A nightmare worth having.

I didn’t really know what to expect from Little Nightmares going in. I wasn’t a huge fan of Tarsier’s earlier work, such as LittleBigPlanet 3. But after spending five hours slipping through the shadowy, oppressive corridors of The Maw, all I want is another five hours of dread.

Little Nightmares shares a good deal of commonality with games like Limbo and Inside (if you’re going to draw heavy inspiration from something, it might as well be from the best).  As Six, a nine year-old girl in a dingy yellow raincoat, you awaken on a dungeon floor deep within The Maw, a massive processing plant with a slowly revealed, very sinister purpose. You aren’t told why you’re here, who put you here, or how long you’ve been here. But from jump street, its obvious you need to get out here. You have no weapons and no means of defending yourself, just your wits and a lighter to mount a meager defense against the dark. And so your march towards freedom.

Well, not a march. More like a quiet, frightened shuffle. Little Nightmares is QUITE disturbing.

One of the first things you’ll notice is the amazing visual and aural attention to detail, small things you’ll barely notice at first, but made all the more richer and immersive when they become apparent. The soft *thwump* of landing on a thick mattress. The heavy, labored breath of obese gluttons shoving food of a questionable nature into their gullets. The way Six will cup her lighter as she runs, so as not to extinguish the flame. As you start piecing together what The Maw’s true purpose is, the hair on your arms will begin to stand up.  The implications behind what’s going on are extremely disturbing, and you’ll get some troubling revelations on Six’s true nature. All these little things come together in a satisfactory way, transforming The Maw from another videogame location into something beautifully oppressive and unsettling. You’ll want to leave immediately, and yet you won’t want it to end.

The similarities to Inside and Limbo don’t end with story and atmosphere. At it’s heart, Little Nightmares is a platformer, and while a few small issues keep it from hitting the absolute high points of those masterpieces, it gets enough right to where you really won’t mind. Most of the game has you hopping over gaps, swinging from sausage links (you read that right), and clambering under tables in order to reach your destination. The environment is highly interactive; you can pick up almost anything you see lying around (shoes, cans, pots etc) and throw them to hit buttons or distract enemies. Most of it is cleverly implemented and really shines when you’re being chased by some horror.

It’s not without flaws, however. While Six controls well and feels very responsive, the action is set on a 3D plane, meaning you can move up and down in addition to left and right. While I don’t feel the game is as punishing as Limbo or Inside, properly lining up jumps can be frustrating, and led to more deaths than I would have liked. Likewise, at certain points you find yourself being chased by some denizen of The Maw, which require you to slip through gaps in walls and clamber over furniture. It’s incredibly tense and not overly difficult, but again, the difficulty of lining up that slide through a hole in the wall sometimes felt frustratingly cheap and unnecessary, and ended up killing me far more than the thing chasing me down.

And on the topic of things hunting you down. Of course, with a name like The Maw, you KNOW there are creatures trying to hunt you down, and I’m happy to report they are some of the best stuff Little Nightmares has going for it. Character designs are off-the-charts good, invoking some heavy Tim Burton-esque influences while amping the creep factor up quite a bit. Along the way you’ll come across a blind janitor with uncomfortably long arms, murderous twin chefs who appear to be wearing someone else’s skinned faces, and a crowd of morbidly obese tourists eating…..well, I’ll let you come to your own conclusions on that.

Each one poses a different threat, such as the janitor hearing you step on a loose floorboard and trying to root you out using his keen sense of smell. Encounters with the denizens of The Maw become grotesque games of hide-and-seek, and you’ll feel a genuine sense of “oh God please don’t look here” when the janitor comes sniffing around a bucket you’re hiding behind, or when the chefs start checking under tables while wheezing heavily. Especially those damn chefs. Just wait til you get to the kitchens and start REALLY piecing together what’s happening. Whew.

Can Little Nightmares keep up with a game like Inside? It’s damn close. While it didn’t resonate with me emotionally like that did, Tarsier has created something well worth your time and, at 29 dollars, more than worth your money. This is a developer on the cusp of creating something truly timeless, and while Little Nightmares doesn’t QUITE reach the lofty heights of the games it draws from, it’s as close as it can POSSIBLY come, and I’m left eagerly awaiting what they have in store next.