Little Nightmares Review

By Mark Delaney, 8 months ago
What do you consider to be the defining trait of a nightmare? Is it the abject terror that looms over you? Or maybe it's the sense of dread that envelops and may even immobilizes you. Above all else, I believe the number one factor that separates a bad dream from a nightmare is the sense of helplessness. There exists in a nightmare the overwhelming feeling that there is no escape, that no one is coming to save you, and that you could never outrun your fears. That sort of helplessness paints a macabre picture in Tarsier Studios' debut game yet, somehow, despite the unrelenting threats that surround you, Little Nightmares manages to present a grotesque beauty in its darkened setting and villainous characters.

Artwork

Little Nightmares is a puzzle-platformer set in a dark and gloomy world. You play a small girlish character in a bright yellow raincoat. The game never mentions a name — or anything as it's entirely wordless — but from promotional material we know her name is Six. The nature of this being's life as well as the reason she awakens on an imposing ship called The Maw are successfully crafted central mysteries to the game. The ship itself is no more inviting. It's made up of dark corridors, dingy bathrooms, and if you could smell it like perhaps Six can, you could be assured it smells wretched. Kitchens are disheveled with dirty dishes and bloody cutting boards, and food is strewn across the floor. The entirety of the ship is a black hole where the light of the good and clean things in life go to die.

More assaulting than the looks and smells, and arguably more mysterious than even Six herself, are The Maw's inhabitants. Six's journey off the nightmarish ship is obstructed by countless villains, each of whom consider her either an immediate threat or a delicious snack. They move like something shy of human and they often look the part as well. The specific design of these characters is so spectacularly creepy that it would be a disservice to detail them in this review. Just understand that the game's premise of presenting a world that feels like a nightmare is achieved to great and unnerving effect.

Despite the ever present threats of violence, Little Nightmares actually doesn't utilize excessive blood and gore. When Six meets game over, screens often fade out before we see the enemies do their worst. Much of the world's filth comes not from the hands of apparent killers but merely slobs. It's all cleverly displayed in a way that still makes you feel dirty and gross, however.

These guys are referred to as Nomes, and their origins are as mysterious as yours.These guys are referred to as "Nomes", and their origins are as mysterious as yours.

A large part of the game's accomplishments are owed to its atmosphere that is the result of smart and unsettling audio/visual design. The Maw rocks slowly back and forth over the unseen tides outside, giving it all the haze of a dreamworld, while the grinding of machinations across the ship's many rooms are consistently unwelcoming. The Maw is a place where hope is ground up like the sausage links in the kitchen, encased in isolation, and gluttonously swallowed whole never to see the light of day again. The music is used very sparingly, most often in chase sequences. Quieter lullaby-like tunes are sprinkled in, which increases their effectiveness.

For all the talk of a paradoxically gross and gorgeous atmosphere, the central gameplay mechanics are fun and serviceable, although not as impressive as the game's setting. You won't simply move left to right like you may in some puzzle-platformers. Instead each area offers a lot of depth and verticality. Hidden collectibles are found by taking alternate routes, even though sometimes those routes may put you at great danger. The puzzles will rarely provide great pauses, partly because they're not usually very difficult, but also partly because you're so often being chased in Little Nightmares that most puzzles require instantaneous action and, hopefully, the right solution.

When you do inevitably fail these often trial and error-based puzzles, the long loading times to reset your progress make for the game's most noticeable blemish in an otherwise quite pristine offering. Some checkpoints may set you just seconds before failure, and if you've not yet resolved a way out of the problem, it could mean multiple failures result in minutes of loading with just seconds of gameplay interspersed until you finally figure a way out.

The whole world is warped, filthy, and unwelcoming.The whole world is warped, filthy, and unwelcoming.

At the time of writing, the achievement list is not yet accessible, although like other pre-release copies the unlocks still occur if the hidden requirements are met. With that knowledge, you'll want to look out for the game's various collectibles, of which there are no fewer than three types. You'll also get 50G for each of the five chapters you finish. As I recall, all eight to ten achievements I unlocked were worth 50G each, so it could be a pretty small list in total. Two others I unlocked were for very specific things, neither story nor collectible related, so it's safe to expect a few such unlocks when the list goes live in the coming days.

Summary

In terms of gameplay, there's little to be had in the way of new ideas within Little Nightmares but it seems the main appeal was always intended to be the art and atmosphere; in those respects the game is a massive success. The imagery and sounds of Tarsier's debut will stay with you, perhaps even haunt you for a long time. Retreaded but fun puzzle mechanics are more than enough to supplement this audio/visual spectacle. Little Nightmares feels like an experience that deserves to be repeated as soon as the credits roll, something not too common in games nowadays. Unlike the nightmare realm out of which Six is desperate to escape, Little Nightmares is a dream of a game that, upon completion, you may wish you could experience anew.
4 / 5
Positives
  • Immersive atmosphere with excellent sound design
  • Mysterious story filled with bizarre characters
  • Grotesque yet somehow beautiful environments
Negatives
  • Many puzzles require trial and error
  • Long loading times
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent approximately seven hours exploring the dreamlike haze of Little Nightmares. The achievement list was not accessible at time of writing, though it's approximated that around 8-10 achievements were unlocked in a single playthrough. A digital copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.