It’s hard to scare someone twice, especially if you’ve used similar scares before. In the case of Little Nightmares, that’s a cellar-dark world of fleshy adult grotesqueries, who shamble around and hunt a tiny child. It’s bizarre, it’s unsettling, it is unforgettable. But can a sequel pull the same trick again?
I’ve played it for a couple of hours and I was worried to begin with. The Hunter I saw in the first chapter didn’t do much for me. He chased me with a shotgun through his trapped grounds, shooting at me, while I hid behind cover and in the long, dark grass. And it wasn’t pleasant, it was tense, but it didn’t surprise me. Didn’t scare me.
Then, though, in the second chapter, we went to school. And this did scare me. Think of it as an olden days school, an austere place of wood and rules, and physical punishment. A place of terrified, and terrifying, children. And Her.
You won’t see her for a while but you will see her picture on the wall, and you’ll catch a glimpse of her shadow on the wall, as she changes appearance with a gristly, crunching noise.
You’ll see her children, you’ll run away from her children, and you’ll see where she isolates and punishes them, in hidden rooms with chalked tallies on the wall. And so, her presence will build. Everything about this warped area she inhabits reinforces her.
Then, she’ll be in front of you. It’s the moment the whole chapter has been building to but it’s not done building yet. You’re still at arm’s length; this is but an introduction. And it’s not until you tiptoe around her that she reveals her real horror, and it changes everything.
Suddenly, nowhere is safe: up above, meters away. She can be on you in a flash. And as the crescendo builds, she begins hunting you more rabidly, more viciously snapping at your heels, until the chapter culminates in one of the most disturbing and memorable sequences I can remember. Developer Tarsier certainly hasn’t lost its imagination, I tell you that! And if the rest of the game’s chapters revolve around characters as interesting as her, I’ll be delighted.
So this is it, the sequel, the big sequel that’s been taking its time, and which aims to expand and evolve everything about the cherished though admittedly brief Little Nightmares 1. So it’s longer and it’s broader, a journey of adventure through a towering Pale City, not a confined escape from a boat.
And there’s someone else in it, there are two characters this time. You play as Mono, a boy you don’t know anything about, and he meets a girl who you do know about: Six, from the first game.
You don’t control her, but she comes with you and works with you to overcome things you wouldn’t be able to overcome alone. She can boost you up to higher ledges, help you lift and move heavier things, catch you when you’re about to fall. She can even help solve puzzles, performing part of an active solution while you do the other. And from what I’ve seen, she does this all fluidly. You can prompt her but I never had to. She knows when to move, where to move, and she’s never a hindrance.
That’s important, because between the two children, a bond begins to grow. A bond formed in shared danger, strengthened by mutual survival. Theirs is a kind of companionship, shielding them both from the oppressive, massive silence of the Pale City. You can pull at her hand, encourage her along. It reminds me a bit of ICO and Yorda.
Where the story is going, it’s hard to tell. There’s a strong theme of television running through the game. You begin right next to one, after having walked through a ghostly door. And you can even interact with flickering television sets, stabilising their signal, until they literally suck you into their screen. But what it all means, and what the Pale City represents, I’m not sure.
The city does, however, provide plenty of opportunities for striking imagery, such as the two of you balancing on a bridge over a huge chasm, tiny against the city behind you. And with tall buildings comes more height, more room for climbing, up bookcases, knotted bedsheets, filing cabinets, drawers, anything. The city opens the whole premise up, though it certainly doesn’t cheer it up!
In addition to Six, and the broader puzzling possibilities she brings, you can now pick up items like pipes, drag them along the floor, and then swing them over your head at an enemy, or an obstacle. But it’s not really combat. Yes you can disable some enemies – other children, funnily enough, who make for a scurrying change of pace – but it’s more a situational tool for a puzzle, a moment of timed button pressing and position, rather than a catch-all for progression through the game. It’s another way of adding puzzling possibilities, it doesn’t change the style of the game.
That core is absolutely as you remember: creeping around, trying not to be noticed by the nightmarish creatures whose lairs you inhabit. And their lairs are bigger this time, dominating an entire chapter. But within them, there’s more to do now, more puzzles, more challenges, more ways to make you think. But Little Nightmares is not just bigger: there’s a lot of refinement too. There’s added detail in the presentation and animation, which was already head-turning. Squelching, rotten flesh and bound corpses litter the Hunter’s habitat, and they buzz menacingly with flies. Wallpaper peels, rugs rumple, hunting trophies and hooks loom, and everywhere there’s a haze of dimness, like soot, making it hard for what light there is to break through. That, juxtaposed against the delicate, ever-so-breakable, twig-like movements of you and Six, your feet bare, quietly slapping on the floor. And the eerie scrape of violins in the background. It is gorgeous.
There are welcome, functional improvements too. Now, when you die, the game reloads to a checkpoint almost instantly. It’s a mundane thing, but given how many times you’ll be killed – be it by traps, by other children pouncing on you, by the Hunter’s shotgun, by the gobbling mouth of the Teacher – it’s crucial.
Tarsier has taken its time with Little Nightmares 2 and it shows. There’s a deep level of care and thought evident in every unsettling corner of it. Never has a nightmare been so appealing. You’d better get your sleep in now, you’ll need it.