If, on one hand, it succeeds, like few games have, in constructing a grotesque world that is as irresistible as it is repulsive; on the other, it tends to fill it up with gameplay that is either merely decent or downright frustrating
A nine-year-old girl dressed in a waterproof raincoat that covers most of her body and also a great portion of her face wakes up from a dreadful nightmare. A geisha, enveloped by deep darkness, suddenly turned around and stared towards the girl with a look that conveyed sheer hatred. While most are startled out of bad dreams to find solace in a reality that is far better, the view to which the protagonist opens her eyes is not much brighter. Sleeping over the clothes found inside a big suitcase, which lies open on the floor and reveals a couple of drawings the girl had made, what she sees is her miserable prison: a poorly lit room that is filled with rats and is wet from the water that drips from her ceiling.
The difference is that today she has decided to escape from her place of confinement, and – in order to do so – she must traverse the entirety of the massive, disturbing, sinister, and menacing facility in which she is being kept. Such is the start of Little Nightmares, and what follows is a masterful display of art, atmosphere, immersion, and wordless narrative that is, sadly, held back from its full potential by inconsistent gameplay.
As the girl walks out of her bed, carrying nothing but a lighter powered by infinite fuel and a harsh hunger that strikes punctually, all that players know is that her name is Six and that what the screen shows are the furthest depths of a place called The Maw. The explanation for her condition as a prisoner, the purpose and true nature of The Maw, the reason why numerous other locked up kids can be seen around her quarters, and the identity of those who run and inhabit the facility are all left up in the air; as such, Little Nightmares is as much about playing as it is about discovery.
Even if it features no text, narration, or voice acting, it gives satisfying answers to all those questions through visual cues that, although often obvious, demand that players investigate, fill in the blanks with some reasoning, and pay attention to everything they see. Little Nightmares does not let any of its rooms and set pieces either lack a purpose or fail to broadcast a message. Its scenarios, as well as the animation of its characters, are brimming with thoughtful details and most of its building blocks carry meaning; it is in connecting those scattered dots that much of the fun lies.
Little Nightmares is not enthralling just because the storyline it reveals is fascinating in horrifying ways. Like a great horror movie, it grips the guts of its audience so tightly that, even in its most tension-filled moments, one cannot be brought to look away. It conjures fright, suspense, disgust, and stress in a manner that many games, as well as motion pictures, of the horror genre have failed to capture. And it does so because of an extremely cohesive atmosphere; as Six moves through The Maw, there is a constant sense that she is not where she is supposed to be, which is tucked inside her dark cell waiting for a terrible fate to fall upon her.
Because of that, the ominous darkness of The Maw’s entrails, which is populated by utterly grotesque-looking creatures that are all out to murder her in one blow due to her escape, feels obscenely dangerous. Furthermore, thanks to a minimalistic soundtrack that features nothing but silence and very realistic sound effects which are frequently employed to stir up fear, one has the invariable impression that disaster is always lurking.
All those feelings caused by Little Nightmares are quite relentless because, from its starting point to its end, players are not allowed much rest or many moments of relief. Broken up into six chapters, each centering on the dangers and discoveries found in a specific area of The Maw, most gamers would likely go through the entire quest without being aware that such an organization exists if not for an option on the game’s menu that allows the replaying of any of those subdivisions after they have been cleared. And that is because Little Nightmares has an outstanding flow to it: there are no breaks between screens, no obviously intromissive transitions as Six leaves one chapter to go into the following one. The journey found in Little Nightmares feels like a rather dangerous walk through all the rooms that separate Six’s improvised bed from what she will encounter in the upper portions of The Maw.
It is undeniably impressive, therefore, that Tarsier Studios was able to successfully extract so many psychological elements of survival horror from within the confines of what is, most of the times, a sidescrolling adventure where the main character moves through tridimensional environments that tread the line between realism, cartoonish surrealism, and the disturbing grotesque. However, where Little Nightmares is entirely impeccable from an artistic standpoint, its gameplay often falters, whether it is by focusing on entirely mundane puzzle-solving elements that have already been done numerous times before or by falling into game-design pitfalls that will test the patience of all gamers, even if they are inevitably captured by the astounding sum of the game’s other values.
Little Nightmare’s gameplay component can be broken up into three distinct facets: the platforming exploration, the environmental puzzle-solving, and the action-packed segments. The first one is perfectly good, for it is an undeniable joy to take advantage of the game’s slower moments to soak in the atmospheric greatness of The Maw as Six climbs, jumps, walks, or simply uses her lighter to illuminate absolutely gloomy environments and make players’ hearts pump fast as they fearfully anticipate what might be lying in the dark corners of the scenario.
