a definitive ending that’s remarkably cool, it doesn’t fit at all with the way the rest of the game was presented.
All of which is almost secondary to the myriad unanswered questions related to little details in the environment. Those details which I earlier described as amazing come back at the end to haunt you. When you first find them they feel like interesting story hooks, each one dragging you further into the world. But by the end you’re left merely frustrated by it all. None of these questions get answered, and you’re left wondering why. Was there a scene missing? Were they supposed to be taken out?
By the end of the game, I was left with a horrifying feeling that I’m sure the developers didn’t intend. I had the overwhelming impression that many of the details in the game were put there simply because the developers thought they were cool. They thought maybe people would latch onto them and build a story in their mind.
The problem with such a theory is that the world doesn’t become coherent. Instead of seeing the vague edges of something and building a picture form it, we see a mishmash of shapes and get confused when it doesn’t make sense. We get frustrated because we’re told it makes sense. Ultimately, we’re left angry and disappointed because it turns out there’s no sense at all.
At the end of the day, that’s the problem with Little Nightmares. When we first see it, it looks impressive. It offers amazing art, fun gameplay, and an enticing world. What were left with is disappointment. Which is a shame, because the game isn’t bad. The art is quite good, and the bits that are fun and worth playing.
We were promised something far more exciting, however, we were left with disappointment.
- Excellent use of sound to evoke emotion
- Early levels are well designed
- Needlessly confusing lack of a story
- Teases a large amount of hooks that never get resolved
- Very little challenge
- Enemies become boring and repetitive