From the very moment you wake up as a little girl clad in yellow, you feel a profound sense of helplessness. Making your way through vents and climbing up stairs with nothing but a lighter, you realise how small you are. Five minutes into the game, you’re greeted by a really tall man’s limp body hanging from above the ceiling. This is how Little Nightmares introduces you to its insidiously grim, yet well-lit premise.
You play as Six, a nine-year old girl trapped in some kind of a nautical prison called the Maw. It’s a constant game of hide and seek where you use stealth to make your way past grotesque looking creatures who are out to get you. You’re also greeted by traps and falls and things that grant you instant death. There is a lot of ambiguity, you don’t know how you ended up there, or what the hell is going on, all you know is that you need to get out. And the game does an excellent job of establishing that. With its cartoon-ish looks, the game feels vaguely like a Tim Burton creation to me (people have told me I’m wrong. Maybe I am, but still).
Morbid sights are punctuated by adrenaline-filled chases through narrow corridors and rooms as you try to escape from the monstrosities after you. The first enemy you greet is a deformed, blind janitor with eerie long and slender arms, who sniff you out the moment you make a sound around them. As they can’t see you, you can use carpets to walk around and destructible objects to throw and distract them. Then there are the bulky chefs who wear the skins of other people as masks. Trust me, this game is very, very creepy.
Little Nightmares always keeps you at the edge of the seat with its ever-changing environment. The rooms keep rocking from side to side, like a ship, and it’s hard to feel at ease, even when you’re not being chased by a giant monster. Even the camera movements feel like something’s watching over you. Coupled with the incredible sound design and animations, it creates an immersive experience that feels a little short at the end. But that works out well in my opinion, because it keeps the game from getting boring and repetitive.
The game is not just about stealth either. Its platforming elements and environmental puzzles are navigating across the rooms quite fun (albeit creepy). The 2.5D gameplay adds more depth to the mechanics as you hang on to doorknobs or climb on top of the bookshelf just to jump on to a piano hanging from the ceiling to make your way to another bookshelf on the opposite end of the room. Sometimes it’s hard to get it right in the first try, but the hit-and-trial isn’t very unforgiving, and most puzzles can be figured out within 2-3 tries. These moments make sure that you’re still engrossed in the game even if you’re not immediately trying to escape the clutching hands of the janitor.
The world inside the Maw is pretty dark, but the game doesn’t lack any colour. The lighting is quite impressive, even in places where it’s not there inherently, because then you’re forced to use your lighter. Not only does it help you make your way through the prison, but it can also attract enemies. The same goes for sound. Walking on wooden planks makes a very distinct creaking sound, bringing the monsters closer to you. You can find creative ways to use these elements to your advantage, and it all feels very rewarding.
That said, the game does have a few issues. As there is quite a bit of hit-and-trial involved, it means you’re gonna die multiple times. And the game’s loading times don’t make it any easier for you. The platforming can be a bit frustrating at times as well, though it keeps the game well-paced. I don’t think I can find much to complain about it.
Little Nightmares isn’t a horror game where you can expect a lot of jump-scares. It’s not a game in which you open a door and you’ll be greeted by a horde of enemies. It’s a game where the eeriness creeps up on you, always making you feel uneasy, always making you feel like there’s someone around the corner. There’s a ever-lingering sense of loneliness, which makes you think how small you are in this world. It’s an imaginative, bone-chilling experience, which while harrowing, is something you wouldn’t want to end.