The sole problem that afflicts this facet lies in how the game’s camera, on certain occasions, as if controlled by an excellent movie director that seeks to make the audience view the carefully constructed scenes from the best perspective, now and then chooses angles that sacrifice practicality for a whole lot of beauty and effect. More specifically, at times, the camera is placed in positions that cause one to lose sense of the depth of objects, hence making walking on tight planks or grabbing onto ropes more complicated than it should have been. Even if sometimes the stylish camera angles do make up for some pretty spectacular sights, they should have been reserved solely for moments when precision is not required.
The environmental puzzle-solving, meanwhile, suffers from Six’s general lack of abilities. All the girl can do is jump and grab, which does not amount to much; she is not given any special fruitful abilities that are original to Little Nightmares. As such, level designers are not left with much to work, and the game ends up relying on a whole lot of box-pushing, and lever-pulling that causes different effects, such as the raising of water and the turning on of some equipment. Truth be told, at times, there are moments when those simple pieces amount to relatively engaging activities, which certainly gain a special luster because they occur allied with Little Nightmare’s marvelous scenarios and atmosphere. However, inventiveness and originality are not adjectives that apply to what the game does in terms of puzzle-solving.
Lastly, and clearly on what was meant to be the game’s defining gameplay arm, there are the action segments. These occur because, as Six travels inside The Maw, she will inevitably bump into some of its disgusting inhabitants, which are very much looking forward to killing her quite brutally. When those horrifying characters come around, Six will have to engage in a mixture of stealth and running that, in a way, will also involve platforming and environmental puzzles.
In their essence, these are the moments in which Little Nightmares finds itself at the peak of its gameplay creativity. Surely, the recipe that is employed is not exactly new: stealth has already been – after all – combined with jumping, running, and reasoning before. Nonetheless, by relying on the survival horror setting and on the the gut-wrenching enemy design it presents, those moments feel fresh and vital, as if they were the heart of Little Nightmares.
Ironically, though, while it is in those moments that players will get to experience the very top of the horror the game packs, it is also in them they will encounter its biggest flaws. Perhaps playing into the idea that The Maw is absurdly dangerous, there is no room for error; all attacks Six takes are a one-hit-kill deal. In a way, it does make sense, since she is a hungry and suffering girl trying to escape mighty monstrosities that can sense her presence in numerous distinct ways, be it by the sounds she makes when she walks, by the objects she bumps into, or by her smell.
The problem is that on some occasions it seems players are being set up to fail; some of those segments are triggered so suddenly and demand such a fast reasoning that it feels there is no way to clear them without failing, making Little Nightmares disintegrate into a brutal sort of trial and error; one that requires these segments, which sometimes can be relatively long, to be played multiple times until the solution is found.
The dissatisfaction that stems from those situations is made stronger by other two problems that, walking hand-in-hand, end up permeating all gameplay aspects of the game, but that are more prominent when the trial-and-error of its action component comes to the table. The first one is its poor checkpoint placement, as those (from time to time) do not follow the end of very tough sequences, hence forcing players to replay them if they make a mistake right afterwards. Additionally, the loading times that separate Six’s many deaths from her resurgence and the chance to try one more time are long, which just augments the frustration that comes with the knowledge that a lengthy hard section that had just been cleared will have to be tackled one more time.
Even with all those failures, it will not take players more than four hours to get to the end of Six’s brutal journey through The Maw, which certainly makes Little Nightmares a short game. There are, however, a few extra features that are bound to add value to the product. Firstly, the Nintendo Switch version of the game comes with Secrets of the Maw, a full-fledged second adventure, starring an unnamed boy also originally locked in the depths of the place, that, happening concurrently with Six’s own journey, will reveal a great deal of extra information about The Maw.
Although it is shorter than the main game, Secrets of the Maw seems to have benefited from the feedback received by it, for it has better checkpoint placement and three chapters that boast, each, very defining gameplay traits. Secondly, both quests contain collectibles that, though not numerous, will test gamers’ skills and dedication to exploration; a feature that will certainly attract those who want to fully complete the games.
Little Nightmares, then, manages to be, simultaneously, absolutely engaging and infuriating. If, on one hand, it succeeds, like few games have, in constructing a grotesque world that is as irresistible as it is repulsive; on the other, it tends to fill it up with gameplay that is either merely decent or downright frustrating. The Maw is an absolutely stunning setting in which horror, immersion, and disturbing imagery are always present. And amidst that darkness the journey of Six, a character who – like the game she stars – speaks a lot without saying anything at all, is an incredibly compelling act to play through. It is, however, a disappointing shame that a masterful achievement on silent storytelling and atmospheric architecture is hampered by irregular game design. Nonetheless, the lack of a truly great gameplay facet is, in the end, overcome by artistic excellence. Little Nightmares may not be thoroughly enjoyable, but it is certainly a remarkable game.