Lit­tle Night­mares

Tar­sier Stu­dios’ child­hood night­mare re-emerges un­der new man­age­ment


PC, PS4, Xbox One

When we pre­vi­ously saw Tar­sier Stu­dios’ paean to child­hood fears, in mid-2015, it was still called Hunger and run­ning in Unity. Since then, the name has changed to Lit­tle Night­mares, Bandai Namco has signed the project as part of its new fo­cus on in­dies, and Un­real En­gine 4 has been adopted to do the heavy lift­ing. It’s also our high­light of this year’s Gamescom.

To re­cap, the game casts you as a young girl called Six who, af­ter be­ing kid­napped by mon­sters, finds her­self trapped within the bowls of a sprawl­ing sub­mersible called The Maw. A small por­tion of the ves­sel sits above the sur­face, topped with a sin­gle chim­ney that belches out smoke. Within its bow­els, how­ever, night­mares lurk.

Our demo be­gins as Six, dressed in a strik­ing yel­low rain­coat, wakes in a cabin with two beds and a cou­ple of per­ilously tall cup­boards. The cam­era sways softly as The Maw rocks in the dark sea, mak­ing cup­board doors flap and a ball and empty tin roll across the floor. A group of tiny, pointy-hat-wear­ing crea­tures – who look like a cross be­tween mush­rooms and Dark Souls III’s Thralls – scat­ter as we land on a suit­case, dis­ap­pear­ing be­hind fur­ni­ture and un­der the bed.

Six can grip most loose ob­jects and pull them around – do­ing so is a sim­ple mat­ter of hold­ing R2 – and can climb up the shelv­ing at the back of the room. The qual­ity of her an­i­ma­tion is strik­ing as she bobs about the place and pulls her diminu­tive form up the tee­ter­ing fur­ni­ture, look­ing child­like and vul­ner­a­ble but pur­pose­ful, too. She’s a charm­ing pres­ence, and Tar­sier’s ex­pe­ri­ence on Lit­tleBigPlanet’s DLC and Vita re­lease, as well as Tear­away Un­folded, res­onates in ev­ery solid-feel­ing, tac­tile ac­tion Six per­forms.

Drag­ging the heavy suit­case over to a door on the far side of the room al­lows us to reach the han­dle, us­ing Six’s weight to pull it down as the door swings open. Be­yond is a dark cor­ri­dor, at the end of which is an el­e­va­tor. Six, de­spite her ten­der age, car­ries a lighter, which can be ac­ti­vated at any time by click­ing the right stick. It casts a sickly yel­low glow across a small area around her, and us­ing the dim il­lu­mi­na­tion we lo­cate the clunk­ing lever, which opens the lift cage.

What waits at the bot­tom makes us wish we’d re­mained on the up­per floor, how­ever. A cor­pu­lent, clammy-look­ing chef sharp­ens a knife over a table full of meat. He tow­ers over Six, his grubby whites stained yel­low by… some­thing, and the thought of catch­ing his eye is im­me­di­ately un­ap­peal­ing. Hold­ing L2 makes Six creep, and we ner­vously flit be­tween the dark spa­ces un­der ta­bles and shelv­ing units. The chef has a se­ries of tasks, which un­fold the far­ther we progress

They come across more like lumps of sculpted clay than as­sem­blages of poly­gons

through the room, his me­an­der­ing route mak­ing it ever tougher to avoid de­tec­tion.

At first he moves, la­bo­ri­ously, be­tween chop­ping meat and grab­bing sausages to plop into a pot of boil­ing broth. When we get close to a door­way, how­ever, he moves through to the next room where he sets about check­ing on an as­sort­ment of other pots and pans. He wheezes, snif­fles and ex­pec­to­rates as we move silently from shadow to shadow, and then, just as we spot a vent to es­cape through, one of those lit­tle mush­room peo­ple knocks over a pot as we star­tle it. The chef wails and sud­denly ex­hibits a dis­turb­ing turn of speed as he thuds to where we’re des­per­ately try­ing to scale a set of draw­ers to reach the vent. His podgy hands reach for us as we dis­ap­pear through the hole into the next room, and he switches to bash­ing the door which, thank­fully, is barred by a plank of wood.

