I had a list of titles I wanted to try out at this year’s EGX, and while Little Nightmares was certainly on it I will admit was it wasn’t near the top. That somewhat changed after a chat with one of the event’s PR team, who recommended I give it a go after trying it at Gamescom. Intrigued, I made it my second stop at the event, curious to learn more. For those who don’t know, Little Nightmares is a puzzle-platformer from Tarsier Studios, whose previous credits include working on the LittleBigPlanet series, but this is their first full game. Taking control of a small child in a yellow anorak, the player guides her through an underwater base filled with nightmarish creatures scenarios, all presented in a Tim-Burton-esque macabre style.
The demo began with my character emerging from a side hatch into a bedroom, and what was immediately clear was how much effect has been put into the visual presentation. Everything about it ensured I was sufficiently on edge – from the oddly cute little creatures that ran away from my character’s presence, to the music-box accompaniment playing in the background, only to discover that it was coming from a toy in the room. The light use of film grain that filtered the visuals was made more effective by the screen see-sawing from the water current. What caught me off guard was how the swaying also affected the objects in the room, such as the ball the would roll back and forth. Overall, it was a wonderful and spooky introductory scene to the platformer’s world.
And I in no way spent a good minute chasing after said ball like a gleeful idiot. Nope. You can’t prove anything.
It’s clear that Tarsier Studios time assisting the development of the LittleBigPlanet series has paid off here, as the 2.5D platforming controls felt far better than those found in the PlayStation’s flagship series. In fact, the best way to describe how it handles is LBP meets Limbo, but with much more freedom (none of that three-tiers annoyance.) There was a slickness to it all that felt natural, even when I was mistiming jumps or grabs. Yes, grabbing is very much a thing in Little Nightmares, as I soon discovered in the demo’s first puzzle. Unable to reach the door handle to progress, I had to grab a suitcase and drag it across the room. The on-screen action looked just like how my niece does when she insists in grabbing all the toys to play with, something I’m sure Tarsier were aiming for.
The sense of childlike wonder didn’t last though thanks to the dark corridor I ended up in. An on-screen prompt told me that my character had a lighter, that popped out of nowhere and lit up my way. I’m not entirely sure why she had it, but I was glad to be able to see where I was going. Soon I wouldn’t need it, though, as an elevator door appeared ahead. The mix of shadows and audio cues here was yet another example of Tarsier knowing how to use the art direction to freak out the player. This, however, was nothing compared to what was about to happen as I entered the kitchen.
And met the cook.
Grotesque in absolutely every way – from its oversized cleft-lipped face, to the way its grunts, snorts and coughs echoed with disgusting wetness – it was clear the looming figure was bad news. The previous feeling of slight creepiness had now made way for full on fear, so I immediately hid my character beneath work surfaces and tried to say out of the cook’s eye-line. It was all going so well… until banged into an over door. The controller rumbled as the cook turned around and shrieked, its heavy breathing causing me to scramble underneath the nearest table.
I honestly thought I would be safe there, but all of a sudden the cook started to bend down. I knew what was coming next, and darted away as fast as possible. A split second slower and I would have been grabbed by its disgustingly large fingers, highlighting just how well timed Tarsier had made the cook’s search mechanics. I was lucky to have an alternate route from my hiding place that time, but I can imagine that won’t always be the case in the full game.
After some more very careful sneaking, I made it to the other side and could see a door. Freedom was surely on the other side, but the door wouldn’t budge. I spent a good few minutes trying to barge it down with little effect until I looked up and saw where I was meant to go – through an air vent above a cupboard. The cook was clearly going to see me if I went that way, but I had no option. I hadn’t even made it halfway up when I heard a familiar, blood-curdling squeal. Again, I was mere seconds from being caught but I made it through. I in no way felt relaxed, though, as I could see the cook’s face on the other side of the barred door. It was honestly terrifying.
The next section demonstrated another of Little Nightmares puzzles, as my intended destination was another air vent that I couldn’t reach. Confused as to how I could get up there, I decided to take the nearby elevator upwards. Here I discovered a trap door and three large hams. Logic suggested I pile up said hams on the trap door, which I did… eventually. I will admit that I ended up throwing the hams around the room because it amused me, and I needed a laugh after meeting that damn cook.
With the hams in place, I returned downstairs and looked up at the contraption on the table in the middle of the room. A sausage maker, to be exact. Using the platforming mechanics I jumped up to grab the crank, using momentum to spin it round and create the most delicious of tools – the sausage rope. A few more well-timed jumps & grabs later and I was on my way again, but I had to admire the way the puzzle had a childlike, cartoon charm to it.
My thoughts soon changed to focus on the dark air vent I was now in, which curiously had small shoes scattered across it. While I did feel that this was clearly a bad omen, I pushed forwards with my lighter in hand until I reached another room. The floor was filled with these tiny shoes, causing my character to wade through them up to her waist. At first, I marvelled at the way she was leaving trails from where she was walking, but the horror soon returned as… something… started moving towards her. Yet again the panic set in, and while I tried to move her to safety it was clear I was never going to escape. As the tidal wave of shoes consumed her, the screen faded to black and demo ended.
Which I’m sure you will all agree is a pretty terrifying way to finish.
If my recollection has done anything, I’m hoping it has adequately described how atmospheric Little Nightmares is. It certainly doesn’t do anything particularly new in terms of gameplay, but then again it doesn’t need to. As Seasons After Fall proved last month it only has to present its content in the right way and nail the ambience with attentive art direction. I didn’t even need the game to tell me its narrative – as there certainly wasn’t any – I knew exactly what I needed to do just from what I could see on screen. Despite jumping several times, I came away from the demo entertained and intrigued to play more. So long as Bandai Namco give it the advertising push it so clearly deserves, Tarsier Studios could be onto a winner with this utterly creepy title.
Little Nightmares releases next year on PS4, Xbox One and PC.