Review: Little Nightmares

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Atmosphere is a tricky thing to get right in any game, or media, really. It’s easy to imagine a creepy bedroom or ominous boat because your mind fills in the gaps without really telling you what it’s filling in with. That becomes clear when you try to translate that to a piece of art, or even just an explanation to someone else. Mastering this challenge is what makes Little Nightmares so special, bringing to life its damnable ship of grotesque monsters and impossible architecture in ways that will stick with you long after you see the grim story to its conclusion. It’s a performance powerful enough to overlook the gameplay shortcomings for, because it’s not often you find a vision so fully realized as this.

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Tiny Six is a stowaway on the titanic vessel known as The Maw, a dark and twisted assembly of pipes and chains and bunkrooms and kitchens all rumbling away with nefarious activity. For whatever reason, Six abandons the relative safety of a secluded nook and sets about escaping The Maw, and running afoul of its foul inhabitants in the process. Exploring the ship will take Six to dank holds of rotting meat, workshops full of unsettlingly-small shoes, grimy kitchens piled with questionable morsels, and worse places still in their ill-defined quest. Along the way you’ll learn far more about The Maw and its inhabitants than you ever dreamed, and the revelations you stumble across are sure to stay in your nightmares.

It might be hard to believe but Little Nightmares lives up to that flowery prose in a big way. Every room you poke your adorable head into is a fully-realized place, with a function and story all its own. Towering armoires, crooked toilets, and vast bins of abandoned shoes each work to paint a vivid picture of the hellish place. The Maw is a terrible, unsettling place because its bizarre architecture and grotesque decor actually feel grounded and tangible. There’s a strong bent to the art style that hearkens to rich animated films, Spirited Away chief among them, and is granted vitality through clever use of depth of field and impressive scene lighting.

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This is really the crux of the game’s appeal, the incredible atmosphere. And it’s not just present in the environments, but in the encounters as well. As you guide Six through the oversized decks and halls you’ll run afoul of grim, hideous figures carrying out their dark work. Everything about them is wrong, from their proportions to their breathing to their twitching to the very sound of their footfalls. They’re introduced suddenly, occupy prominent places in your path, and enjoy some inspired scripted sequences that pit you against them in terrifying ways. Like any horror game the tension breaks down if you foul up a sequence too many times and their scripted animations are more convincing than the dynamic ones where they catch you, but the challenge here is in a good place to keep you just far ahead of them enough to stay unnerved.

That touches on the big weakness of the game, the gameplay. Normally this is the kiss of death for even the most atmospheric games but understand that the action in Little Nightmares isn’t bad, just thin. Six can run, jump, slide, creep, climb, and huck just about anything they can carry, and the puzzles and platforming challenges you’ll face will require all of those skills in concert. Some of the puzzles are downright inspired, like the sausage grinder, but most of what you’ll be doing is scampering up and down furniture to get to the duct to the next room. Coupled with the brevity of the game at less than three hours, this can leave you feeling like you haven’t accomplished much in The Maw. There are a handful of collectibles to locate on your journey, and that’s it.

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My biggest complaint about Little Nightmares is that I wish there was more of it, and really that can be seen as a compliment. The experience of traversing The Maw and outwitting its horrible residents is a real thrill, and the fantastic art style is wonderfully effective at getting your imagination going. There are plenty of shocks to be had, and not all of them come at the hands of the monsters. Assuming you’re okay with a concise platformer rich in atmosphere and tension and light on action, Little Nightmares is sure to deliver.

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