Friday, 19 May 2017

Little Nightmares - Review

Developer: Tarsier Studios
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One

Little Nightmares, even if the title wasn’t a clue, immediately gives away its inspirations. The pseudo-2D level design and simple minimalist mechanics, that almost solely consist of a grab and a jump button, have their roots in the platforming gameplay of Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet.

This should be expected, of course, Tarsier Studio have cut their teeth working on numerous ports and supporting titles for Sony’s do-it-yourself platformer. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Little Nightmares often feels like you’re playing a user-created level from LittleBigPlanet, only with considerably more polish.

This wouldn’t quite do Little Nightmares justice, however. For such a simple concept; you play as a weird girl/gremlin creature in a yellow anorak, Tarsier Studios pack plenty of interesting ideas and concepts into the game’s svelte five chapters.

The game’s strongest aspect is its atmosphere. Calling it survival horror, or horror in any real sense would perhaps be exaggerating, but the developers do a great job of imbuing each sequence with disturbing imagery designed to unsettle and unnerve. Creeping through a room early on, all you can make out are a pair of legs dangling above a chair, listen closely and you just might just hear the creak of the rope as the legs swing back and forth.

Despite not being a “pure” horror game in the traditional sense, Little Nightmares does a great job of crafting scenarios that are unsettling and tense, and sometimes a little scary. Better yet, the game achieves this without relying on a constant barrage of shock moments and jump scares. Its world is dripping with a sense of unease and threat that’s always present.

In fact, environmental story-telling as a whole is the game’s strongest element. Much like Abe’s Oddysee, Little Nightmares uses its world to craft its story. Events play out in the background as you shift from scene to scene, moving the action forward with a touch of light platforming or basic puzzle work. Unlike say, Limbo, a game which Little Nightmares has a lot in common with, it’s rarely frustrating or difficult largely because it doesn’t need to be. This is a game that wants you to experience everything it has to offer.

While platforming and puzzles comprise two thirds of the gameplay, the rest is made up of some basic stealth mechanics. Each chapter has a central villain that the girl-thing has to overcome. In the kitchens it’s a gang of lumpen-faced chefs intent on catching you, whilst one of the earlier levels has you avoiding a gangly armed creature, (describing anyone in Little Nightmares as a person is perhaps being too hopeful), that can’t see.

The game’s strong attention to pacing serves it well here. Stealth is basic, sneaking under tables or behind objects is almost certain to keep you hidden, and that’s all there really is to it. Tarsier Studios never bog down their set-pieces with fussy mechanics or complex challenges. In fact, in many instances, the simplicity of most of the stealth sections is what makes it them so tense: there’s nothing else to do but dive under the bed lest the horrible monster catch you. There’s a raw, primal urgency and satisfaction to many of Little Nightmares key moments and it’s a part of what makes them so enthralling.

Even better, the developers know when to switch up the pacing. A chapter in a packed, Japanese-themed dining hall, with hoards of screaming, obese men-monsters chasing after you, is a brilliantly crafted set-piece in a game with plenty of them. It’s Spirited Away’s bathhouse sequence played out as a video game level.

In fact, there’s very little to criticise about Little Nightmares. I might sound a hypocrite for saying it, but my biggest gripe is that the game is perhaps too short, not something that you see me write all that much on this website. I’ve lamented many a game, regardless of budget, for bloating their designs with too many mechanics and tedious micro-management (cough...crafting...cough), or stretching their open worlds to breaking point. Little Nightmares is one of the few games in recent memory that I actually wanted more of once it had finished. Its short runtime can easily be completed in one sitting, clocking in at around three hours or so.

Yet, that’s part of the beauty of Little Nightmares. It’s simple, concise and humble. It does its thing and then scurries away before you can catch hold of it, much like its protagonist. Tarsier Studios have created a wonderful little gem here; a game that’s creepy, weird and charming in equal measure.


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