“Little Nightmares” Review.
A review of the game titled “Little Nightmares”. Contains spoilers.
Little nightmares is a game I found myself enjoying, it has an engaging story, a creepy slow paced horror atmosphere, and mechanics that are suitable for it’s game play.
On first glance, the title is only somewhat fitting for the game, It didn’t cross my mind that an innocent looking protagonist would have any terrible, nightmarish qualities. Instead, through the trailer and early gameplay, we are introduced to only two character types who fit this description. One, the main protagonist — known as Six — a small girl who wears a yellow jacket. Her colours contrast well with the surroundings, making her easy to follow. It’s a lovely character design for a grim world, although, we unfortunately never get to see her face. Yet, I don’t think this is a way to cut costs, and rather a design decision that adds to a mysterious quality of Six. ‘Nomes’, are the little creatures in this world. Seeing as the two are both somewhat friendly with each other, I presumed this is what “Little Nightmares” in the title suggested, but only as irony. My first thoughts didn’t think the title was entirely appropriate, as my expectation was ‘characters’, and both Six and the Nomes seemed to be innocent in a nightmarish world. It’s not that much of a big deal, and still fits the theme. I’ll come back to the title choice later.
“Immerse yourself in Little Nightmares, a dark whimsical tale that will confront you with your childhood fears! Help Six escape The Maw — a vast, mysterious vessel inhabited by corrupted souls looking for their next meal. As you progress on your journey, explore the most disturbing dollhouse offering a prison to escape from and a playground full of secrets to discover. Reconnect with your inner child to unleash your imagination and find the way out!”
Of course, this game’s genre is horror, and the Steam description matches that well. My first thoughts were positive on this point — explaining atmosphere, environment and theme. In the context of “immersion”, I wasn’t sold. As I don’t believe “immersion” should be a feature, but rather a standard (although that depends on the game). What stuck out to me was the game’s theme of childhood and ambiguous narrative.
The rule of trailers (for film at least) is to never spoil your content, and I believe the publisher has marketed this correctly, but again this is what made me believe the title was inaccurate at first. My final thoughts on the hook is overall positive, as it is short, sweet, and accurate.
I also believe this was a good trailer for the game. The trailer shows a stunning and visually beautiful setting. However, differing from the short description, we are shown the environment, and get a larger sense of scale with in-between shots. This is where I believed this to be an emphasis on a theme suggesting a story of a child in a grown ups world — or at least a motif of. The slow paced drone-like music with the creepy out of tune keys is a trope of horror, nevertheless it delivers that atmosphere of a cruel world. From looking at the trailer I can certainly tell this isn’t your average run of the mill horror game with jump scares (now at every corner for $5.99!). Rather a story reminiscent of Lovecraftian themes, building up a strange world for drawn out terror rather than cheap scare. It comes across as chilling, intimidating, and leaves your imagination up to the rest.
From the beginning of the game we are awakened from what seems to be a nightmare showing an ominous lady with a mask, in what looks like a Kimono, “the lady” as she’s called. After we travel down a dark hallway, you can catch something scurrying off in the darkness. If you pay attention, you’ll see that it’s a Nome. At this point in my playthrough, I instantly though this was something used as way of guiding Six subtly throughout certain levels and areas. As this technique is becoming a common trend in the gaming industry now — As sticking directly to the dotted line can be a bore. Not only the Nomes, but through patterns, and perhaps subconsciously I noticed ‘where to go’ was always implied through environment. Of course, implied and subtle paths can be difficult to implement, as players can often get lost easily, and many games have failed at implementing this. Yet, because this game is a platformer with a limited amount of depth (I’ll expand on this next paragraph), and not open world, I never got stuck trying to find the way onward.
