I’ve gushed over puzzle-platformers enough times at this point that it should come as no surprise that when I see a new one on the horizon, my interest is immediately piqued. So, when I saw the trailer for Little Nightmares, the same feeling of wonder and curiosity that usually comes over me again returned. Once I actually played Little Nightmares, however, any good will this game had garnered by crafting itself around one of my favorite genres was quickly lost, never to recover.
Little Nightmares follows the plight of a small girl named Six who is trapped in an underwater ship called The Maw. Six must try to escape this prison before she becomes the next snack for one of the Maw’s many hungry residents, and she will have to use all her ingenuity to outsmart her captors and earn her freedom.
I will say one thing that Little Nightmares does well—and which is evident almost from the very beginning—is the mood and atmosphere it established. The chilling music and sheer emptiness of the world that Six starts her adventure in immediately lets you know the odds are stacked against you. Her bright yellow tunic serves as a stark contrast against the mechanical, muted tones of each of the game’s five levels, providing a beacon that constantly pulls your eyes to it, similar to how Six’s singular tool—a small lighter—lights her way through some of the game’s more cramped corridors or ventilation shafts.
The cantankerous creatures that roam these oversized areas only punctuate the vastness of the Maw. Gluttonous, disgusting humanoids intended to elicit the most negative of reactions from all who glimpse their bloated forms will chase Six at the slightest hint of her presence for much of the game. Outsmarting them and, more commonly, outmaneuvering them is the only way to survive.
Unfortunately, these “people” also serve as the only form of real challenge in an overly simple game, and they are a paltry one at that. Almost no thought is required in order to overcome many of the obstacles of the Maw, with usually only a couple of well-timed jumps getting the job done, or Six sneaking by an unsuspecting denizen guarding the path. It feels like someone confused a running simulator with an actual puzzle-platformer.
The only small semblance of difficulty comes from the camera and controls, and their technical limitations. The camera feels like it’s constantly swaying, as if it’s attached to the hull of the Maw’s ship and sliding along as Six works her way up and out of its different levels. This swaying, however, is not conducive to the platforming that often needs to be carried out to get by the pits that provide Six’s most common obstacle. It also feels at times like the camera is lagging behind her, catching Six at an odd angle instead of seeing her perfectly perpendicular from the side. This causes the controls to slightly shift depending on where the camera is positioned, and walking across thin beams can become a nuisance as forward is no longer perfectly to the right or left on your joystick, and you slightly start to veer off course through no fault of your own. There’s nothing more frustrating than slipping off the edge of a small platform that you thought you were walking straight on, or making a jump that you had the distance for, but find Six hitting the edge and falling because the depth made the next platform look like it was on a different jumping line.
Well, there might be one more frustrating thing. Six has very limited abilities in the game and therefore, in order to try to fill up buttons on the PS4 controller, simple traversal abilities that are often assigned to only one button in more complex games are divided up amongst the other buttons. If you’re an Assassin’s Creed fan, you’re likely familiar with the “claw grip” of the early games, where your hands are basically locked onto the X and R2 buttons (A and RT on Xbox controllers) in order to parkour through the world. Similarly, you must hold Square and R2 with Six in order to not only climb, but also grab ledges when you make jumps across pits. If you’re not holding both, Six will hit the ledge at her waist, and instead of latching on, fall to her death. This is made all the more complicated by X being the jump button, forcing three simultaneous button presses to be made to traverse most obstacles—and I just don’t understand why run and grab are on two different inputs. It felt like it was a desperate attempt to make the simplest game controls more complex in an attempt to cover up the game’s actual lack of challenge.
Some of this could potentially be forgiven if the mystery of the Maw and Six’s plight could pull you in, but sadly it failed to do so for me. I wonder if it’s because I never felt truly in danger traversing the environment, my only failures ever coming due to the shortcomings of the controls and camera. What’s worse is when the game finally starts to feel like it’s ramping up its stakes, Six’s plight, and the game’s underlying messages, it pulls the plug. I finished the game in just under three hours; while there are plenty of experiences of comparable length more than worthy of your time out there, like last year’s Inside for example, Little Nightmares felt like it was just scratching the surface of what it wanted to be when it runs out of steam.
I believe the most obvious message the game tries to convey is the evils of modern consumerism, portrayed by the gluttony of the Maw’s patrons, and Six’s own poignant near-starvation that crops up near the end of each level. Little Nightmares could’ve gone so much further than a buffet table and a kitchen, however; gambling, alcohol, sex, and other vices could’ve all had their chances to shine on the Maw, and would’ve lent length and weight to a game that feels incomplete as is. Even the weird lord of the Maw’s seeming obsession with beauty and physical perfection is barely touched upon with more than a few symbols.
Little Nightmares tries to surround itself in symbolism and mystery, and succeeds in painting a bleak and moody atmosphere at least. At the same time, it failed to find a way to make me care about the main character’s plight. What’s worse is that its poor controls and camera, and utter lack of challenge, had lost me by the time it started to feel like it was finally going somewhere. My only relief came when the end credits began to roll on this poor attempt at a puzzle-platformer.
A stellar atmosphere is not enough to save such a puzzle-platformer that completely lacks any sort of challenge. While the story of Six is a sad one, it’s not for the fact that her adventure begins in a cage—but that the developer failed to find a way to make me care about it at all.
Bandai Namco Entertainment
T - Teen
|Little Nightmares is available on Xbox One, PS4, and PC. Primary version played was for PS4. Code/hardware was provided by Bandai Namco Entertainment for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|