While sneak­ing plays a big part in game­play, Tar­sier is keen to avoid la­belling

Lit­tle Night­mares as a stealth game, and the next sec­tion we play show­cases the puz­zling and plat­form­ing el­e­ments. De­spite the chef’s best ef­forts, the door seems to be hold­ing, and we’re af­forded time to ex­plore the next room. A gi­ant sausage-mak­ing ma­chine sits on a wooden table; the walls are cov­ered in sea-green tiles up to the pic­ture rail be­fore age­ing flock wall­pa­per fin­ishes the job to the ceil­ing. The floor sports wipe-clean red tiles, but dried blood re­mains splat­tered around the drain be­neath the ma­chine’s noz­zle. On the op­po­site wall, too high to reach, an­other vent of­fers an es­cape. But on turn­ing the ma­chine’s wheel, only one moist-look­ing sausage emerges – too short to be of any help.

We take a lift into the room above and find a walk-in freezer filled with hang­ing meat and a big chunk of the stuff on a trap­door. There’s an­other hunk on a box nearby, which we push over the edge, and a third on top of an­other set of shelves. There’s a sick­en­ing thud fol­lowed by squelch­ing af­ter we toss it down and then drag it into po­si­tion. It’s in this room that the game’s only mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion mars pro­ceed­ings: all that meat looks like it can be grabbed and swung on – the shelf at the side of the room even puts us in range – and it’s dis­ap­point­ing to find that, af­ter try­ing and fail­ing sev­eral times, there’s no path to fol­low across the physics-en­abled car­casses. Still, a quick lift ride back down­stairs, where we find the chef has re­lented in his pur­suit, al­lows us to yank on the pull chain and fill the grinder, cre­at­ing a string of sausages long enough to swing across the gap with. It’s a fa­mil­iar ob­sta­cle, but feels fresh reimag­ined in Lit­tle Night­mares’ sin­gu­lar, macabre style.

The ven­ti­la­tion shaft is dark and as we ap­proach a junc­tion a pair of shoes drop from an open­ing above, clat­ter­ing into the metal tun­nel. But even that omi­nous sign is noth­ing com­pared to what waits for us at the end. We drop out of the shaft onto an­other suit­case, but this one is buried in a sea of dis­carded footwear. Hop­ping down into it, Six strug­gles to move as she pushes her way through hun­dreds of boots and bluchers. But there’s some­thing else in here with us, and what­ever it is sud­denly starts bur­row­ing through them, scat­ter­ing shoes ev­ery­where, be­fore it reaches us and the screen fades to black.

While the game isn’t due out un­til next year, it’s al­ready feel­ing re­mark­ably pol­ished. And de­spite some fa­mil­iar el­e­ments – the setup of a puz­zle-plat­former in which a child pro­tag­o­nist finds them­selves lost in a dis­turb­ing world is deeply rem­i­nis­cent of Play­dead’s Limbo and In­side, for ex­am­ple, and we can’t help but think of BioShock’s open­ing when we see the chim­ney-topped is­land that serves as the en­trance to The Maw – Lit­tle

Night­mares feels oddly re­fresh­ing. The im­pos­ing phys­i­cal­ity of its char­ac­ters is be­witch­ing, mak­ing them come across more like lumps of sculpted clay than as­sem­blages of poly­gons, with re­mark­able an­i­ma­tion that char­ac­ter­fully re­sponds to your in­puts. Its dank set­ting may be filled with dread, but this is the ex­u­ber­ant branch of hor­ror ex­em­pli­fied by the likes of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Je­unet, and we can’t wait to again de­scend into Tar­sier’s par­tic­u­lar brand of mad­ness.

The Maw has a strangely or­ganic look about it, which makes mov­ing through its grimy bow­els an even more dis­qui­et­ing chal­lenge

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