For kids, everything is a little scary.
A dusty attic, department store mannequins, and that one creepy teacher. Hell, I had multiple nightmares about Rowlf the Dog as a kid. Little Nightmares 2 is a game that brings those irrational childhood fears to life.
The sequel to 2017’s eerie puzzle-platformer Little Nightmares is a miniature horror game that takes a lot of cues from atmospheric indies like Limbo. While it does feature a wordless narrative that builds off its predecessor’s mysterious lore, the real focus is its unsettling visual set pieces. It’s a freeform Edward Gorey illustration that shows the real world through the twisted imagination of a little kid.
Little Nightmares 2 is a gorgeously deranged creep show. While its stark levels are often astonishing at the expense of legibility, the surreal platformer is a transportive experience that showcases just how menacing everyday settings can look in the right light.
Rather than flipping the script on the original game, Little Nightmares 2 doubles down on what made it tick. Once again, players control a powerless, pint-sized hero who must sneak through a series of oversized haunted houses. The biggest change this time around is that players control a new character named Mono, who teams up with the first game’s raincoat-clad protagonist, Six.
Despite being the new kid in town, Mono’s limited toolset is roughly the same as Six’s. He can run, jump, crouch, and pick up items. Much of the game is devoted to platforming and light puzzle solving. Nothing’s particularly complex — and that’s exactly how it should be. That adds up to less time spent fiddling with controls, and more time spent soaking in the ghastly scenery.
The minimal gameplay is thematically appropriate too, considering its diminutive hero. There's an overwhelming sense of daunting scale, as though the player is all but powerless compared to the towering world around them. Even when Mono finds weapons like axes strewn about, he struggles to get them off the ground so he can clumsily thwack a sentient hand.
“Boss fights” aren’t battles so much as high-stakes hide-and-seek games. Mono has to scramble around environments to just barely escape the clutches of hulking woodsmen or giraffe-necked teachers. It feels like he’s always one wrong step away from doom in each carefully constructed chase sequence, bringing palpable tension every time players tiptoe into a new room.
Little Nightmares 2 isn’t a “horror” game in the same sense as Resident Evil is a horror game; It opts for unsettling ambiance over proper scares, but it does everything the genre should do. It holds back any sense of power and forces players to overcome hopeless odds by the skin of their teeth every time.
Welcome to the Pale City
While the first game was contained within one big vessel called the Maw, Little Nightmares 2 operates on a much larger scale. The game takes place in a metropolis called Pale City, which is filled with brainwashed citizens hanging around like dead-eyed zombies. For a series that already excels at playing with scale, the sequel uses the effectively bigger setting to make characters feel even smaller as the game progresses.
The five levels span wholly unique areas, from its Limbo-esque wilderness, to a molding hospital full of mannequins. It’s a seamless journey that stitches disparate set pieces together to build a city that feels like an overarching antagonist in its own right.
The game’s main attraction is its fantastic art direction, which makes every new screen look like its own surrealist painting. Environments are full of twisted details and harsh shadows that make the original game look downright whimsical by comparison. The key to the sequel’s success is striking lighting, which carefully frames and obscures details. It’s the kind of game that’s custom-built for screenshot sharing, especially the game’s jaw-dropping final chapter.
The most impressive part of the game’s visuals is how well developer Tarsier Studios is able to make ordinary objects look scary. Even a harmless piano feels like a monster with its raggedy keys and splintered wood. Little Nightmares 2 never needs to serve up cheap jump scares, because its vivid images threaten to live in players’ head rent-free even when they’re just sitting silently.
Turn on the lights
While the visuals are incredible, they're not always practical. While the game does use lighting to subtly guide the player at times, I often found myself squinting at the screen to figure out what I could interact with. In one late-game puzzle, I physically had to scoot right up to the screen to even tell what I was looking at.
There are two specific problems here. One is the game’s commitment to shadows. That darkness creates a magnificent atmosphere, but it’s often hard to make out what’s happening. That can be a positive for the horror, but it makes navigation difficult in especially low light sequences. It doesn’t help that the game looks 2D, but characters are still moving in 3D space, creating some tricky depth legibility.
The other issue is simply that some objects are so detailed and naturally placed in the environment that it’s not immediately clear they are interactable. I spent one scene walking around in circles before realizing a tall piece of wood casually standing upright could be pushed over to form a bridge. It just looked like background set dressing.
It’s a weird problem to have because it ultimately speaks to how clean and natural the art design is. There’s always a delicate balancing act in video games between creating stylistically compelling worlds and ones that clearly communicate what to do next. It’s hard to fault the designers when the result is so stunning, but I spent more than a few sequences cluelessly staring at the screen like one of Pale City’s hypnotized residents.
While legibility issues make a few simple puzzles feel more obtuse than they actually are, the stutters don’t take much away from the final experience. Little Nightmares 2 is a creepy adventure that’s equal parts imaginative and unsettling. Even days after completing it, I’m still getting flashes of its dead-eyed teddy bears and dusty attics as if I was accessing my own buried memories. 8/10.
Little Nightmares 2 will be released on PS4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch on February 11, 2020.
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