The puzzle-platformer genre has seen quite a few good entries in recent years. Some have taken huge steps in new directions, others have relied on a more traditional approach. The best have relied on the latter with simple gameplay mechanics and incredible visuals as was the case for critical darlings like Inside, Limbo, and Unravel. This is the approach that Tarsier Studios and Bandai Namco have taken with Little Nightmares.
If you’ve played either Limbo or Inside and liked what you saw there, you’ll like Little Nightmares. You control a nine year old girl named Six, trapped in a underwater hellscape who must solve puzzles to escape this prison known as the Maw. The Maw is a disgusting place, filled with nightmarish creatures looking to end your journey on first sight. There’s no combat in the game, really. You simply must navigate the Maw, solving puzzles and avoiding baddies that which will essentially lead you on a linear journey to the end of the game.
With five levels in all, Little Nightmares is a little game. But what it lacks in length or depth, it makes up for in an incredible presentation. Both on the visual and audio front, Tarsier nailed it with Little Nightmares. The art design is uniquely strange and macabre, whether examining the levels themselves or the monsters that reside there. Each of the five short levels has a unique style to it. The creatures in Little Nightmares are hideous and the environments feel downright sinister. While the audio heightens the tension when it needs to, giving you just the right amount of instruction as to the proximity of imminent danger. Little Nightmares uses some pretty unique graphical styles to give a sense of great scale to this short journey, juxtaposed with the small stature of the playable character.
Though Little Nightmares does so much right when it comes to the presentation of the game, I wish I could say that it had compelling gamplay elements as well. It really doesn’t. The game was short, and relatively unchallenging. Even with it giving the player little guidance as to what their options are from the onset. Six’s skillset is pretty straight forward. She has the ability to illuminate rooms with a lighter. She can pick up items and throw them. Push or pull moveable items, climb, run, and crawl. Using these skills and some low level puzzle solving ability is enough to make it through the Maw in just a few hours at most.
The puzzles themselves just aren’t that puzzling to put it simply. Little Nightmares doesn’t ever really give you those “Ah-Ha” moments that other, better puzzle games do. Add to that enemy AI that felt downright stupid at times, allowing you to duck under a table or simply run away from them and all the tension that the game builds in its presentation feels squandered at times. That’s not to say that Little Nightmares is bad, but some of the gamplay elements just aren’t that taxing as puzzle-platformer. Furthermore, puzzles were re-used quite often, such as finding a crank to open a hatch or finding a key to open a locked door. That in itself wouldn’t be that bad if the solutions weren’t plainly obvious and incredibly simple to complete on your first try. That said, exploring each nook and cranny of every level, you’ll find some side objectives to perform, like smashing statues, hugging gnomes, and lighting laterns.
One of my least favorite parts about this game is in the exploration though. Not because the game isn’t beautiful, not because there isn’t much to explore, but because sometimes the controls can feel a little bit off. Six will get hung up on items in the world, making some of puzzle aspects of the game that require accuracy and timing a little frustrating as you’re don’t really feel you’re replaying them for a lack of knowing how to solve them, rather than a lack of control of the character’s movements.
Little Nightmares doesn’t have much by way of story either. In fact, you won’t get much out of the game that isn’t up for your own interpretation. It starts off weird, and stays weird until the credits roll. It’ll make you ponder what this crazy journey all means, without a spoken word found throughout. But there are these random threads of Little Nightmares that constantly pop up in the course of the game. Six’s journey is one of escape, but the child is hungry. On each level, she’ll find food to keep going. It’s not quite a gameplay mechanic. In fact, it’s more of a story thing than anything.. which is odd. It’s way too spoilerly to discuss here, so we’ll just leave it at, Six gets hungry and one of the main story telling devices in the game is that she must find food on each level during her escape.
Tariser has come a long way from the bubbly world of LittleBigPlanet with the dark and disgusting world of Little Nightmares. What it lacks in gamplay substance is made up for in visual and audio design. If that’s a trade-off you’re worth making, then Little Nightmares is a decent entry for the genre.