Little Nightmares II does little to expand on what was established by its predecessor and inherits many of that game’s problems; however, its horror is so gripping, its atmosphere is so tense, and its monsters are so grotesque that it is impossible not to be hooked
Released in early 2017 by indie developer Tarsier Studios, Little Nightmares presented a relatively unique twist on the horror genre. Through its hands, a niche that had always been dominated by realistic scenarios as well as popular frightening creatures such as ghosts and zombies took on a far more interesting shape, being powered – instead – by not only a creepy atmosphere, but also an artistic design that matched the surreal and the grotesque. As such, while most games bent on scaring players attempted to recreate the experience of a horror movie, Little Nightmares tried to produce the sensations of tension and terror via a far more intriguing approach, as it emulated a children’s storybook, with the difference being that in it, the otherwise wondrous world had been corrupted by rot.
Truth be told, the approach was not totally unique. Both in its gameplay and in its tendency to extract horror out of a disturbing fantasy world, Little Nightmares clearly owed a lot to Limbo – the widely celebrated 2010 hit that came out right as the indie scene was beginning to establish itself as a notable creative force – as well as its successor, 2016’s Inside, which replicated the same conceptual experience albeit in a far more full-fledged manner. Yet, despite its obvious influences, Little Nightmares carried enough unique tricks to distance itself from those titles and consequently emerge as a product that was noteworthy.
Limbo, Inside, and the two Little Nightmares games carry so many similarities in gameplay that a distracted player could easily be excused for thinking there is some backstage link between all of them, be it a foggy connection in the universes they depict or even being the product of the same group of developers. In all cases, the protagonist is a mysterious child that appears on the screen with no sort of context; and without the uttering of a single word or the presentation of an introductory paragraph, gamers have to guide these kids from left to right as they traverse a world of seamlessly interconnected scenarios that are punctuated by puzzles, embedded in a dark atmosphere, and inhabited by murderous enemies.
Little Nightmares II, in particular, begins in a forest. There, players meet a boy who wears a paper bag over his head. To make the situation even stranger, numerous TV sets are seen scattered around the area, and the one close to the protagonist – who is positioned as if he has just popped out of the screen – exhibits static for a little while before turning off for good. It is a scene that raises numerous questions, and the only option to look for the answers to them is making the boy get up and explore the surrounding area. As such, not too long after it is selected from the Nintendo Switch’s menu, players will be on their way into the dangerous claws of the game’s world.
Little Nightmares II does offer resolutions to most of the questions players will ask themselves, including how it connects to its predecessor. However, like it happened in the original, not to mention Limbo and Inside as well, it does so via a good deal of silence. In spite of a few eventual cutscenes, the game takes the often traveled indie road of using visual cues for storytelling as well as world-building and then leaving it up to gamers to connect the dots of what should be a satisfying conclusion; an approach to plot development that fits perfectly into the ominous essence of its universe. It is worth pointing out, though, that Little Nightmares II does not take place in a location that is as thematically cohesive as the one seen in the first game, because while in that one all scenarios and foes themselves served to tell an overarching story, here there are numerous times when locations and bad guys are merely that.
The starring boy’s journey from the dark forest weirdly filled with TV sets to the mysterious finish line of an equally peculiar adventure can be broken into a pair of general gameplay components which appear with almost equal frequency. First of all, there are the puzzles, and truthfully, these are not particularly astonishing. The boy’s palette of movements is quite limited, as other than running, jumping, and crawling, all he can do is interact with numerous assets via the ZR button. As a consequence of that, the riddles are mostly limited to pushing objects so they can be used as platforms, moving levers, pressing buttons, removing obstacles out of the way, and temporarily picking up weapons in order to employ some good old brute force. The only exception to that mundanity emerges in one of the quest’s later segments, when the protagonist’s sole distinctive power is used in a series of notably creative riddles, therefore somewhat making the case that giving the character additional unique skills could indeed have paved the way for more inventive puzzles.
Regardless of the nigh total absence of such creative spark, it is undeniable that the usually basic puzzles of Little Nightmares II remain engaging all the way through, and most of the credit for that should go to the meticulously constructed environments that the game presents. As it turns out, their invariable ability to exhale danger and suspense turns the most menial of tasks into tense activities, since the entire quest makes one feel threats are always lurking just around the corner. Consequently, going into a new room to pick up an axe, moving a box of books so the boy can reach the nearby ladder, and throwing a toy towards a button that is too high to be pressed via any other means carry the same thrill of turning a corner in a dark Resident Evil hallway because of the simple fact that it is hard to know what dangerous menaces await.
In fact, the looming threats of Little Nightmares II are actually its second core gameplay component and, as it was the case in the original, they are without a doubt the stars of the show and the title’s defining trait once more. Even though its world is one large seamless stage, the adventure is broken into five distinct chapters, each one taking place in a specific location, including the starting forest and a school. None of those places would be complete, however, without the grotesque human-like monsters that inhabit them. And if the first game had an impressive cast of disturbing blood-thirsty creatures such as The Janitor, with its bizarrely long arms, and The Guests, with their wild deadly rampages triggered at the mere sight of a living child, Little Nightmares II matches it with style.