Something I noticed right at the start here is that we are introduced to mechanics and controls without a tutorial. Generally, this is another hard thing to do. The dev’s have done a good, thoughtful job. The first mechanic being the lighter to see where we are going, we are also guided to light an environment candle, allowing us to think about what comes next. I appreciate these sorts of tutorials in a game, I wouldn’t suggest it unless you have self-explanatory mechanics and a limited control set as this game does. However, having said that, nothing will stop you from tying mechanic and story/experience together. As Little nightmares introduced these simple mechanics, right away I thought this would bring about stealth, and puzzle like game play. The second mechanic introduced was another environment interaction, open a hatch and crouching into a tight duct. Only a few minutes in, and we have a start that feels naturally informative.
Right after, an atmospheric in-game scene is shown. I noticed a rocking of the camera, deep creaking sounds, water leaking from above — suggesting we are on a ship loud and clearly. I know this is in the trailer, but it is a great introduction to the low tension sections of the game. Yet, we also get a true sense of scale, that this is a really, really large ship.
Unlike a general platformer, we are also shown briefly that the level has more background depth than what meets our eyes at first. This may seem like a simple feature, and what I mean by ‘depth’ is full 3d movement on a x and z, and y axis. To be literal, it offers an extra dimension of platforming. Although, there is always a trade-off with this feature, that the problem with similar titles. I often found myself having to readjust the players position ever-so slightly to reach certain platforms or fit into certain areas — such as the duct. Seeing the player griding against a wall, or missing a platform by a tiny, minuscule amount becomes at the least a nuance. Sometimes, this can also be immersion breaking in the game, and totally frustrating at worse when the model’s collider doesn’t allow you to pass by what seems to be an invisible hit-box. This aspect leaves some awkward moments that can stuff you around at times. However, I would have to say in general the ‘depth’ of the platformer is a positive for this game and it’s theme in particular, as it offers an extra dimension of places to explore, or hide in terrible situations, I just wish this was polished off a little more. As for other controls, I found that pressing buttons by throwing objects was at times a bit awkward, as you had to stand a certain distance away with a high failure rate of button pressing.
The puzzle mechanics are almost entirely environmental, requiring you to find a path by either seeing a pattern, or altering an environment with a switch, and sometimes backtracking. An example of the former is the area with the filing cabinets — you pull out a draw to platform on, leading to a switch that turns off the electricity to the next room. In the case of the latter, you’ll need to keep a keen eye and look for clues and object that stand out from the environment, and require some back tracking — especially with keys. The best point with this aspect of the game is it introduced even more ‘verticality’ and ‘depth’ to the the rooms, leaving them feeling finished and meaningful. I often found myself solving them with relative ease, and saying ‘clever’ and ‘neat’ under my breath time to time, but that’s all the puzzles were at most. The overall difficulty was lacking, then again, it wasn’t something that I personally expected. In any case, these puzzles didn’t require thinking too deeply, which in my opinion establishes something great — flow.
I felt as if the game had met somewhere between a well formulated, yet natural sense of progression. In not only video games, but film, books and so on this is often shown with areas of intensity and calmness. In Little nightmares case, the intense area’s often had chase scenes, or required a high degree of focus. All of the ‘scary’ and ‘intimidating’ moments happened in these sections of the game. In times of relative calmness, the player is given a breather, and feels genuinely like you are exploring the world. Certainly, the world seems to more morbid in these areas. Nevertheless the settings of either situations are clear and well defined — which I believe for a work of the horror genre is great and refreshing. Simply, you expect there to be high focus in intense situations, then you are given a break with creepy and morbidly detailed sections. You are also rewarded with subtle story telling in between these sections. My only criticism is that doing this over and over can be wearing on the player, this can get to the point where it feels somewhat grindy at worse. This game does a decent job, but could have some improvements in length with some area’s. On the other hand, it’s also a relatively short game all up.
