I picked up a copy of this game, that on the off-chance it would live up to the creepy art style and intriguing gameplay that were presented in a short trailer I watched in a Nintendo Direct. It wasn’t at all the game I expected, but then I don’t often buy a game based on no prior information, but it just happened to be what I would consider a small gem in the Switch’s growing game library.
Little Nightmares, originally developed by Tarsier Studios, has (I believe) been ported to the Nintendo Switch by Engine Software, and they have created a faithful rendition of the game that only has a few niggling technical issues (thankfully none of which affect the gameplay). The port contains the original game and all chapters from the “Secrets of The Maw” DLC, so there is a reasonable amount of content to work through.
YOUR NIGHTMARISH SETTING
A dark, blurry glimpse of a tall and menacing lady is accompanied with an ominous, foreboding, atonal crescendo… which jumps to a dimly lit scene with Six, a small child, lying down in her yellow raincoat. She jolts awake – disturbed by the sight of the woman in her nightmare – in the depths of The Maw. Six is a seemingly innocent persona, someone who you start to care for almost immediately. The combination of her small stature and delicate gait, coupled with the always-hooded vibrant coat somehow charm you into feeling a fondness for your sprightly new protagonist, set in this dark drab world. You begin to explore your surroundings but after a short period, it becomes clear that all isn’t right – both the juvenile yellow-mac clad girl and the unpleasant, unkempt environment you find yourself clambering through – put you ill at ease. A few indications, such as an extremely gangly-legged-person hanging through a hole in the ceiling… or the long-armed creature with a bandaged head dragging a cage across a walkway in the distance. It’s all a bit odd! There is a room filled with children’s toys and playground equipment, but locked down with electrified doorways. And shortly after that, an anteroom is being lit up and scanned by an eye on the wall, only to petrify you in your tracks if you are caught in the beam – made more gruesome by the in-situ, frozen corpses of other children. It’s a great piece of interactive storytelling and builds an intensified mythos surrounding the activities occurring in The Maw.
As the game unfolds, you encounter large, hideous, oddly-proportioned creatures, who will pursue you if distracted from their mundane and often unsettling tasks. The Janitor – a blind man with huge arms, spider-like fingers and an adept sense of smell, the Chefs – who wield large knives, bellow blood-curdling screams and gobble you up whole if they manage to nab you. What is this place, why do objects rock back and forth and what are these creatures up to?
You also come across small gnome-like critters, who scurry around when they spot you. At stages in the game Six will appear starving, halting your movement only for you to come across a morsel to keep her going, and your food becomes progressively more repulsive and disturbing as you advance. The dingy hallways you explore are cluttered and filthy, the creatures are up to something, you must keep going to find out what abomination awaits around the next corner en route to your escape.
The Secrets of The Maw DLC offers a separate series of challenges and enemies to overcome, with some locations that you’ll be familiar with from the main storyline. You play as the Runaway Kid, a young boy perhaps slightly older than Six, who appears to have escaped capture and is exploring around in the depths of The Maw. Both narratives will often intertwine, with familiar locales and foes cropping up during your journey.
As a child, you have fears which are almost always derived from your imagination, remember the man under the bed or the monster in the closet? Just the thought of such things used to send shivers down my spine as a youngster. As someone who indulges in horror movies and video games that relive that obscure and uncomforting fear, I find that Little Nightmares provides a brilliant, sinister and hair-raising method of storytelling that can recreate these feelings, urging me forward at each uneasy moment.
The rest I will leave for the reader to discover, I didn’t have any prior information before playing Little Nightmares and I enjoyed the game more so because of this.
EXPLORING THE DARK DEPTHS OF THE MAW
Platforming and puzzle solving are the main aspects of progression in the game, aided with a physics system that allows you to manipulate certain objects. If you can’t reach something, drag a chair over and climb it or bounce on top of a sprung mattress. You also have a pocket lighter to illuminate your surroundings, a very handy tool at your disposal which has unlimited use – making this resource finite would have added a divisive extra element to the game and would’ve certainly create another layer of suspense.
