PC, PS4, Xbox One
You might want to give your TV a clean first. As Six, a young and frail girl in a bright-yellow raincoat, you awake groggily in a world enveloped in shadow. The flickering flame of her lighter is only enough to illuminate the area immediately around her, the dancing light frequently convincing you that something’s moving in the darkness. As you narrow your eyes, peering into the murk, you’ll swear you’ve made out a strange shape or two – only to discover what was vexing you was a speck of real-world dust.
There’s a dearth of light, then, but this is a place defined by excess. The Maw is a grim undersea retreat for the obscenely privileged, where corpulent elites waddle onboard to stuff their bloated, porcine faces with meats that drip with fat and blood. But even before you meet them, you’ll notice everything else is slightly off. If it’s not too tall then it’s too wide or long, its childprotagonist perspective only partly explaining why tabletops, door handles and levers are all just beyond her reach. Tarsier might over-egg the Dutch angles, but it captures a feeling we’re in a world ripped from the night terrors of a child with a fertile imagination.
It’s a scary place as it is, but Little Nightmares keeps finding ways to make you feel even more vulnerable, whether it’s Six’s wiry limbs or the roving arms and freakishly long fingers of a blindfolded pursuer. In one harrowing set-piece, those same arms stretch into a cramped room, digits clawing at the walls, as you try to burrow deeper into the corner to escape their reach.
We’re never told his name (Tarsier dispenses with introductions, and, indeed, words of any kind) but we know from our time with a preview build that this disturbing fellow is The Janitor. He may no longer have his sight, but his hearing is sharp, and even tiptoeing forward while crouched won’t prevent your footsteps from making a noise on bare floorboards. There are carpeted areas in the rooms he prowls, but you’ll wince at the creaks that accompany every step in between. It hardly helps that shelves and tables are littered with objects just waiting to be disturbed by an errant nudge.
Or sometimes a deliberate one. At times you’ll need a distraction, like when you need to sneak past a rotund chef as he prepares a meal, but his patrol route would ordinarily leave you exposed for too long. Bringing him to one side of the kitchen gives you a clear run to the other, though the process is fraught with tension: the size disparity and the forceful, animalistic bellow he lets out when alerted makes him a deeply persuasive threat. You’ll scurry and slide, tucking yourself under wardrobes or behind boxes, but sometimes even that’s not enough: if whoever’s chasing you spots you as you enter a hideyhole, they’ll dip their heads and slide their hands into the shadows to grab you.
Tarsier establishes such a suffocating, soupy atmosphere that the anxiety of getting caught remains even after you’ve discovered that checkpoints are generous enough to mean death is no great hindrance. The tangibility of the world is a key factor: a combination of masterful lighting, delicate animation and the total absence of any kind of HUD makes this unreality feel all too plausible. As you shimmy up teetering, unevenly stacked towers of books and dishes, you’re left fearful – not that you might fall (your index finger’s grip on the right trigger will likely be so tight that Six will never come close to losing hers), but that these precarious piles might topple over mid-climb.
The illusion is irresistible, until the moments it suddenly isn’t, where the absence of direction becomes a problem and you die repeatedly as you struggle to divine what the game’s asking of you. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s enough to puncture the oppressive mood until you’re through it. In one instance, Six fails to grasp a critical object and we assume our plan is the wrong one until, after repeated failures, we try again and it works. Later, by fluke, the shards from a smashed object obscure an item we need to progress. Then again, the occasional caprices of a convincing physics engine are a worthwhile trade-off for the tactility it provides. Little Nightmares’ biggest problem isn’t of its own making. It’s an unfortunate coincidence it should arrive after another horror-tinged Scandinavian puzzleplatformer starring a young, unarmed protagonist in a dimly-lit dystopia. Playdead’s extraordinary Inside casts a long shadow, and Tarsier’s game can only suffer in a direct comparison. Nothing here can quite match up to Inside’s unforgettable climax; indeed, the ending here borrows a trick from another game, though to identify which would be to spoil the surprise. Still, there are two moments from the final third that have stayed with us. A knuckle-whitening late-game pursuit echoes a sequence from the terrific Korean zombie-horror Train To Busan. And a masterful piece of misdirection provides the game’s most chilling moment, when an action doesn’t prompt the expected response, but something altogether more unnerving: silence.
More importantly, for its first original property, Tarsier displays the confidence of a genre master. Little Nightmares brilliantly locates the sweet spot between curiosity and trepidation, creating that classic horror dilemma where you need to know and yet don’t want to find out. It’s the kind of game that’ll have you advancing into the next room with slow, tentative steps, jamming hard on the right stick to shift the camera as far ahead as it’ll let you see, and instinctively shushing whenever something – or someone – makes a noise. And yes, you may well end up fretting over screen smears and specks of dirt. For a game purpose-built to have you jumping at shadows, there aren’t many stronger endorsements than that.
You’ll scurry and slide, tucking yourself under wardrobes and behind boxes, but sometimes even that’s not enough