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