Little Nightmares – Final Review

Little Nightmares is frequently a very beautiful game, its environments deftly evoking sensations of anxiety and dread; tension abounds, eeriness is deliberately and fiercely sought. Much of this eeriness stems from the bold interplay of light and dark, an interplay most marked towards the narrative’s opening, where darkness is particularly abundant; dark, large, and sometimes cavernous, these environments are frightful, having an almost industrialized atmosphere – they are immensely compelling, moody. A clever manipulation of scale is also present, the protagonist literally dwarfed by the environments explored, pointing towards their helplessness and weakness, existing in a hostile world though unable to act against it. Traditionally mundane objects like armoires or cabinets tower over the raincoat wearer, again evoking sensations of smallness, a smallness which persists all throughout the narrative, even as the precise nature of the environments, their ambiance, changes drastically throughout – environmental diversity is immense, and the game repeatedly excels in matters of presentation. Oppressed, industrialized environs may be explored one moment, while in the next an eloquent, Victorian manor may be navigated, characterized by a commanding sense of opulence, with elaborate green wallpapering, vibrant, beautiful, and surprisingly inviting and tranquil, particularly when placed alongside what came before. And then, derelict kitchens are explored, mountains of sliced flesh accumulating on the tables and the floors, evoking radically different sensations. This freshness, this diversity, results in a maintenance of the joys of exploration, as the player is left to ponder upon what excellent display of developer creativity will be presented next. And beyond meeting merely with creative successes, the presentation succeeds from a technical perspective, too, with beautiful, atmospheric lighting and overall crispness. A clever manipulation of focus is present, too, distant objects deliberately unfocused, the protagonist portrayed in hyper focus, evoking strong cinematic flourishes, especially observable whenever the camera pans back dramatically, presenting in full view the traditionally massive environments. In its presentation, then, Little Nightmares is essentially flawless, boldly discarding anything approaching gaiety or bliss, instead embracing somber moodiness, striving to unnerve the player, to act upon them.   

It would be inaccurate to describe the narrative as being minimalistic, but more accurate to describe it as essentially nonexistent. Any ambitions for narrative poignancy are conspicuously absent here, the game showing an overall poverty of ambition in narrative construction. The protagonist remains nameless and faceless throughout, even such seemingly simple attributes as gender left unrevealed, this deprivation of information making it increasingly difficult to actually identify with the protagonist, making it difficult to sympathize with the raincoat wearer as they are victim to great hardship, to great hostility. Expectantly, voice acting is also absent. The game totally succeeds in engaging the player visually and emotionally, but it struggles to engage the player cerebrally, owing to the rampant vagueness and ambiguity. The developers clearly have lofty expectations of the player, assuming they will employ their intelligence to make sense of the disparate components presented them – it is the players’ obligation to piece together anything resembling coherence, and there is indeed much to ponder over. The yellowness of the rain jacket, the small frame of its wearer, suggests childlike youth and innocence, a certain degree of purity. Realizing this purity is always in the presence of hostility can result in some emotional investment, but that is solely because the corruption and destruction of youth are inherently troubling affairs. Additional narrative questions arise when looking outside of the raincoat wearer, especially when regarding the game’s many antagonists, often bizarre and frightful in construction; there is the individual with winding, too long arms, shambling about to and fro erratically and menacingly. There is the chef with the rotting face, boasting an overall bloated bodily structure, pitifully hobbling about owing to the immense obesity seizing upon the body. What is the precise nature of these individuals? How did they grow so distorted, so frightful? Compelling questions, questions which receive no answers; these creatures merely exist, their backstory never communicated. As was the case with the raincoat wearer, knowing more of these creatures would only increase their endearing – or frightening – attributes. Instead, they are woefully underdeveloped, even as the world is underdeveloped.

With its vagueness and barebones nature, the narrative generally is characterized by failings and missed opportunities, though one narrative thread compensates somewhat, being especially compelling and intriguing. Periodically throughout the narrative, the raincoat wearer is given over to a debilitating sickness, losing the very capability to move, forced to stagger about clumsily and painfully. What is the precise nature of this affliction? As is typical, this question goes unresolved, though this lack of resolution does not completely destroy narrative resonance here. In each of these scenarios, the raincoat wearer is forced to feast upon some nearby object for sustenance. Initially, the raincoat wearer feasts upon a piece of meat conveniently situated nearby. As the narrative progresses, however, the precise nature of that bloodlust only escalates, the rain coat wearer feasting upon innocents, first devouring a helpless rat, and ultimately devouring a menacing, mask-faced individual, now indifferent to that individual’s sufferings. This escalation in barbarism, this discarding of human restraint, only communicates the worsening condition plaguing the raincoat wearer, communicating also the damning aftereffects accompanying exploration through that bizarre, hostile world, peopled with gluttonous monsters, unthinking and cruel, unafraid of resorting to violence, sometimes even delighting in the committing of violence; the raincoat wearer, increasingly voracious, is thus a victim to these hostilities and oppressions. It is bad and troubling, certainly, that the raincoat wearer would seize upon innocent animals and humanoids for sustenance. But it is more troubling to consider they engage in this devouring merely from reasons of survival – if the rain coat wearer does not adapt and change their methods, then death is a certitude. This discussion of sickness, the combatting of sickness, is indeed compelling, and marks the narrative’s sole instance of poignancy; the developers sought to endear player to protagonist, and they mostly succeed.

