Ever since the first spine-tingling teaser trailer way back in February 2015, Little Nightmares had me hooked. Made by Tarsier Studios, the Swedish developers behind Little Big Planet and Tearaway, Little Nightmares is a side-scrolling platformer with a strong dose of horror. If you’ve played LIMBO or INSIDE, you’ll know what sort of vibe to expect. If you haven’t played those, picture a claymation video clip from the 1970s mixed with the more unsettling parts of Spirited Away. Haunting side-scrollers with fantastic art styles have become something of a sub-genre over the years, but is Little Nightmares up there with the best, or is it all style and no substance?
The story in Little Nightmares is purposefully vague. You play as a little girl who has woken up on some kind of ship which has clearly been designed for people a lot bigger than her just by going off the size of the furniture and doorways around her. Her bare feet pitter-patter on the cold metal floor as you begin to explore, a heavy sense of dread sets in quickly at the beginning to build. That’s basically all you need to get going. This place is bad and you need to get the hell out.
The game itself is made up of platforming and simple puzzles, a lot of them physics-based. You move objects into place in order to climb up into a vent or grab a door handle, that sort of thing. Where it gets a little more tricky is when you add a giant, hideous creature snorting or screeching as it reaches under tables trying to snatch you up. The art design throughout is phenomenal, but these monsters are something else. The way they look, sound and move is very distressing, and that’s before they manage to spot you.
There’s an atmosphere to Little Nightmares that is difficult to convey without seeing it in motion. The use of light and dark, and the casting of shadows all contributes to this feeling of being very small in a world that’s not meant for you. The way the camera looks in on these rooms often reminded me of a diorama, like I could reach through my TV and pick up a piece of furniture or prod one of the monsters. Every room is a visual delight, and a joy to explore.
Sound is used to similar effect, with ambient noises like the creaking of floorboards, the sound of tiny footsteps, the breathing and grunting of the monsters all placing you in the moment. The music comes in for the more action-packed moments, and never overstays its welcome, sometimes even serving as a shock to the senses after a silent buildup of suspense.
There are some annoyances however. Certain chase sequences become frustrating very quickly. Let go of the wrong button at the wrong time or make a slight error in depth perception and you’ll be grabbed by a monster or fall to your death. Generally speaking the checkpoints aren’t too brutal, but having to repeat the same section multiple times in quick succession immediately kills any tension or fear, no matter how scary it was the first time. To be fair this problem is one all horror games have to contend with, and it’s not something unique to Little Nightmares. The fact remains that there were a handful of moments that lost all impact due to me dying a few too many times.
The only other complaint I can conceivably see someone making is that the game is too short. My total game time clocked in at around three hours, and I would guess to 100% the game would only take another couple of hours tops. Structurally it’s the perfect length for a game like this, but if it’s a question of value for money some may be put off by the short length.
Little Nightmares will completely absorb you in its world from the opening moments right up until the cathartic finale. Wait for nightfall, lock the doors, light a candle and crank the volume, The Maw awaits.
Little Nightmares was reviewed using a review copy for the Playstation 4, as provided by Bandai Namco.