How can something so cute be so creepy? That’s the question I seemed to keep asking myself during my playthrough of Little Nightmares II as my pint-sized protagonist Mono trotted along with his tiny bare feet, a brown paper bag over his head, holding the hand of a similarly small companion Six across a cold, dark yet beautifully illustrated landscape. Moments later, the two narrowly escape the wrath of a hunter in a sequence that genuinely startled me with its distinct, unexpected horror. Perhaps I had misjudged their unassuming little faces and how bad the nightmare I was about to embark on would be?
Little Nightmares II is a puzzle-based platformer developed by Tarsier Studios and set across a rainy city that’s mysteriously overcome by the transmission of a distant tower. Having not played the first Little Nightmares instalment, to which Little Nightmares II apparently serves as a sequel, I wasn’t familiar with how Six and Mono’s stories intertwined but aside from having no context as to why I was meeting Mono alone in a murky forest in the game’s opening sequence, I’m not sure that it mattered. Each chapter plays like its own miniature episode with a different yet equally bleak environment to explore filled with puzzles and antagonists that will leave you with your own little nightmares if played before bedtime.(I’ll be explaining this pants-pissing shit to therapist one day!)
The aforementioned forest, a gloomy place cloaked in a cold blue mist, is where you’ll start and introduces you to the game’s core mechanics. The place is littered with shoes, begging the player to wonder, what on earth is going on here, but they’ll come in handy as you’re met with a series of traps and obstacles that a swift throw of a weighted item will sort out – though, likely not before you’ve already fallen into said trap yourself. You’ll eventually reach a cabin where you’ll team up with Six to escape the first of a series of nasty enemies which, for me at least, is where things started to get a bit sweaty on the old control pad.(“Cheese it!”)
For the rest of the game you’ll find yourself wandering the streets of the Pale City, which instead of shoes is littered with mysterious television sets, and visiting locations such as a school and hospital – it goes without saying, they’re all pretty disturbing. Each location you land in presents a new challenge whether it’s moving chess pieces to reach a key, timing your movements to avoid attracting the attention of some very creepy-looking children or using weights to clear a path.
It becomes a game of memory as you’ll try things once, fail, and have to go back and map your steps to ensure you don’t end up with your head bitten off by a ghoulish school teacher. This was fine but given the amount of trial and error involved in finding out if that rogue box is going to fall on your head or if that stack of books is enough to shield you from a mean old woman with a frighteningly long neck, some of the checkpoints can seem very cruelly placed.(What heinous childhood shit happened to the person that created this?)
The world of Little Nightmares II is eerily quiet which makes every floorboard creak and drag of a piece of chalk across a board feel all the more unsettling. The animation style reminded me of a Laika film with its haunting line-up of personalities distinguished by their lovely melted eye sockets or shattered porcelain heads. In fact, the music only really picks up when something bad is about to go down. Make a wrong move and you’ll know you’re done for when a classroom full of those nightmarish broken faces turns around simultaneously to face you accompanied by an alarming string section.(Oh God….I’m running out of pants!)
While stealth or running as fast as you can are typically the best way forward in Little Nightmares II, you can fight back in certain instances, usually with found, seemingly harmless objects. Mono’s miniature frame is emphasised whenever you need to pick up these items. You’ll have to drag a heavy ladle on the floor to clobber someone over the head with it and if you need to make more than one hit or deal with a cluster of foes, you’ll need to position and time your swings just right – you can’t just keep bashing X and hoping for the best, and making a precise hit wasn’t always as easy as I would have liked.(….Sure, a hammer works too.)
The platforming can at times feel a little clumsy. There were numerous moments when I completely missed a jump that I logically should have made or I incorrectly assumed my buddy would reach out to grab my hand when instead they’d just watch me fall. When it worked, I enjoyed the AI-controlled teamwork element in puzzle solving, though I wish this had been put to greater use, and being able to grab Six’s hand when trying to get away in some of the game’s more tense encounters was a comforting touch.
(Wrong hand! WRONG HAND!)
I also found areas where the 2.5D design didn’t always make it entirely clear where you were supposed to go. Not in a puzzly way, more a case of walking down a corridor for what felt like a very long time only to realise there was nothing at the end of it. The camera angles can also be unforgiving. In one scenario I was confident I had moved far away enough out of an off-screen enemy’s sightline in order to sneak my way through the next door only to hear them screech and send their minions after me. During these moments, my frustration kind of took me out of the game’s otherwise engrossing, chilling atmosphere.
It’s a short game and while for some, a five-hour jaunt may seem brief, I appreciated just how little the nightmare was. I loved the grim art style which almost lures you into a false sense of security with its childlike animation before pitting you against the horrors that await you at each new location, and seemed to get increasingly more monstrous as the game went on. While there are certainly horror elements in its aesthetic, the game’s frights come in the suspense it creates by getting you to manage stealth and puzzle mechanics in tandem in some truly nerve-racking situations. Here, the enemies, as grotesque as they were, were a real highlight thanks to their unusual style and ability to get my heart pounding with every rogue hand and unravelling of a neck.
After a while, you get used to the formula of puzzle-solving and I would have liked for Six to have been given more of an active role in these situations, but I enjoyed slowly uncovering the mystery of this strange city and tower, which is where the story and action picks up pace in the latter half. Overall I enjoyed my time with Little Nightmares II and I’ll definitely be paying a visit to the original to find out where the story goes next.