Tarsier Studios isn’t a novice when it comes to puzzle-platformers. The studio previously did work on the LittleBigPlanet series, as well as another puzzle-platformer called Tearaway Unfolded before announcing their first IP which they initially called Hunger. The studio took its experience with puzzle-platformers and mixed it with a new and horrific story to create what would finally be called Little Nightmares, a horror puzzle-platformer akin to the likes of Limbo and Inside.
In Little Nightmares, players take on the role of a little girl trying to escape a placed called The Maw. While the girl’s name, Six, is mentioned on the game’s website and in its promotional materials, it and many other of its elements aren’t blatantly revealed within the game itself. There is no dialogue or text in the game but it instead unravels its story and setting completely through its environment and its fairly few cutscenes, of which it does excellently.
While the game is fairly short, around six or so hours across five chapters, its puzzles and challenges as well as the unexpectedly horrifying twists and turns the story takes help make the game feel more robust and meaningful. The game’s five chapters each have their own theme and inhabitants and are further divided into several rooms, each being their own “little nightmare,” so to speak.
Visually and Aurally Horrifying
The game’s visuals are outstanding with environments that are both beautiful and impressively succeed in setting and keeping the game’s tone. While similar games like the aforementioned Limbo and Inside tend to steer toward a darker, monochromatic color scheme, Little Nightmares is brighter and features a bit more color, appropriate to its setting. The touches of bright color in an otherwise drab environment make for an excellent visual contrast that’s expounded even more by the game’s excellent use of light and shadows, whether to reveal hiding places or to strengthen the game’s sense of terror.
The character designs of Little Nightmares are a mix of imaginative and horrific. The denizens of The Maw that Six encounters and avoids look like the stuff of nightmares, making the challenge of avoiding them and the suspense of running away from them even more terrifying.
Sound also plays an important part in the game’s feel. Environmental sounds like creaking floors, falling objects, and more become crucial to the game’s experience as a wrong step or a tipped over bottle could easily and quickly mean death. The transitions between silence, creepy and sometimes horrifying background noises, and tense music all add to the game’s sense of dread and are each used and time excellently, creating a more captivating experience.
As a horror game, Little Nightmares doesn’t rely on cliched horror conventions such as jump scares, although it does feature a few, but instead slowly tries to fill players with terror as they try to traverse The Maw and discover its many horrors while both knowing and not knowing what lies ahead. Both of which are contributed by the game’s combination of immersive visuals and sound. The lack of any weapons or any means of defending oneself adds even more to the game’s feeling of helplessness.
Simple Yet Meaningful
The controls of Little Nightmares are simple. Six can walk, sprint, jump, crouch down, grab and pick up things, and use her lighter. In spite of the limited controls though, the variety of ways the game lets players use it is impressive. Most notably, the grab control is probably the most used because it allows Six to grab things to either push or pull them, hang onto ledges and handles, climb, pick up objects, and more. The game emphasizes the importance of the grab control even more by forcing players to hold it when used, else Six lets go of what she’s holding or grabbing onto.
The game makes it easy for players to quickly grasp how the environment works without blatantly pointing things out. Figuring how Six can interact with her current environment and which objects she can interact with becomes easy enough to figure out and recognize as the game goes on. This transition is something that the developers seem to have recognized and made the later levels less about stealth and more about speed, testing just how quick players can figure out the environment before getting caught.
There are a few moments in the game where the camera position makes it a little difficult to ascertain depth which, when coupled with how small Six is, may lead players to unintentionally run off platforms or narrow walkways.
The puzzles and challenges in Little Nightmares aren’t impossibly difficult but they’re challenging enough that it may take people a few moments and a few tries to figure them out. Looking and carefully examining one’s environment is, at many times, crucial to solving a room’s puzzles. And because Little Nightmares is such a relatively brief experience, the puzzles and challenges are always different and never make the game feel repetitive.
Death is somewhat inevitable in Little Nightmares as you learn how to traverse its myriad of rooms and figure out its many challenges, most times through trial and error. Some sequences even leave you with no choice but to stand and wait for death unless you’re standing at an optimal spot when it starts. But death as well as trial and error seem part and parcel of the game’s experience and sometimes give you a better opportunity to further appreciate the game.
Little Nightmares is an entrancing yet brief journey that even those averse to the horror game genre can enjoy. Its implementation of horror hits deeper and lasts longer than other games in the genre while still making it both enjoyable and accessible. Its beautiful visuals and sound design make for an immersive and horrifying experience that is difficult to put down even at its most terrifying moments. And even after surviving through its myriad of possibly nightmare-inducing sequences, it’s hard to shake the feeling of wanting to experience more.
Little Nightmares review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.