Available April 28 on PS4, Xbox One and PC
Little Nightmares is one of the creepiest games of the last few years and manages to send more a shiver right up your spine on more than one occasion. I can’t remember a time where I felt so on edge while simultaneously being compelled to keep playing. The range of emotions you’ll go through during it borders on comical.
On the surface, Tarsier Studios’ would-be indie title certainly seems harmless enough. In fact, it looks so much like the output smaller developers often produce you’d be forgiven for guessing this would fall in with the rest of that pack. But with an atmosphere that’s almost unparalleled and a sense of dread that will make even the most hardened individual raise an eyebrow, that’s not the case though. .
Taking control of a little girl who’s armed with nothing more than a lighter, you journey through the world is one of constant dread and wonder. Little Nightmares never really tells you what’s going on, instead deciding to nudge you in the right direction and let your mind fill in the blanks. And that’s half the problem.
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While jump scares are horrible in their own right, nothing can be as bad as what you create in your own head, because by and large you’re going to assume the worst. When the worst then doesn’t materialise, you figure that’s because what the game has planned is actually far more terrible. It’s a horrible chain of events that continues to push you until you’re completely baffled as to what you’re about to walk into.
This is even more thrilling given that there isn’t really any pattern here in terms of mechanics. It’s a platformer by and large, but the goalposts are moved constantly. One moment you may be sneaking your way through a room, and then in the next you’re tackling a relatively tough puzzle that could very well keep you stumped for some time.
There is a larger concept at play here, mind, and that comes in the form of the creatures you’ll come up against as you progress. Monstrous almost to a fault, the thought of being seen by them is bad enough, but the fear that quickly increases when you make a mistake and one catches you. It’s the equivalent of being caught by your parents when you were a child, only in this case your mum has transformed into some beast that probably wants to eat your bones. As cliche as it sounds, it really is like experiencing a toddler’s nightmare come to life.
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This idea is pushed harder thanks to the environments you’re passing through, too. All manage to keep their end of the bargain up in terms of tension, and this is helped by the fact they’re mostly offshoots of what you’d come across in your actual day-to-day. So there’s a kitchen – albeit one you’d never want to eat in – and a dormitory of sorts that feels like the worst day camp you’ve ever had to visit.
Each one resembles, or at least has its foundations firmly routed in, reality, but they’re so twisted and desperately intimidating you want to try and leave as soon as possible. But that’s the whole point. Tarsier wants you to be uncomfortable from start to finish, and if there’s ever an occasion where you don’t, it’s probably because something bad is right around the corner.
This doesn’t mean that Little Nightmares doesn’t stumble, however. This ambience is a constant hit throughout, but there are areas that feel far too punishing with little to no warning.These sections feel a lot like Limbo; a game that loved hitting you with out of nowhere surprises which couldn't be evaded the first time time around.
It’s not a bad concept to inherit – that initial moment it does spring its trap you’ll undoubtedly react – but this does tend to happen when it doesn’t need to. The only positive is that the resulting frustration is a great way to subdue your fright.
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Either way, Little Nightmares is one of the most unique and impressive games of this ilk to come along in a while and deserves all the credit in the world for managing to be as devastatingly terrifying as it is. It takes some skill to make a little girl in a yellow mac going for a wander an arguably more harrowing experience than Resident Evil 7, but Tarsier may have achieved just that.
Little Nightmares is truly one of the scariest games you’ll play this year.