Be it the ease and cost of development, or a retrospective artistic trend, the horror genre has come back to the semi-2D plane in a big way, and the indie-friendly Nintendo Switch is reaping the benefits. The eldritch terrors of Darkest Dungeon should satisfy those looking for an RPG with psychological consequences. A 2D survival horror game called Detention by Taiwanese developer Red Candle Games draws from that same country’s history and culture to deliver its frights, and it’s one of the eShop’s hidden gems. Those looking for a puzzle platformer, however, may now turn to Little Nightmares, a game from Swedish developer Tarsier Studios.
Little Nightmares is a lean experience that plays out like a creepy Germanic fairy tale rendered in a beautiful, but unsettling approximation of stop-motion film. In the game’s campaign, you control a raincoat-clad little girl named Six through a bleak, poorly lit industrial environment called the Maw. Equipped only with a butane lighter, Six has to make her way through darkened passages with light steps and more than a little trepidation. To progress, you will need to use light puzzle-solving skills and whatever is available in each area. If this equation—small child plus perilous environment plus puzzle-based platforming—sounds familiar, it’s because Limbo and Inside have been here before and arguably left a too conspicuous trace. The comparison invites itself, unfortunately, unless you wanted either of those games to feature easier puzzles or rely more heavily on timing-based platforming skills.
Little Nightmares differentiates itself enough aesthetically, however, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Especially commendable is game’s play with lighting (really only appreciated in the Switch’s docked mode on a television), and depth of the frame, both of which seems to serve a gameplay purpose. You’ll be shining your lighter in dark corners to look for hidden nooks and other secrets, such as huggable, hooded gnomes. Believe me, you’ll want hugs.
The rooms where light is plentiful are often gorgeous and colorful in a grungy sort of way. At one point, I spent far too long admiring a bathroom, toilet and all. The Maw is not a completely 2D space—a few tense sections play with the depth of each scene not unlike games such as Super Mario 3D World, lending a nice sense of variety to the game’s progression and environments. The 2.5 D nature of some of the scenes can be frustrating, however, when you’re trying to negotiate a narrow path, such as a rafter or plank. When the camera locks in on a 2D plane, you’re likely to forget that what you’re walking or, more likely, running on has depth causing you to plunge to your death. Unfortunately, long load times and infrequent checkpoints put this problem under a spotlight.
The Maw, it turns out, is aptly named. Most of the “people”—grotesque giants really—on the vessel are attempting to eat Six. In fact, hunger plays a crucial storytelling role in Little Nightmares—not on any deep mechanical level, but there are multiple moments where Six doubles over in famished pangs until she finds something to eat. Often what she stumbles upon is less than desirable fare. This repetition of worry is welcome in a game billing itself as a nightmare. How many of us have had bad dreams where we agonize over the same things over and over again? While each puzzle and danger is uniquely sinister (I can safely say I’ve never had to make sausage to make headway in a game before), it is nice to share this genuine, real-world anxiety with Six. This port even makes good use of the Switch’s ballyhooed HD Rumble to put a finer point on Six’s hunger.
As a port, Little Nightmares: Complete Edition does what you would expect. It brings together the original campaign and all of its subsequent DLC for the Switch. The game runs well in both docked and handheld modes, though there is a significant load time associated with every death, making the lack of smart checkpoints even more burdensome. I also recommend playing the game docked on your first pass, as the smaller screen experience robs Little Nightmares of some of its more exceptional visual details, such as the previously mentioned lighting effects.
Considering Limbo or Inside haven’t made it to the Switch (yet), Little Nightmares: Complete Edition seems like a no-brainer for folks itching for a less filling horror ration.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game, which was provided by Bandai Namco Entertainment.
Little Nightmares is a lean experience that plays out like a creepy Germanic fairy tale rendered in a beautiful, but unsettling approximation of a stop-motion film.