It’s more of a nap really.
Developer: Tarsier Studios
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC (reviewed)
Released:28th April, 2017
The best thing a horror game game can do is immerse you in its world. Fear is a very personal emotion, something that needs a direct link to the game. An obvious, almost overdone, way to do this would be to make the perspective first person, what’s more personal than being in the shoes of the character. Too many developers seem to think that the darker a game is, the scarier, drawing this to an frustrating extreme. But immersion needs more than a camera trick and an inconvenient lack of light.
Tarsier Studios understands this. Their latest release, Little Nightmares manages to cram some brilliant visual and audio design, an enthralling story and some creative puzzles into a surprisingly small, although well paced, package. Little Nightmares Pulls off a brilliant sense of immersion, without resorting to a first person perspective.
Little Nightmares’ gives you a pretty straightforward overarching goal: help a small child, Six, escape, but there’s far more going on under the surface. Plenty of clues are littered about the place, revealing details about the characters, plot and The Maw’s own insidious purpose. Although I’m usually a little dubious of indirect means of storytelling, gleaming what i could from the environment was enthralling. I can’t deny some of the darker revelations had a lasting impact.
Little Nightmares looks downright beautiful, on both a technical and stylistic sense. While the raw graphical fidelity is impressive enough, with plenty of detail, it’s the style and design that’s engrossing. The game takes place on The Maw, an aptly named mysterious waterborne facility that’s as much a character as anyone else. The Maw has a gorgeously gloomy aesthetic, bleak colours and dull shades make even well lit areas still feel dark and foreboding.
The Maw is huge and expansive, the sheer scale enforces the sense of vulnerability you feel playing as Six. The camera works hard to provide this scale, making Six seem even tinier compared to the massive, imposing surroundings. The camera also likes to twist the angles every now and then, keeping things interesting, though it can make the more precise platforming tasks unnecessarily harder.
The game sounds about as good as it looks. The score is a great accompaniment for a variety of moments. Plenty of ambience enhance the atmosphere, chilling vocals and strings create some haunting themes and rumbling drums driving the more stressful moments. The audio works well on its own, but works best when connected to the gameplay.
The sound design is used to great effect. The way the world reacts to your presence shows a lovely attention to detail, especially when intertwined with the gameplay. Seeing the silent safety of a carpet give way to a bunch of creaking floorboard filled me with a terrific sense of dread. Something as simple as a pot smashing becomes terrifying when followed by a foreboding silence, then the wail of an impending enemy.
Speaking of gameplay, it’s probably the most straightforward aspect of Little Nightmares, puzzle platforming crossed with basic stealth mechanics. The puzzle platforming segments felt very similar to Playdead’s Inside, except in three dimensions. The puzzle are generally simple, but enjoyable. The best puzzles incorporate the setting to create some clever moments, although there are just as many instances of simply fetching a key for a lock. As for the platforming, it’s about what you’d expect. Lots of running jumping and climbing around oversized rooms. Its nothing new or spectacular, but it’s a tried and true method that works well here.
The stealth mechanics are pretty basic, just don’t be seen or heard and you won’t be found. Its simple enough, stay out of the line of sight and avoid making noise. The stealth mechanics aren’t anything special, it’s what you’re hiding from that I found more interesting. A motley crew of twisted behemoths are constantly stalking you. It’s not just their sheer stature that’s imposing. Getting spotted tends to lead to terrifying pursuits, even when you know they’re unavoidable. While these set piece moments do away with any sneaking around, they do make for nice climaxes to encounters. You get a real sense of triumph from escaping the monsters hunting you.
For all the effort Little Nightmares puts into its immersion, it’s kind of let down by the controls. Nothing breaks immersion like wonky controls. Mouse and keyboard controls are awkward. They can’t be rebound and for some reason choose to use the mouse buttons, but only the buttons, why not just keep it to the keyboard? The worst is when you need to pull off a running slide, you used one hand to pull off an awkward 3 or 4 button combination, while your right hand is left completely unused. I really wish I could’ve rebound the controls to something more practical and comfortable, there’s no excuse why i shouldn’t be able to. It’s a major oversight that tarnishes the rest of the game.
The off-angle perspectives make it confusing to work with the digital movement of a keyboard. It’s hard to tell exactly which way Six is facing, very annoying during platforming segments. The analogue controls makes things slightly better, but can’t fully account for the camera angles.
The checkpoint systems is very merciful, almost to a fault. Dying only means you’ll be dropped back right before any danger. While it’s nice not to punished too severely, it can erase some of the tension. Being caught by something didn’t really mean much if the game was going to drop me back just a few minutes earlier. While the janky controls caused the occasional death, the forgiving checkpoints eased some of my frustrations.
Little Nightmares may only be about 3 hours long, but Tarsier makes the most of it. Although the opening chapters spend just slightly too long of a building up, a much more natural pace is found after the first couple of chapters. With all that happens in the background, multiple playthroughs would be advised. I was surprised by how much more I noticed on a second playthrough. Foreknowledge of the plot makes what’s happening in the background all the more interesting. Aside from that, there’s very little replayability, just collectables and achievements, for those interested.
I loved my time with Little Nightmares, however short it was. Although it dragged slightly at the start, it quickly found it’s stride. Tarsier wastes nothing, sound, environmental and character designs are used to their full potential. Plenty of hidden depth in the story makes multiple playthroughs warranted, easing discomfort about the short length. The janky controls are a little off putting and the inability to rebind is frankly unacceptable.
Little Nightmares is an easy recommendation, if you’re looking for something that leans more on the creepy, subtle and surreal more than loud, jumpscare filled and forgettable, you’ll find it on The Maw.