Little Nightmares (PS4) Review

If I ever needed a game that was wholesome, friendly and cute, Tarsier Studios would be one of my first ports of call. The Swedish developer has since moved from their colourful days as the custodians of the family-friendly festivals of Little Big Planet and Tearaway Unfolded, and is now intent on giving us arresting anxiety in Little Nightmares, a wordless story about a little girl in a yellow raincoat who moves through the bowels of a seaborne den of horror and gluttony, drawing on some of the most primal and deep-rooted fears dredged direct from my childhood.

Needless to say, this is something of a gear change.

I actually don't want to give much away of the story beyond that little snippet above, since part of the game's engrossing quality is figuring out the story for yourself. You play as a raincoat-clad girl named Six, who wakes up in a suitcase aboard a mammoth waterborne boat/submersible thing called The Maw. Making her way through the bowels of a bad dream birthed from the combined efforts of Hieronymous Bosch and a Shaun Tan picture book, Six begins to understand the purpose of The Maw and its grisly, comically hideous inhabitants. Escape will only come if she can invade said inhabitants, and discover the true nature behind a mysterious, tall woman called The Lady.

Granted, most of the above - particularly the names of things, like Six and The Maw - comes from the paratext of Little Nightmares, since the game itself is a wordless odyssey. You glean enough of the story from the visual details and the richly-designed soundscape, although there's plenty more information to be found outside the game itself. That would seem to sate both those who are after a somewhat more detailed picture of the world they're in, and those who just want to be a little raincoat girl running from nightmarishly obese chefs in a real Hell's Kitchen.

The gameplay is remarkably simple, even if it at times strays into irritating in its reliance on physics. Technically Little Nightmares is a side-scrolling platform/stealth hybrid, but the game allows you to move on a 3D-plane. This means all kinds of fun can happen when finding places to evade an enemy who's charging at you, but it makes for double the amount of frustration when you fiddle with the controls to keep Six squarely on the path of a ceiling beam or other narrow path above a steep drop into death. The game may be generous with exactly how far you need to fall for it to be an instant kill - it's rare that a drop from the beam will kill you outright, just stun you for a moment - but it's still an annoyance to have to get back up to those narrow spots each time you fall through. The brevity of certain checkpoints adds a factor of repetition to that goal, so if you die in the kitchen by falling from the beam above the chef's cookpot, you'll become intimately familiar with the path back up via a conveniently placed set of shelves.

But aside from that, Little Nightmares controls solidly. You can run, you can sneak, and you can grab things. It puts the game in a somewhat survival horror area for some of its content - compounded by the harrowing escapes from multiple giant enemies, against whom your only defence is to beat feet,  peppered throughout the game - and really emphasises the best part of the narrative: atmosphere. When it comes to the creation of an eldritch-yet-familiar landscape and a host of horrific inhabitants, coupled with some dark ambient music stings and superlative environmental sound design, Little Nightmares is a vacuum which will suck you in and refuse to let go. Play this one with some big headphones and turn the lights off.

That reliance on atmosphere as its key strength also means the game is quite brief, lest it overstay its welcome and become stale. Thankfully it didn't, though I'd be lying if I said I wasn't surprised by where and how the game chose to end since it was after a particularly harrowing encounter. It also leaves the ultimate message of the game - laced throughout in themes of greed and childhood terror and represented masterfully by the exaggerated design of the enemies - somewhat ambiguous, less a clear picture and more a Rorschach test for players to divine their own conclusion. In that regard, Little Nightmares at least deserves kudos for having the gumption to end the way it does, and leave things almost entirely up to you.

When it comes to me, I loved the hell out of Little Nightmares. The game makes me think of Limbo hybridised with Coraline, a remarkably engaging and audiovisually delicious sojourn through childlike horror and the unspeakable depths of monstrous greed. A playthrough will be worth the bad dreams that follow.

- Chris

Little Nightmares is out now for Playstation 4, Xbox One and PC.

Review copy kindly supplied to Geek of Oz by Bandai Namco Entertainment.


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