Nightmares are Much Larger than Advertised: Little Nightmares Review
As much as I like the genre and the price point of most of the newer games that are a part of it, I’ve tried to stay wary of which titles to pick up from the many different sort of “puzzle platformers” that pop up in my beloved $20-40 price range. As keen as I am to lap up any kind of traditional-looking platformer that comes my way nowadays, there’s far too many with only lukewarm reviews or that I just assume will drop at some point that I can pick them up without a second thought. Little Nightmares is another one of these wallet-friendly puzzle-plats that realistically had no right to do anything but to be lost in the shuffle along with Teslagrad, Rogue Stormers, or The Last Tinker: City of Colors, but with one very important difference: its physical release came in a big box collector’s edition. So, of course, I pre-ordered it.
Actually, that big box, known as the Six Edition, including a soundtrack, stickers, poster, and figurine of the main character, Six, was the only thing that kept my pre-order intact leading up to its release last month, after Mario Kart 8 Deluxe was released the same day and I reluctantly stuck to it, merely assuring myself that the box would look super sweet even if I never played the game. Of course, not only did the box get me to buy the game, but it piqued my interest when looking for a new PS4 title to dive into both because of its cool contents, but more importantly at this point, its intriguing Tim Burton-esque horror motif and art style, something that was imparted to me not only by the trailers I saw on YouTube before ordering it some two months ago, but by exploring the contents of the box.
Even without a proper manual, the packaging of Little Nightmares played not only a vital role in my purchase of the game, but in actually putting it in my console once I owned it, and regardless of my opinion of the game itself, my recommendation to go and pick up a copy of it hinges greatly on the concept of having a physical release in your collection that feels worth the $35 you paid for it (a nice price for a collector’s edition of any game) at retail even when the game itself is dirt cheap on a Steam sale or $10 used without anything else included.
Little Nightmares is ambiguous. Perhaps a little too ambiguous, though not inconsistent with a lot of games of its style. There’s very little that the game feels like telling you about where you are or why that isn’t implied solely by ambience including sparse, atonal music, wildly unsanitary and out of code environments, and, of course, the presence of grotesque, vaguely humanoid monsters 20 times the size of the main character who bolt after her at first sight and do such horrible and evil things upon her capture that the screen fades to black before the act of dropping her in a boiling pot or plucking her limbs off like an action figure actually takes place.
Given this setting, it seems only logical that your mission is to get the hell out of there and that’s essentially your entire heading through the majority of the game. Take this information for what you will, but it’s unfortunately not something I’m a huge fan of, and all too common, I think, in these types of indie-level games. Just because you choose the minimalist route in having your characters be mute and leave tension as your driving force doesn’t mean the player has to be left in the dark for the majority of the game. It’s okay with me if the void of a concrete narrative is filled with something else in a game like this, such as in Abzu, where it’s replaced with a satisfying level of interactivity with the environment, or in Among the Sleep, where it’s at least half-present via both some visual clues and your creepy bear buddy. Little Nightmares has plenty to keep you interested in seeing what’s next, mainly all tying back to its great and unique art style, but it results in a setting that’s too alien to be left without a guide, but too based in a vague impression of reality to explain that away with “Oh, well that’s the point.”
While the sense of story or progression in the game may seem unfortunately half-baked in my eyes, the play control and design of Little Nightmares is what makes it worth playing. Essentially working under a familiar old formula of “get to the next room until there are no more rooms,” Little Nightmares is the textbook example of a puzzle platformer, sometimes working on your problem-solving skills, sometimes on your controller finesse (including multitasking), and sometimes on your reflexes and quick-thinking abilities, with a big blanket of stealth thrown over most of it.
Sometimes you’ll be working at your own pace with little sense of any impending threat that allows you to put your thinking cap on and suss out the solution to your passage onward, but most of the time the presence of Little Nightmares’ overbearing Goliath-like enemies (you might call them Big Nightmares) keeps the need to sneak around and use the environment to level the playing field under consideration. The enemies, which are present from very early on in the game (unlike Among The Sleep) and change depending on whose domain you’re passing through, are all very well designed, with their own qualities that force you to learn them as you progress.
It’s entirely likely that most people who experience Little Nightmares will enjoy a different aspect of the game more than others, with the biggest issue merely being that the game is too short to deliver very much of any one thing during play. For example, I found that my favorite sections were more adrenaline-focused, not unlike the infamous boulder levels from Crash Bandicoot, which rely on your reflexes and your ability to cut the best possible path through obstacles with death directly on your tail. Others might appreciate the omnipresent tension that comes with so many of the rooms, and others still will take the greatest pleasure from figuring out puzzle solutions and outsmarting enemies.
The only real gripe with how the game plays is that the camera can be the player’s worst enemy, though not in the way you might expect. The 2.5D perspective that sets up the game like a perverse stage play doesn’t grant enough freedom to move the camera around which can lead to trouble seeing objects or platforms from the right angle, as you can only pan it a short ways away from Six, and also makes it tricky to walk in a precise manner with the analog stick, leading to more unfair deaths than there should be. Still, the game is actually pretty forgiving when things like this happen, never putting you further back than it should. The rest of the game controls fairly well under its simple scheme, based only on grabbing, crouching, sprinting, and jumping, but I definitely felt the need to address this manner of frustration due to how often games like this use the same perspective and are liable to make the same unnecessary mistake.
Little Nightmares could easily have been much longer, as the flow of the game would really not have been made worse through the addition of more enemies and more rooms to draw it out. Instead, the most frustrating thing about this game isn’t actually the poorly implemented story or a few cheap deaths or tough puzzles, but the fact that like so many games like it, especially puzzle platformers, there just isn’t enough content to satisfy those who assign dollar values to games by their length. So while this journey might have been really enjoyable and unique, I keep coming back to Little Nightmares’ packaging as the main reason I suggest picking it up now, because while it’s certainly great for the style of game that it is, the things that set it apart are its biggest assets, and both in-game and out of it, presentation is the reason to pick up a copy of Little Nightmares.
Final Score: 3.5/5