A Fantastically Frightening Follow-up
When it was released back in 2017, Tarsier Studios’ Little Nightmares proved to be a terrifying treat. The game was a horror-themed puzzle-platformer set aboard “The Maw,” a floating resort inhabited by massive, child-eating creatures. At the time of its release, Little Nightmares stood out with its striking, Tim Burton-inspired visuals and fiendish puzzles that made exploring its disturbing setting so fascinating. It wasn’t perfect, mind you. With its somewhat squishy controls and reliance on trial-and-error gameplay, navigating The Maw could be an occasionally frustrating endeavor. However, the game made up for these shortcomings with its superb artistic design and genuinely fascinating world.
Now, four years later, Tarsier Studios has returned to shred our psyches. Introducing a haunting new setting and a fresh protagonist to control, this Bandai Namco-published title once again beckons players into a macabre realm. And while it doesn’t quite address some of the nagging issues that haunted its predecessor, Little Nightmares II still manages to deliver another atmospheric adventure that no puzzle-platformer fan should miss.
Little Nightmares II‘s new protagonist is Mono, a skinny child donning a brown paper bag on his head. The game’s story begins as he finds himself alone in a trap-laden forest, where a gun-toting hunter has seemingly been killing and stuffing the locals like grim trophies. Before long, Mono encounters Six, the protagonist from the first game, and the two set off into a haunting metropolis called The Pale City, where the residents all seem to have mysteriously vanished. Well, all except for a handful of shambling abominations that would look right at home in one of those Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark books we all read as kids.
At first, I wasn’t sure what I thought about the game’s dual protagonist nature. I was worried that having to keep track of Mono and Six at the same time would become a bit of a headache. Thankfully, those concerns were mostly unwarranted. Six fends for herself just fine and will do her thing without any need for input from the player. She’s mostly just there as a plot device and occasionally gives the player a hand when they need a boost or added muscle to push a heavy object. Other than that, you probably won’t even notice she’s there most of the time.
That’s not to say this feature is a missed opportunity. I found Mono and Six’s relationship to be one of the game’s most compelling elements. The original game felt like a desperate fight for self-preservation. However, Six and Mono’s shared struggle makes Little Nightmares II‘s story much more intimate and impactful. Given this is a game where there’s no dialogue to speak of, that’s no small feat.
Brains And Brawn
While the game will throw the occasional chase sequence your way, the heart of Little Nightmares II‘s gameplay revolves around a potent blend of stealth and puzzle-solving. And for the most part, both of these elements combine for a gratifying experience.
The stealth component is as straightforward as they come, but it gets the job done just fine. Carefully sneaking around the environment to get the drop on porcelain pursuers or clambering under desks to avoid the glare of some nightmare creature feels intuitive. I never found myself cursing the game when a psychotic schoolboy spotted me and proceeded to bash my brains in, or the giraffelike teacher gobbled me up like a boy-shaped bundle of acacia leaves.
And the puzzles? Well, let’s say you won’t need to be Mensa material to overcome them. But they’re cleverly designed and provide an excellent sense of satisfaction when the solutions click in your head. And while I never found myself struggling for too long to solve them, there are a few that will occasionally make you think outside the box a bit.
One new feature Little Nightmares II introduces is combat. Occasionally you’ll find axes, lead pipes, and other tools to bludgeon your unlucky opponents. This addition sounds excellent. But in practice, it’s not so hot. You’ll only come to blows with a couple of enemy types in the game. And sadly, the strategy remains the same for each of them. You’ll need to time the slow wind-up of your blows with your enemy’s telltale visual cue. Miss it, and you’re dead meat.
The predictability of each encounter, combined with your attacks’ sluggishness, makes Little Nightmares II‘s combat feel mostly unsatisfying. But it’s so infrequent that it doesn’t get in the way in the grand scheme of things.
Much like the game before it, Little Nightmares II is a grotesque gift to behold. Tarsier Studios has once again succeeded in delivering a captivatingly strange and twisted world to explore. Every environment is painstakingly detailed and atmospheric, with little touches that give each one a palpable sense of dread. Little Nightmares II also makes excellent use of light and shadow in ways that impact the actual gameplay, from flashlights that stun mannequin-like monsters to how you can use the shadows of off-screen creatures as visual cues for when you can safely proceed through an area.
As for the creatures themselves, they’re pure nightmare fuel. From a demented school teacher with a neck that unfurls like a boa constrictor to a morbidly obese doctor who descends from the ceiling to gobble up hapless children like a fleshy caterpillar, The Pale City’s residents are the types that will make you want to sleep with the lights on.
As good as Little Nightmares II looks, it sounds just as impressive. The music, while sparse, is hauntingly beautiful, and all of the environmental effects, from the roar of a monster as it chases you to the sound of your hammer smashing a doll-like enemy’s porcelain head, all sound fantastic and bring the game’s world to life.
The Things That Go Bump In The Night
While I had a great time with Little Nightmares II, the glitch gremlins did rear their heads occasionally to try and spoil the fun. The most common issue involved objects or characters outright vanishing into the ether. On one occasion, a key I needed to proceed to the next area disappeared after interacting with the shelf where it was resting. While annoying, I saw this as it happened, so I could reload my game from the last checkpoint and resolve the issue. No harm, no foul.
Another instance, though, was much more aggravating. I was in a room where I needed to toss a key item through a slot in a cage. However, after doing what needed to be done, I found myself stuck with nowhere to go. After about 20 minutes of fumbling for a solution, I put the game down and decided to come back to it after lunch. Upon reloading my save, I quickly discovered what the problem was. Six was supposed to recover the items I lobbed onto the other side of the cell door. The problem was she had vanished from existence. It turns out she had been gone for at least a half-hour, and I just hadn’t noticed. I just assumed she wasn’t supposed to be with me at all. Talk about annoying.
The Switch version of Little Nightmares II also suffers from some performance dips when there’s too much going on. Usually, this isn’t too bad. Yet, there were a few areas late in the game where the action started to devolve into a veritable slideshow. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, these frame drops resulted in more than a couple of unnecessary deaths during the game’s already chaotic chase scenes.
Little Nightmares II is an excellent follow-up to an already terrific title. While the changes it makes to the series’ established formula, such as the dual protagonist story and the addition of combat, are a bit hit or miss, I still found it nearly impossible to put the game down during my six-hour playthrough thanks to its satisfying puzzles and unrivaled atmosphere. If you’re a fan of the original Little Nightmares, then this is a game you won’t want to miss. However, if the performance problems I mentioned have you on the fence (though honestly, they’re not that bad), perhaps consider picking it up on a more capable platform than the Switch.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC ; Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment America ; Developer: Tarsier Studios ; Players: 1 ; Released: February 11, 2021 ; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $29.99
Full disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy.