What are these little nightmares? Who is dreaming them up? Given that the developer, Tarsier Studios, previously worked on the LittleBigPlanet series, maybe the vile sights that abound here are unfolding in the fuzzy mind of a sleeping Sackboy. Then again, the phrase has always festered with a hint of undeserved scorn, as if it were being spat at innocent children by wicked grownups, the sort of grownups that menaced the pages of Roald Dahl: evil teachers, nasty aunts, grand high witches. But why on earth should these kids—nimble, skittering, delicate as dolls—trouble the sleep of those that hunt them?
In Little Nightmares, we played as Six, a tiny girl wrapped in a yellow raincoat, who was trapped onboard a ship at sea. She hungered for escape and, later on, for something darker. Now, in Little Nightmares II—which could be a sequel or a prequel; let us say that it keeps having the same theme—we play as Mono, a boy with a paper bag over his head. He wakes in a greyish wood, littered with broken televisions babbling static into the air. It’s the first, and most subtle, of the game’s images, which hum with headache-inducing power. The art director, Gustaf Heinerwall, seems to relish the inversion of indoors and outdoors; later on, beds are suspended between buildings and soaked with rain, and faceless people gather in front of glowing screens in an alley—a contorted parody: as if the ghost of a living room had leaked out into the street.
This is, on the whole, good news. Most games committed to scaring us fumble around for a mood of sufficient thickness and either pile on the gore, in the hope that nausea counts as an emotional response, or wind up with an atmosphere of watery melancholy, and call it psychological horror. Twice now Tarsier has made a game that you can practically smell. The setting last time around was the Maw—a cross between a cruise ship, a submarine, and an abattoir. My abiding memory is of the kitchens, stocked with body-shaped bundles of paper and cloth, where two mutant chefs hacked away with their cleavers. Now we have a blue and drizzled city, whose buildings droop like ailing flowers. It’s not as unsettling on the stomach, but it disturbs nonetheless. Mono soon teams up with Six, and they creep through a school. It’s presided over by a monstrous teacher who raps on the desks with a ruler; if she suspects intruders, her neck elongates, with a rubbery creak, and she cranes up into the rafters or deep into the vents after you. Another sequence has the pair in a hospital, with mannequins clattering out of the shadows and a bloated man crawling on the ceiling.
It’s worth pointing out that few other studios have the confidence to take this approach to horror: not to jolt you with sudden frights or to ration your ammunition, but to probe and puncture your emotional ease by putting foulness in such close proximity to the childish. With its elevated perspective and its dank rooms viewed side-on, like a diorama, I’ve often thought of Little Nightmares as what might happen if you let Luigi’s Mansion moulder in the loft, like a portrait sucking up the dark smears of adulthood. Like Luigi, you even get a torch here, which you swivel with the right stick—useful for freezing those mannequins on the spot. The combat, such as it is, entails picking up the odd blunt object—a mallet, a ladle—and swinging it into your foes. In a disquieting touch, their heads crack and cave in like porcelain, and Tarsier deftly pulls back from the brink of the unjustifiable in favour of the uncanny.
So, what stops Little Nightmares II from improving wholesale on its predecessor? In a word: precision. The platforming unfolds across a flat plain, but it’s diluted with depth, meaning you often sail past your intended landing spot, blundering into the background. The reason it happens more here than it did before is that the environments use three-dimensional space more. Tarsier has espied another zone in which our fears might take root: namely, long corridors that yawn like chasms, often with something awful at the end of them, fading its way slowly into the foreground. But the price for these chills is patches of fiddliness and failed attempts; whether or not that is worth paying is for every player to decide.
The puzzles retain their pleasing heft, relying on you lugging objects—jumbo electrical fuses, crates, etc.—back and forth, and Mono nearly buckling under their weight as he scrapes them across the floor. The animations describe a scrambling blend of determination and thin-limbed frailty, and struggling through the game’s perils, especially towards the end, feels frantic. However, as the credits rolled, I couldn’t help but feel that the hardships of Mono and Six were carried out in service of ideas that grow blurry. Where the lack of precision most hurts the adventure is in its ideas. For fans of Silent Hill (a devoted cult, whose ranks grow more restless every day) the symbols of civic distortion—the school, the hospital, the warping of bodies and buildings—will be as clear as crackling white noise. But there’s nothing here as vivid as the sea of shoes and suitcases in the first game, which wreaked of twentieth-century atrocity. The press material for the new game includes a letter from Lucas Roussel, the lead producer, which informs us that the game “will explore the consequences of living a life filled with distractions and hiding from the painful truth of existence.” I haven’t put my finger on this painful truth, but there are plenty of distractions here worth catching. Indeed, at times it can be hard to look away.
Developer: Tarsier Studios
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Available on: PS5 [reviewed on], PS4, Xbox Series X / S, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: February 11, 2020
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