I have found that, in general, the puzzle-platformer genre is an excellent place to look for a particularly unique experience. A set of well-designed puzzles can alone make for an enthralling experience, but when you add a player avatar and theme, elements that come so naturally to platformers, you can find yourself in delightfully compelling circumstances. Sometimes you’re figuring out how to tear the limbs off a massive spider without getting impaled, other times you’re trying to get your five clones to all line up correctly. Knowing only that Tarsier Studio’s puzzle-platformer Little Nightmares was told from the perspective of a small child evading monstrous beings, I prepared myself for what I hoped would be quite an experience.
If there is anything that Little Nightmares does right, it is capturing its theme. From the moment your main character, a small girl in a yellow raincoat, awakes from her bed-like suitcase, you are faced with constant reminders that you are alone, desperate and hunted. Every monstrosity is obsessed with your capture; the only way to escape them is to hide, wait for the right moment and run for your life. Even when I knew from a game-mechanisms mindset that I was literally safe, I never felt like it. It’s quite impressive for a game not built around usual horror to achieve so much tension.
This theme is only further enhanced by some horrifically gorgeous visuals, from the rooms and passages to the gruesome beings that lurk within them. As you enter each room, the detail put into everything is evident; each room feels real and is strewn with items that enhance this notion, even if not directly related to the current objective. Your assailant’s various deformities are a sight to behold, and it’s difficult to get ‘used’ to them, keeping them a point of anxiety for your entire time with them. There may only be a handful of different opponents, but none of them will disappoint.
For all of its successes artistically, the gameplay is unfortunately where Little Nightmares falters, and rather notably. The overall mechanisms of the game are very simple: run, jump, hide, pick-up, duck, throw. The usual array for a puzzle-platformer, and without any novel implementation to be seen. You’ll throw things at buttons, you’ll move a box to climb a cliff, you’ll duck and hide under things. To me, the most exciting part of this genre is to see how the theme affects the gameplay, but they only connect at a most basic level here: an evasive moveset because you are scared of the big bad monsters.
The simplicity of the gameplay is particularly concerning given the overall short length of the adventure. The ending will creep up on you out of nowhere, to the point that I was still readily assuming there would be more as the credits appeared in front of me. I can generally forgive, or even commend, a game for keeping concise in telling its message or presenting its puzzle, but there is nothing to really ponder over here, nor an easily discernible message or story.
The plot of Little Nightmares is told using environmental clues and context, which should normally be a glowing compliment, with an ending that doesn’t offer answers but is merely a suitable point to conclude. Considering the game runs for a few hours at most, there is simply not enough time for players to really grasp anything concrete from this world. You certainly can make some inferences about what is going on, and you’ll have a big-picture idea of what this place is by the end, but the specifics are either absent or at least beyond my ability to identify. While the world around you may seem intricately designed, a well-constructed context is not a story.
Between the simplistic gameplay woes and slim storyline lies a fundamental issue with the design of the game, though the complaint is well-worn in gaming these days. “Little Nightmares” uses the renowned 2.5D style of level design, creating depth to the benefit of the visuals and to the intense detriment of the gameplay. Judging the distance of jumps toward or from the camera is challenging, to say the least, and goals as simple as running to the right to evade the scary beasts can result in your death due to a misjudged angle. ‘Pretty much right’ and ‘spot-on right’ mean a whole lot when you’re running across a pipe over a chasm.
This is only made more infuriating by uncooperative controls, with a particular spotlight on the ‘grab’ command. It was not unusual for me to suffer a death due to my little nightmare deciding to not pick up the thing when I needed it and to pick up the thing when I quite urgently didn’t. Death would reliably follow such incidents. As the game is generally very forgiving, allowing you to recover your hidden status after being seen without too much trouble, these control-glitch betrayals were not only frustrating but tiresome.
Through all this, we come to the overall confusion towards my feelings about Little Nightmares: despite everything negative I have said, I would still say I enjoyed my experience. This simple and short game, which left me with little-to-no story reflect on and no real message to pass on, still kept me playing. I think this says a lot to just how well executed the theme and visuals are, as it was clearly the desire to see the next room that kept me going. A sort of ‘sight-seeing tour meets haunted house experience,’ which I ultimately can’t say I didn’t enjoy on some level.
Despite being considered a puzzle-platformer, Little Nightmares offers none of the complexity or challenge this genre is known for. The overall experience is far more of a visual treat: a place to wander around and take in the view. You won’t leave the experience with any kind of moving story or message, nor any sense of accomplishment, but you’ll take with you some memorable mental snapshots to keep you awake at night.