There are numerous benefits the game extracts out of these signature monsters. For starters, the fact that they exist and that they will inevitably appear turns Little Nightmares II into a game that goes beyond building a threatening atmosphere, because players know that somewhere within the location they are exploring that sinister vibe will materialize into a horrific unstoppable beast. Secondly, the title takes advantage of their presence to construct numerous sequences of genuine heart-pumping horror; these scenes, which are highly cinematic yet playable, are the gaming equivalent of the moments in a very good horror movie when even the bravest of viewers are propelled to look away, with the distinction being that here, of course, such act is not possible because keeping one’s eye on the screen is utterly necessary for survival.
Thirdly, and most importantly, through these monsters Little Nightmares II manages to gain some much needed gameplay variety. In essence all locations can be divided into two different parts: one in which the protagonist is slowly making his way into a foreboding place by clearing puzzles without any visible threat, and one in which riddles are still a major part of the equation but their solving usually involves the presence of a monster that must be avoided at all costs. Needless to say, this mixture allows Little Nightmares II to overcome the limitations of its hero to find flexibility.
At times, monsters are used to create thrilling chase sequences that have the hero desperately running away from their grasp. Meanwhile, in other more frequent occasions players will be thrown into twisted hide-and-seek portions that will force the frail little protagonist to traverse the environments patrolled by these beasts without being seen, and since making a little bit of noise is sometimes utterly inevitable, quickly finding good positions that allow one to stay out of view is punctually necessary. Regardless of how the monsters are used, though, not only is their design pretty great, but they are also responsible for numerous memorable moments.
Despite how competent it is in pretty much any area that is analyzed, Little Nightmares II – as a sequel – ultimately begets the question of what it does better than the original. And in that sense, the game has a bit of a problem, because it is hard to answer that prompt when there are hardly any differences to be found between the two titles. In a way, this trait can be seen as positive, since the game inherits all good characteristics displayed by its older brother, from impressive animation and perfect sound design to haunting gameplay and unforgettable monsters. However, it is hard not to be bothered by the fact this sequel does little to try to push the established gameplay further.
Some may argue that Little Nightmares is a franchise that thrives on minimalism, sporting a simple gameplay that opens the way for both its atmosphere and monsters to shine. To a point, that is correct, since the game’s simplicity certainly plays a key role in its overall charm. Nevertheless, little changes – such as a few branching paths, a couple of maze-like segments, or simpply some new abilities – could have been implemented to make players feel like significant evolution has happened. Truthfully, there are minor steps forward here and there: cinematics come into play more often, a good slice of the quest has the protagonist working alongside another child to overcome obstacles, and three monsters in particular have to be dealt with via the usage of specific tools (namely, a flashlight, a remote control, and anything that can be employed as a melee weapon). Still, those increments, including the presence of a partner, are so negligible that they do not make a sufficiently big splash.
As a title that stands quite close to its predecessor, it is only natural to expect that Little Nightmares II ends up inheriting all of the issues present in the original; and that is precisely the case. Yet again, the game suffers a bit from a short length, with an adventure that can be cleared within six to eight hours. And due to its linear nature, the only incentive to replaying it is gathering the eighteen hidden collectibles that unlock a slightly expanded secret ending. In addition, and in a completely different front, given the protagonist is one fragile being, he is killed in one hit by whatever traps and creatures come his way. Such an effect is perfectly understandable considering this is one child versus a vicious world; plus, it further drives home the point that the monsters are mighty beasts. However, the one-hit kills often produce puzzles with a trial and error pattern that can get a bit annoying, especially considering a few very rare checkpoints are not perfectly placed.
Finally, and on what is quite a sad turn, Little Nightmares II also encounters a problem that is its own. In this case, the issue pops up in the handling of two tools needed to deal with a pair of monsters. The first shortcoming arises in the protagonist’s manipulation of melee weapons; since they are much heavier than he is, it takes the little guy quite a while to swing them, meaning it can be initially troublesome to get the timing just right in order to make the weapons hit the particular foe that is disposed of in such a way. Meanwhile, the second problem comes in the flashlight, as guiding its light so it hits the desired spot is not as intuitive as it should have been, because players will have to rely on a mixture of the tool’s automatic aiming with the pushing of the right control stick to adjust it.
Although all players will eventually get the hang of these items, the learning curve is frustrating because failures mean death and backtracking. Still, even if annoying and coming up in the very same chapter, these problems do not detract from the fact that, thanks to its inventiveness and utterly creeping horror, the segment stands as one of the franchise’s terrifying highlights.
In fact, such a comment can be made about the game as a whole. Sure, Little Nightmares II does little to expand on what was established by its predecessor, hence coming off as a much lighter breath of originality; furthermore, it inherits many of that game’s problems, including trial-and-error patterns as well as a short length. However, its horror is so gripping; its atmosphere is so tense; its monsters are so grotesque; its gameplay is so engaging in its simplicity; and the violent moments it contains are so unexpectedly brutal that it is impossible not to be hooked.
Little Nightmares II, like its title implies, is a disturbing sequence of small self-contained horrors that unfold in multiple locations. They make players wish looking away was possible, but the fact their lives are on the line means they have to keep starring at the utter unfolding horror. Likewise, they cause one to hope unplugging and waking up from the bad dreams were a possibility, but the desire to get to the bottom of the title’s ridiculously well-constructed lore and world will simply not allow the cowardly way out to be taken. As such, the only option is to keep on digging deeper and deeper, facing the horrific situations contained within as they come up and delighting at the fact that, despite residual issues, the world has been given a second glimpse into the rotten fairy-tale storybook which houses the universe of Little Nightmares.