Little Nightmares is a game about keeping your eyes open. A creepy 2.5D puzzle platformer from Tarsier Studios, it sits alongside Playdead's Limbo and Inside as proof that there is definitely something weird in Scandinavia's water supply (and by extension, that Unravel studio Coldwood Interactive must therefore be on all kinds of happy pills).
As in those games, things kick off here with little fanfare or explanation: you are a small and vulnerable creature somewhere you don't belong, and as such, you should probably walk to the right until all is good in the world – or a slightly lighter shade of gloomy, at least. Between you and the lesser-gloom are locked doors, strange beings, unnerving happenings, and darkness, and only those paying attention will spot the way past each.
The protagonist of Little Nightmares is a nine-year-old girl named Six who is trapped in a large sea vessel called The Maw, but I only know that thanks to the game's marketing materials. Storytelling here is minimal; the only question you'll have sneaking Six through the game's carefully rendered environments is "what manner of gigantic gross-looking pseudo-human will attempt to gobble me up next?"
Well, that and "how the hell do I get up there?", because at the height of approximately two and a half apples, Six is the shortest and puniest nine-year-old you ever laid eyes on. That puts her at about knee level to everyone else in the game, and means that hiding her from absolutely everyone and everything is the only way to keep her tiny heart beating. At her diminutive size, even retreat isn't much of an option unless there is a bolthole nearby –even the most lethargic of enemies easily outpace Six, scoop her up, and her into the nearest oven or esophagus.
Fortunately, she's an adept climber, and is in possession of a slide move that makes getting under the nearest cot or into the nearest drainpipe a formality. (It's barely more efficient than just running, but points for style and all that.) Along with a footstep-eliminating sneak, these skills allow Six to move relatively undetected through the game's dimly-lit and grimy environs, scaling stacks of books and swinging between chandeliers, as grotesquely proportioned, loose-skinned beings shuffle about below, hooting and shrieking in dismay at her escape.
Six can also pick up and throw some smaller objects, and such manipulations form the basis for the game's puzzles, which start at 'immediately obvious' and – while often clever – rarely move beyond 'mildly delaying'. Only one truly vexed me – to the point that I emailed publisher Bandai Namco to ask if the game was somehow broken actually – before my non-gamer partner walked into the room, pointed out the plainly obvious solution, and made me feel like a complete chump. In other words, Little Nightmares is not a game that will thwart you, even if you aren't terrific at problem-solving.
And that leads to the biggest problem most will have with the game: its length. The hour I spent moronically blanking on that one puzzle aside, I think I spent fewer than four hours playing it to completion, and unlike Limbo and Inside, there isn't much here to mull over once the credits roll – just a general sense of satisfaction mixed with unease. It's a tasty snack, but there's also nothing beyond secret collectibles to motivate a second course.
I personally didn't require a longer experience (I love games I can devour in one or two sittings, titles that don't wear out their welcome) but I know that, ahem, length is a consideration for some. It helps that Little Nightmares is fairly gripping for more or less its entire duration, although it's not so much nightmarish as it is unsettling and oppressive.
There's little empowerment here, just a lot of cat and mouse with the endearing Six and her bright yellow raincoat playing the weakling rodent. Such is her fragility and size, at times you feel positively insect-like, but she has an aura of confidence, even as her tiny heart races and your controller shakes.
Tarsier Studios worked on the LittleBigPlanet franchise and led development on Tearaway Unfolded, and the high polish and lush fairytale visuals of those games are also present here. So too is a certain cohesion: the world presented is a convincing, twisted locale rather than a bunch of stitched-together brain-teasers. So while Little Nightmares a slight delight, it's worth it just to watching Six scamper along with a key that's practically her size, or shiver as she pulls out the world's smallest lighter with which to pierce the dark.