As for the graphics, I can’t say all that much other than it’s a beautiful looking game that suits it’s genre to a T. The camera also reflects that quite well. However, there were some moments when the movement depth made the camera draw inward, which limited perspective in some areas. This was a problem in intense areas, the first kitchen area is one example of this happening, right near the door lock. At that point I had no idea if the chef was coming up to get Six because the cameras panning was maxed and unable to move. There was also a couple of instances where the camera was clipping through walls. Although, as much this could be passed off as nit-picking, it’s something to be aware of in a linear game with a set path and experience. Assuming the cause, this is simply a RayCasting or SphereCasting issue. At times I felt like the camera could’ve changed to a different angel. This would’ve given the player more perspective at the start of each room, allowing you to look around your surroundings. Although, this suggestion only comes as a solution to the player depth issues I had beforehand. Having said, the camera’s pace and smoothing was handled quite well, as with other collisions. And I cannot get over the amazing scene outside of the ship when climbing the chain; the tilt shift and lens focusing was absolutely beautiful. The same can be said with other cinematic and atmospheric areas. As far as I’m concerned, the camera work is well-done.
For a short game, it has a well fitted, yet minimal soundtrack. The music seemed to be adaptive, which is always a plus for immersion. One point that I noticed is in the area’s of low tension, the background music faded out, and returned in high tension moments. Often this was matched with heart beats, again simulating high tension and intense areas; smooth atmospheric sounds were there, and of course fog horns for the‘huge’ moments. I never felt as if the sound was out of place, all sound and music tracks felt in place and completely appropriate. When walking on floorboards, the creaks double as a mechanic, alerting the blind “Janitor” to your position. It’s tense. I feel it’s necessary to point this out, as it’s a little touch that has gone a long way. Also when looking — or better, listening closer the game seems to amplify certain and particular sounds. I found this to be the case in the scene where we are introduced to the ‘the guests’. They wheeze, slurp, and eat their food in a sloppy way. Adding onto the way the guests move, and behave, the sound makes this distinct, and I can’t help to feel sorry for them eating their lives away.
As for any narrative, it is one that is ambiguous. In my play through I started to think one of the themes or motifs is hunger. Seeing as this was hinted a few times in the first quarter, the first instance when Six is slowed down, and a stranger behind a bared cafeteria tosses out bread. It’s a moment of kindness. The second instance when the inverse happens. Six is lured into an obvious trap, we expect and know what’s coming — but I’ll admit, even I got a fright. This shows a turning point that I would like to expand on later. I was able to tell from this second scene that this would be a permanent theme in the story. When Six devours a Nome, the foreshadowing became as obvious as chekhov’s gun.
“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
In this circumstance it was foreshadowing that repeated and amplified it’s foreshadowing. It was Six who went off in the next chapter. So for me, it became a little too obvious, and I found Six devouring the lady to be unsurprising. However it’s a nice story-telling touch.
Then again, this is why I don’t think this is ‘just’ a ambiguous story that showcases childhood. More or less, I think it’s about seeing the adult world, and growing up in it. Six’s eating pain started as an innocent quirk, then went to devouring the Nome, and then the lady.
This leads to a moral question that can be asked. Was it right for the person behind the bars to feed six the bread? Back at that point in the game, even we — the audience — had no idea Six would end up not-so-innocent. At first I thought when Six would become hungry and sick, she would turn into another guest — fat, greedy, and hungry. Looking to vulgarly feast, and take away innocence. After the table scene, I had no doubts, it was a story about growing up rather than childhood.
After six eats the lady, you look as if you gain her powers, and the tone of the game changes. Instead of the camera being limited the room, switches and follows you from Six’s perspective in the final scene. This Indicates who has the power in that situation. That Six has overcome and developed character. I’d like to point out this change in perspective is a common technique for filming, whoever holds the upper hand is shown to be higher in the camera’s angel, take this scene from the dark knight for example.
Following this, what we see is Six is taking life, rather than running. Now, this is why I said I’ll come back to the title later, it’s because at this point in time you may realize that Six is the little nightmare. Although it’s not clear, it ties well into the overall story.
All in all, I would recommend Little Nightmares. 7.5/10 — A good little game.