While the narrative dangerously skirted disaster, only narrowly avoiding it, the gameplay is an almost unmitigated disaster, almost being an insurmountable failing. The game, painfully unambitious, is a conventional platformer at heart; some basic puzzle solving is present, centered largely around environmental manipulation, though such puzzle solving is largely minimized. For a platformer to succeed or excel, then the movements and controls must be seamless, intuitive. The controls and mechanics in Little Nightmares, though, are far detached from anything resembling the seamless or the intuitive, being clunky and unresponsive, the end result being a video game which is not only frustrating, but which is also unenjoyable to play and complete. Even the simplest of actions – clearing chasms, interacting with the environment, sliding and sprinting – can be fraught with difficulty, owing to this pervasive clumsiness. Whenever time demands are imposed upon the player, the controls seem to deteriorate further, owing to the increase in tension. Given the great frequency of such scenarios, such deterioration ultimately dominates. Animation quality, generally, is very excellent, as the raincoat wearer sprints about, jumping to and fro, climbing and mantling over objects; the attention to detail is excellent, but these animation successes cannot compensate for or outright erase the gameplay failings. It should be seamless to ascend some obstacle, rather than being some needless Herculean struggle. Precise movements, when they are required, can be quite problematic, while even the camera is at times irksome, failing in its gameplay purposes just as it succeeds in its more cinematic, stylish purposes. The end result of these failings, again, is an experience which is rarely fun or rewarding to play – Little Nightmares oftentimes seems like a slog, torturous. Flashes of gameplay brilliance are present, most notable when complexity of movement pairs with the more cinematic flourishes, but such brilliance is largely anomalous, unusual.   

The game fails to realize that louder sequences are more impactful and exhilarating only if they are interspersed amongst quieter moments; not knowing this, Little Nightmares constantly embraces the loud; moments of quiet exploration and contemplation, so compelling and stirring, are frustratingly infrequent, minimized. These calmer moments are so enjoyable not solely because they provide the player time to marvel upon the aesthetic beauty and grandeur, but also because they are comparatively undemanding – fail a jump or fall from great height, and it is a simple return to the nearest checkpoint, where the jump can promptly be reattempted with newer, more valuable knowledge. Mistakes while being pursued, however, are punished considerably, as oftentimes the entire sequence must be resumed from the very beginning of that sequence, sometimes a considerable ways earlier. These frustrating moments almost monopolize the narrative; quietness is discarded. Even if loudness completely dominated the landscape, it would not be some inherently insurmountable failing. The insurmountability arises, however, when further considering the punishing nature of these scenarios; hesitate for the slightest moment, take the wrong path, and death is sure to follow, so rigid are the time constraints. The end result of this punishment is that these sequences will be played and replayed countless times over until success is eventually achieved, the necessity of these repeated attempts only draining the chase sequences of their more exhilarating attributes; tension evaporates, and a stark trial and error gameplay approach ultimately arises, almost destroying potential gameplay strengths. Matters are worsened further still when considering the apparent randomness of the A.I. Consider the chef enemy, for instance. One attempt can be undertaken, and promptly be met with failure. And then, a second attempt can be made, completely identical to the first, yet somehow yielding impossibly different results – this unpredictability is a terrible failing. Stealth, laughably basic, is prominent, and never knowing how the A.I. will behave corrupts these stealth systems.               

Purely from a visual perspective, Little Nightmares meets with repeated successes, its environments oftentimes singular in their beauty – and in their somberness. A world characterized solely by hostility and oppression is wonderfully captured here, and these environments, while characterized by frightfulness, are joyous to explore, owing to their considerable diversity; the variance from location to location, while marked, does not prevent the game from achieving one, cohesive whole; it is not the lazy composition of many disparate parts. The creativity on display here, the technical mastery, is brilliant, nearly unparalleled. But these strengths are tempered by monumental failings, many stemming directly from the narrative, barebones, ambiguous, and frequently – though not always – unengaging. These narrative failings are compounded with gameplay failings, the systems devoid of depth, devoid of ambition. And even though the game does not shoot for the stars, even though it is not determined to innovate, still it fails from a gameplay perspective, the title frustrating rather than gratifying to play; poor controls, poor checkpoints, unnecessarily high demands in platforming and movement – these distort the overall experience. The overreliance upon trial and error gameplay is like unto the final nail in the coffin, scenarios intended to be exhilarating instead becoming sources of rage and anger. Reflecting further on the overall experience, it is that one word which encapsulates the entire playtime – frustration. Even while a short experience, completable in no more than four or five hours, that time investment can feel monumental – an hour can feel like five. The environments, so beautiful, are the greatest motivator for continued playtime, but they cannot salvage what is an otherwise abysmal title; the game is totally dependent upon its atmospheric moodiness, though ultimately those strengths are not sufficient to carry the entire experience. The ending, overblown though expectantly abounding in great visual splendor, is similarly unsatisfying, no questions answered. Little Nightmares, then, fares exceptionally well as a visual and aural experiment, though it fails in all other aspects of design.

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