Available on PS4, Xbox One and PC in 2017
At first glance, Bandai Namco’s Little Nightmares looks like yet another carbon copy of the iconic indie platformer Limbo. On paper the gameplay is identical, tasking you with control of a helpless young protagonist to lead through a hostile world full of precarious leaps, dangerous traps and brain baffling puzzles.
Most puzzles simply require pushing or pulling items over switches or use them to reach higher areas, while some occasionally task you to throw them at buttons to activate doors and special sections of the level.
None of this revolutionary and, on paper, Little Nightmares should feel like any other one of the Limbo clones flooding Steam, but thanks to expert design work by Tarsier Studios it doesn’t.
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The demo opened to see our little yellow-raincoat-wearing protagonist in a dark, dusty house full of giant furniture and lumbering monsters that look like they came straight out of the mind of director Tim Burton. The game gave no indication why I was there, or what the world was, but one thing was immediately clear: I wasn’t safe.
Tarsier Studios has neurotically created a horrifying dark fairytale world in Little Nightmares where no detail has been overlooked. Mysterious monsters and skulking creatures litter the strange landscape, where light is a scarcity and the threat of imminent death or capture lurks round every corner. The lack of light and colour on anything but that little yellow raincoat further emphasises the game’s lonely, oppressive feeling.
Normally this wouldn’t be enough to make up for the lack of insight into the game’s narrative and basic gameplay. But there’s something about the child’s helplessness, who stands on shaky legs and shudders helplessly whenever the floorboards creak that made me want to help.
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Creeping out of the opening room, I was greeted with a giant study, littered with dusty book shelves, cobwebs and eerie toys that remained half visible. Unable to see through the oppressive darkness I used the only tool at my disposal, a small flip lighter, to get a better view of my surroundings and began cautiously moving forward. My only motivation, an eagerness to find any glimmer of daylight and the occasional noise or threatening bump behind me, hinting at the approach of an unseen threat.
The sense of helplessness and my attachment to the unnamed raincoat-clad child grew with each puzzle and bump in the night. Over and over and over again Little Nightmares expertly plucked the heartstrings using subtle but important cues and animations, ranging from moments where the mouse-sized child visibly shuddered in fear when cautiously pushing open a door, or strained to get up and keep moving on broken bones before dying after a mistimed jump.
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My sense of dread and attachment peaked at the end of the demo, when I encountered one of the giant humanoid inhabitants. Slinking through dark corridors the towering lurch looked like a mix between IT the clown and a Beetlejuice monster. Within moments of meeting it, the beast began stumbling forward in awkward, laboured steps, feeling its way for a scent of its prey. From here the previously nervous caution I felt gave way to overarching fear, and the Little Nightmares turned into a game of hunter versus hunted.
Unable to fight the beast my only recourse was to run, hide and crawl forward, looking for fresh ways to evade my would-be captor in a series of puzzles and platforming manoeuvres that increasingly felt like a nightmare take on Tom and Jerry. Sadly, despite my best efforts, the monster finally caught me. It was only then, as the beast’s warped face formed a smile and it drew the child to its lips, seemingly intent on eating it that I realised how invested I was in Little Nightmares and saving the tiny yellow girl.
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Little Nightmares may not at first glance be terribly original gameplay-wise, but I’m completely enamoured with what I’ve seen. After two hours with Little Nightmares I already feel invested in the protagonist in a way I haven’t felt since Ico, which is an impressive feat for a game where there’s no dialogue and zero information about its overarching plot. If Little Nightmares can maintain this emotional connection throughout its narrative and add a few more surprising bits of gameplay to the mix, it could we be the platformer to own this year.