Bestowed with a disquieting atmosphere and visual imagination, Little Nightmares makes a terrific first impression. A side-on platform-puzzler in the vein of Playdead’s exceptional Limbo and Inside – with a similarly dark palette – the game casts the player as Six, a nine-year-old girl who must navigate her way from the depths of a titanic ship called The Maw to escape onto the ocean waves. But the more time you spend with Six, guiding her through the clanking and groaning vessel, the more Little Nightmares reveals its shortcomings.
Swedish studio Tarsier first revealed Little Nightmares in 2014 as a game called Hunger, and Six is indeed cursed with a raging appetite which sees her take some unexpected character turns. Suffice to say that she is no sweet summer child, at times exhibiting qualities more in keeping with the game’s array of grotesque antagonists. An empathetic, protective connection with Little Nightmare’s protagonist is no guarantee, then, which strips the game’s scenes of life-or-death hide and seek – and desperate sprints to evade the clutches of lanky armed assailants – of the tension they should be positively dripping with.
This leads to the player caring less about Six’s safety than they might’ve done, had she not been partial to the occasional wicked act. And that, combined with the regular deaths you’ll encounter (another element borrowed from Playdead’s copybook), turns the trial-and-error gameplay into something where the stakes don’t feel especially raised.
If Six gets fried, or crushed, or caught, that’s fine – you simply reload the checkpoint, having learned from your mistakes. But here’s where the greatest obstacle you’ll face in finishing the game raises its head. Forget the traps and the terrors of the Maw – it’s the painfully long loading times between deaths that’ll have you hitting the Switch home button for something less frustrating.
If the game snapped you right back to the last checkpoint a few seconds after coming a cropper, Little Nightmares would be much easier to recommend. But with death occurring so regularly – not just because of the things that are actively out to get you, but also some spongey controls, unclear environments and ropey collision detection that sees Six stick herself to walls or stumble on the floorboards when you least need her to – these lengthy waits to get back to the Maw become bothersome in the extreme.
Checkpointing itself is fairly generous, with usually only a handful of potential pitfalls between one respawn area and the next, but repeating the same short sequences several times robs them of their potency, and the Maw’s occupants quickly lose their fear factor.
Which is a true shame, as the story of Little Nightmares – fleshed out as it is, wonderfully, by the DLC included in the Switch’s Complete Edition port – is a treat of gruesome titillation and macabre mystery. It’s not just Six who isn’t all she seems; other characters that she encounters – both playable (in the DLC) and not – have murky backgrounds that can be exposed through both their actions and by studying the environments they inhabit.
All of those Nomes that run from Six as she sneaks around the ship? Oh, they have their reasons for being afraid of her, and that shocking reveal is Little Nightmare’s narrative highlight, bar none. Be sure to pay attention to their shadows, too.
And you’ll want to look for those when the Switch is docked, as Little Nightmares is crisp and clear on the TV, its shadows working more as mood setters than making the screen hard to read. Played handheld, though, a game this dimly lit can’t not suffer from reflection interference, and seeing your own face peering back at you from behind Six’s misadventures doesn’t half compromise the experience.
If you are intending to play Little Nightmares undocked, then, ensure you’re someplace dark enough to avoid that. The visuals are a little fuzzier when in handheld mode, but with the stylised look Tarsier has realised here – not to mention the slow gameplay – Little Nightmares doesn’t suffer significantly for the minor dip in clarity.
The DLC, in which you play as another runaway kid entirely, is mechanically identical to the main game, and its three instalments add up to about three hours of bonus material – which is welcomed in a value-for-money capacity, as Six’s story is beatable in just over four hours, unless those loading screens grind you down first. Oh, and if you’ve got a Pac-Man amiibo lying about the house, you might want to dig out and dust it off for this one.
The DLC features one of the game’s very best monsters, too, an aquatic nasty that’s evocative of the truly disturbing, long-haired underwater horrors of Inside. But every time Little Nightmares throws up such a parallel to Playdead’s output, it only ever comes up short by comparison, leading one to wonder just how much better this could have been with controls that felt more responsive, and quicker turnaround times between failures.
Little Nightmares boasts some superb character and environment design, and exceptional sound too, with parts of the Maw screaming as if the ship was a gigantic bionic seafarer. Its story is compellingly told, and the way the main game connects with the DLC is immensely rewarding. But you never really feel like you have full control of Six, and the long breaks between restarts can dump you into a painful loop of spending less time in the game than you do in loading screens. These problems were present in the game’s initial release back in April 2017, and Switch owners can be forgiven for feeling disappointed that Tarsier wasn’t able to fix them for this port. If you can overlook them, though, Little Nightmares is an occasionally moreish puzzler with an exceptionally creepy cast capable of turning any stomach.