Being a kid, when you haven't yet figured out what's real and what isn't, is equal parts magical and terrifying. The imaginary creatures that live under your bed might as well be real. Strangers all look weird – they're not mom, and not-mom is terrifying – and even your own home can have unfamiliar areas and dark corners.
That's where Little Nightmares starts: the terrifying experience that is being a child in an adult's world. From there, the game attempts to tell a story about hunger, greed, and youth through a beautifully-realized but deeply-macabre world.
You play as a young girl named Six, trying to escape a massive structure called The Maw, a creaking hunk of steel and wood that seems to be afloat somewhere in the ocean. As you explore and ascend, you'll encounter adults – always adults – who seem to feel that you'd be better off dead or, better yet, in their stomachs. Your options of escape include running, jumping, and hiding, as well as a lighter to help brighten the darkest corners of this little world.
Little Nightmares is like a stop-motion movie come to life. The art direction and animation are easily the best parts of the game, and it seems clear to me that this is where developer Tarsier Studios put most of their attention.
Those stop-motion creations, like the 2009 film Coraline, animation by the Quay Brothers, or that string of amazing Tool videos in the 90s, all share a certain grimy quality to them that other animated movies don't. Watching them move, you can tell the characters have been touched by a human hand. And yet, they still feel like living things.
That's how Little Nightmares feels. Despite being a game, the whole thing feels like someone literally held it.
The creatures that inhabit The Maw – I hesitate to call them human – have an unsettling liveliness to them. While the protagonist, Six, feels like a person, these characters, like the Janitor or the Butchers, feel animated, as if something brought them to life and gave them a purpose aboard the ship.
The environments these beings move around in feel lived in, endlessly so, with countless drawers and shelves filling the background alongside frames filled with rotting art. Doors are boarded, and empty rooms show signs of activities abandoned mid-stream. All of this made Little Nightmares worth exploring to some degree. Tarsier's art team has crafted a gorgeous world, water-logged, rotting, and creaking. Like a zombie, it's always falling apart, but never actually collapses.
The genius use of sound helps this along. Little Nightmares is a quiet game, so when there is sound, like the sound of restaurant patrons gorging themselves on meat, it's effective and chilling. There's just enough sound to keep tension high for most of the game.
The wrong kind of twisted
But this is a game – not a movie – and that's where Little Nightmares' troubles come in.
Like Limbo and Inside, Little Nightmares is a side-scrolling game, with most of the action occurring from left to right. In Little Nightmares, though, some of the movement is three-dimensional. It helps make the spaces feel more real, but it makes some puzzles more difficult than they need to be. Balancing beams are exercises in frustration, and climbing a simple stairway becomes a nerve-wracking experience. A boss fight with an obvious solution took me a bunch of tries because I was slightly off-point. I don't mind difficulty, but there's a difference between a game being challenging and a game getting in the way of me playing it.
This led to broken tension a few times, which is something just about every horror game grapples with at some point or another. A game needs to seem difficult enough to make the player feel like they're in danger. But if it's too difficult, or if the next solution or objective takes too long to coalesce, the world stops being scary-tense and starts to become frustrating-tense. This happens a few too many times in Little Nightmares.
I think it's trying to speak
The story, like the gameplay, is a mix of simple and confusing, but often not in the right way. The sum total of the story seems to be, "Humans sure are gross, right?" It often tries to deliver that point by matching their behaviors or physical attributes with the gross aspects it tries to focus on.
The game's main settings do a fair job of conveying this, but they don't seem to be meaningfully connected to each other. Instead of feeling like a cohesive story, they feel like vignettes that all star the same character. One area seems to be creepy mostly for the sake of it, and that area might be my favorite one. This area belongs to the Janitor, the most obviously grotesque of the ship's inhabitants. He seems like something right out of those old Scary Stories books I used to look at during grade-school book fairs, but never actually buy.
The first time he appeared in a dark room was genuinely frightening. His blind-folded eyes, his long arms, and his groping hands felt like the stuff of nightmares. Watching him package up children to send upstairs, just barely avoiding his grasp, and finding ways not to trigger his sensitive hearing were all high points of Little Nightmares. He was a perfect fit for his environment and it all came together in one unnerving package.
Other areas, though, seem to focus on a rather heavy-handed metaphor about gluttony, greed and hunger, linking them to morbid obesity. The game does the same thing with vanity and beauty. In both cases, Six is the solution, either as a source of food or youth. But anything beyond that is a wild guess. It's plain the story wants to say something, but it struggles to actually say much of anything.
The ending, which seems to come on rather suddenly, seems to convey all this, as it leaves the wrong sort of questions lingering in the air. I found myself asking "Wait, that's it?" before I even considered questioning the game's story.
Waking up too early
Little Nightmares is just a few hours long. If you hold down the run button and don't stop to take in the art, it could be even shorter.
The art, in itself, makes Little Nightmares worth checking out. The story, the gameplay, and the length that come with it make it a bit harder to justify the price. As polished as the art and animation are, the other parts of the game feel like unfinished ideas. Little Nightmares deserves a look, but waiting for a sale might make more sense for many gamers.
Disclaimer: We received a retail PC code from Bandai Namco for Little Nightmares and played the entirety of the single player before starting this review.