The game is never too complicated, but you can find yourself under pressure to complete certain puzzles or negotiate your way through areas when large creatures are hot on your heels. The game takes place from a fixed perspective but you have full three-dimensional movement of Six within the levels. Think Super Mario 3D Land/World but housed within walled rooms with a fixed camera system (which you can slightly manipulate to change your viewpoint). You can walk, sprint, duck and jump and have the ability to open doors, pick up and throw items, climb certain walls and swing from hanging objects. It pays to be stealthy too, hiding under objects or in dark shadows and walking slowly on carpeted floors (rather than on wood) will help you remain silent and concealed.
The physics applied to Six means that your movement can feel slightly lethargic, I found this to be cumbersome at times – you often misjudge your position relative to something you attempt to interact with. Either that or you fail to climb or duck under an object when being chased which will lead to your inevitable death. It’s a small qualm but one that can blemish the experience in some instances, but conversely, help to provide a heightened sense of fear in others.
The extra content, played as the Runaway Kid, introduces some new gameplay mechanics to the game too, The Maw appears to be flooding and the water hinders your manoeuvrability somewhat. This adds a heightened hysteria to some of the areas you are trying to traverse, even though the same trial and error puzzle solving and platforming remains. It’s a neat addition to the DLC that keeps the gameplay feeling fresh, yet familiar.
DARK CONCEPTS AND CHILLING SOUNDSCAPES
Little Nightmares has a gorgeous art style coupled with a graphical prowess that really brings the game to life. The Maw always feels dingy, sinister and unwelcoming and the creatures that inhabit the locale are highly detailed and frightening to look at. The game uses Epic’s Unreal Engine 4 – one that has officially supported the Nintendo Switch since early doors – to great effect. Enemies have physics applied to their clothing, the overweight Chefs flesh wobbles as he works, objects are knocked over and fall around realistically and your lighter casts real-time shadows as you explore. I often found myself simply observing these misproportioned brutes, seeing how all the animation flows as they went about their work.
The game can be very dark at times, often proving tricky when areas you weave through are cast in shadow, but it can build the mood up nicely and certainly adds to the challenge. Character animations are also unsettlingly intricate, organic and believable, the whole lot comes together to give you the impression that this is a living, albeit very odd, fantasy world in action inside The Maw.
The Nintendo Switch version runs at a resolution of 1280 x 720 and at 30 frames per second. In docked mode, this resolution is achieved natively where as in portable mode, the resolution is up-scaled to match the Switch screen.
It isn’t particularly awe-inspiring, but everything looks and performs at a level that works for this type of game, never detracting from the gameplay. One detail that does becomes an annoyance are the load times. During some of the more trial and error sections you can die quite a few times, leaving you to wait around 40 seconds or more before you’re back in the game.
Probably my favourite part of the game stems from its audio, it’s a masterpiece in this regard. It reminds me of the clever sounds in games such as F.E.A.R and Outlast, where ambient noises create tension rather than a musical score. The Maw creaks and clanks, power circuits hum and moving objects, your footsteps and breathing all echo around you in a realistic manner. Your little heart races when you get close to your adversaries and your stomach wrenches and gurgles when you starve. Each room has a different reverb quality depending on whether it is carpeted and full of objects verses metal clad and clinical. Haunting, musically dissonant sounds and creepy melodies sporadically play in the background, adding further to your anxiety. The enemies can also make some appalling noises – from the gargling, velociraptor-like shrieks of the Chef to the intense sniffing and mal-coordinated fumbling of the Janitor. Everything puts you on edge, you never feel at ease within the neglected, grimy environments and a lot of that is down to the brilliant soundscape on offer.
FINAL THOUGHTS AND CONCLUSIONS
You have the option to play two stories on the Maw, the main story of Six and the additional story of the Runaway Kid, which comprises three chapters from the Secrets of The Maw DLC. The main story took me around 4.5 hours to complete and I would say I am on the slower side of playing games. The Secrets of the Maw took a further 2.5 hours to finish, so it’s safe to say that this isn’t the longest game around. There are “completionism” aspects to the game though, you can find gnomes, ignite lamps and smash small statues, and to do all would add a few hours to get you your 100% completion status. What this game lacks in terms of content, it easily makes up for in charm, art style and unrivalled storytelling. I would wholeheartedly recommend this game to anyone who likes a dark, fictional adventure with no narrative yet offers a deeply compelling, twisted story. To someone who also enjoys a simple puzzle, mild platforming and a general enjoyment for exploration.