It's a scary world. Scarier than it's been in a very long time. We're bombarded with constant reminders that, for the many rather than the few, hatred and greed now trump compassion and empathy. We live in nasty times, but not without a little hope.
In Tarsier Studios' Little Nightmares hope and innocence are represented by Six, a small girl in a big yellow cagoule trying to escape a nightmarish setting called The Maw. Whatever it is, it's a place of malice and sordid opulence.
Dwarfed by all around her, it's not Six's world either. It's structured like our own, filled with familiar, even homely items and places, but it's a visage composed of the disconcerting, of details that chill on their own and harrow as a whole.
Little Nightmares draws heavily from Playdead classics Limbo and Inside, both in its basic narrative set-up (a small child surviving in a horrifying world) and how it plays. If you've played either if its forebears, you'll know what to expect from this fellow puzzle-platformer.
Physics-based puzzles see Six push, pull and drag items in the environment to open up new avenues and hidden passageways, but the game isn't entirely like Playdead's titles. As you move through the world from left to right, each area also has a depth, with three dimensional planes players can move around.
The depth this affords does wonders for the sense of place, lending the grimy environments an authenticity and helping Six feel like part of the world. Were movement limited to two dimensions, it would have been all too easy for the setting to feel, comparatively, like a succession of backdrops.
Instead The Maw feels lived-in; a place where its corrupt individuals have festered, gestating in greed and gluttony. It's a slaughterhouse, not quite literally, but meat is a recurring theme. Flesh hangs from hooks in uncertain, unsettling forms. Hunks of it are chopped, torn apart and consumed by The Maw's residence, blood fresh and dried smear all surfaces.
As a world it's foreboding and repulsive, but as a video game setting it's superb: the product of a twisted vision brought to life by a team of developers working cohesively.
In terms of audio-visual design Little Nightmares is faultless, but there is a problem in the presentation. The 2D perspective and 3D movement sometimes clash, making spacial awareness a problem for players – they're asked to tread carefully. On a few occasions, while moving across a pipe or plank for example, I fell to my death when I thought I was on safer footing. Needing to be aware of this gives players an extra, unwanted concern, one that takes a slight edge off Tarsier's well-orchestrated tension.
That 3D movement does offer the gameplay an additional dimension too however. It allows the Swedish developer to introduce an element of intentionally-rudimentary stealth. Whenever Six enters an area with one of The Maw's gruesome inhabitants (a blind creature with gangly arms, a morbidly-obese cook) she'll have to tread carefully and hide in the shadows. If the player is spotted these horrors bear down on Six suddenly, and escape is unlikely.
When spotted, the creatures wail ungodly, skin-crawling shrieks as the chase begins. When they hunt Six down, the game's simmering tension boils, turning to dread in those few seconds of panic.
Tobias Lilja's soundtrack compliments the game well. Fittingly it doesn't overwhelm what's happened but lays in wait, lingering like the smell of rot this horrid place exudes through the screen, building to that moment when it can help send an icy chill up your spine.
Little Nightmares might be reminiscent of Playdead's games in numerous ways, but this is far from a hollow imitation. Tarsier's design work is superb, the artistry on show being entirely in line with what you'd expect from a team as experienced as them. It's that clear artistic prowess that makes the game a worthy companion of Limbo's and Inside, rather than a knockoff.
Little Nightmares is the kind of horror game we don't see often enough, one that doesn't shock with fountains of viscera but crawls under the skin. Its flavour of terror is unnerving, burrowing its way deep inside you to nest and feed. Its story is one of hope, innocence and corruption that plays, often sadly, to contemporary fears. Issues with its presentation rob it of the same classic status as Inside, but if you're in the market for a slice of horror rich in artistry and carnal dread, Tarsier Studios have crafted a must-have.