For the love of god, don’t rock the boat!
Developer: Tarsier Studios
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Format: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Released: April 28, 2017
I have a little word of advice for people going into the game: don’t play this game on an empty stomach. I made the mistake of doing so and it basically ruined what was meant to be a rather tasty lunch. While it may not be as nightmarish as its title suggests, Little Nightmares is a disgusting and vile experience that will stay with you long after finishing it. Should you make the same mistake a I did, it may just turn your next meal into a slop of putrid, slimy unpleasantness. And I think that’s what I also adore the most about it.
Developed by Tarsier Studios, Little Nightmares follows the story of Six, a little girl who wakes up inside of The Maw, a vast and mysterious underwater vessel housing deformed and dangerous human-like creatures. With only the image of a ghostly geisha to guide her, Six sets out to explore the oversized confines of The Maw to find the woman, and hopefully, a way out. Unfortunately, it also seems as though the hungry denizens of The Maw are beginning to search for their next meal, and Six looks just the right size for an appetizer.
Akin to similarly darkly themed platformers like Inside and Limbo, Little Nightmares leaves its storytelling to the player’s imagination and interpretation. Some parts of the story are fairly easy to figure out on your own. For example, exploring each area of The Maw and observing the particular purpose and function they serve leads to discovering the ship’s horrifying purpose once you’ve strung them all together as a greater whole. But then there are also mysteries that the game leaves ambiguous, letting the player form their own interpretation of the story from the confusing events that transpire, especially when it comes to the game’s ending. It’s telling that Little Nightmares carries an engaging tale when, days after finishing the game, I still find myself thinking about what the game left unanswered.
Even if you feel like you’ve missed story details in your first playthrough, it won’t be long before you’ll be playing through it all over again. Much like the grosser side of Reddit, the disturbing, yet enchanting world of Little Nightmares has a way of sucking you back in for another look. The Maw is daunting and unforgiving, with even the smallest pieces of furniture towering over Six to the point of making you feel like an unwanted rat scurrying through the ship. Something further amplified by the drab and flat colour pallet that feels cold and uncaring in comparison to the warm, neon-yellow raincoat that covers Six, as though she is a stowaway that doesn’t belong in such horrid surroundings. Although that’s not exactly difficult to tell by the disgusting and deformed inhabitants you’ll find throughout The Maw, sporting faces and bodies so melted, misshapen, and distorted that they look like a Tim Burton acid trip gone horribly wrong.
And while I absolutely adore the game’s grotesque dollhouse visuals, its haunting soundtrack and audio design is where Little Nightmares really excels, endeavouring to make you feel constantly uncomfortable. Every door has an echoic creak, wind howls through the lonely and spacious bowels of the ship, and then there’s the blood-curdling screech whenever a resident of The Maw spots you running about in the open. Even more impressive is how the soundtrack seems to echo the eye-catching horror of the game’s visuals, offering tunes that range between near painful, scrapping ambience to music box melodies that are subtly twisted to keep you from feeling calm.
Unfortunately, while I could very obviously keep waxing poetic about the game’s fantastic presentation, I can’t really do the same for its gameplay. In short, Little Nightmares plays very similarly to the previously mentioned Limbo and Inside. It’s a platformer with realistic physics, stringing you along with small puzzles from room to room. And while Little Nightmares definitely tries to make its platforming more visually charming by making its obstacles take the form of things like towering sets of drawers and stacks of dinner plates, this gameplay ultimately amounted to easily solved puzzles wrapped up in fairly average at best platforming.
That’s not to say that there isn’t anything interesting on offer in terms of gameplay, however. In fact, the most stand-out points of the game for me revolved around dealing with the The Maw’s various denizens. At certain points in the game, you’ll find yourself in the same rooms as these gruesome creatures as you attempt to solve the next puzzle, forcing you to stealthily sneak past them as you desperately attempt to find a way into the next room as far away from them as possible. I especially enjoyed the rare, but nonetheless intense moments when you’re forced into scripted, frantic chases which end in narrowly escaping the grabbing, greasy mitts of these creepy creatures. At least when the game’s weird camera angle and at times buggy hit detection aren’t making you collide into walls or magnetising you into the grasp of an enemy, respectively.
Little Nightmares is a rather short experience, taking only a little over two hours to beat. But I’d honestly say that, despite this, it’s totally worth the asking price considering the remarkable effort that has gone into presenting a mysterious and unsettling world. The only thing keeping it from being a masterpiece in my mind is its gameplay, offering rare and fleeting moments that felt truly engaging, along with puzzles that require more action than any thought. But if you’re after an experience that focuses more on strong presentation and ambiguous storytelling, Little Nightmares is absolutely worth your time.
Come for the visuals, stay for the horrifying memories