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Run. The poacher hears us sneaking from his house through a squeaky wooden flap. Fresh from wrenching fur off some unfortunate mammal, he’s a bundle of tweed rage, screaming muffled indignation through a sack-cloth balaclava.
It’s his huge shotgun that most concerns us though. As we bolt down the path, a wild blast splinters a nearby wooden crate. There’s scant time to find cover behind another before he reloads then buckshots that to pieces, and a third, until we drop unseen into a darkened alcove.
Now it’s a slow creep through long grass, holding like statues as the hunter pans his flashlight over our position. A startled crow gives us away, sending us ducking behind crates again. Shotgun blasts like thunder claps. Soon we’ll be hidden once more, wading in soupy mud, globbing down under the surface to avoid his gaze.
This whole sequence, through to its deliciously abrupt conclusion, is delirious. Our defenceless child avatar and equally diminutive companion are always a single wrong move from death. Quick and painless, but shocking nonetheless. In the heat of the chase, figuring out when to stay when to sprint, is panic-inducing.
Yet the machinery underneath is so simple. Fail and restart and your pursuer re-treads his routine exactly, shooting and rotating his spotlight to meet choreographed cues. Shotgun reloads and crate positions are precisely coordinated to ensure safe passage, as long as you read the script.
Like its predecessor or inspirational games such as Limbo, Little Nightmares 2 is a series of prescriptions to fulfil. A five-hour rollercoaster with fail states and checkpoints. It’s a very good one too, breathlessly executing its tension, thrills and jabs of dark humour. But its paths of interaction can feel slender next to the swagger of its production.
Still, what a production it is. A thing of terrible beauty that suffocates with detail. With all its organic grime and litter, the poacher’s house could have been transplanted directly from Resident Evil 7. When we free the mystery girl who shares our journey from imprisonment, we note the chalk marks on the walls of her room, counting off weeks of isolation.
Often it’s about what you can’t see. Little Nightmares 2 loves that old trick of making you hear something unsettling before revealing it, filling your mind with imagined horrors. Its soundtrack knows precisely when to rumble, screech, crescendo and whisper, while mundane noises pull the uncanny closer to reality – the squeak of chalk, distant piano chords, plastic fingers clicking across tiled floors.
More than that, it’s how these elements combine to simulate palpable texture, viscosity, weight. You almost feel the cold as you dip your head into that mud. Traps such as swinging buckets and monstrous bear clamps trigger with the comic brutality of a Looney Tunes anvil. Pulling open a drawer, you squeeze the shoulder button extra hard, as if that will help the puny protagonist drag faster. The new inclusion of weapons offers treats such as noisily heaving an axe around, before straining to arc it overhead into the porcelain skull of a killer doll.
“What a production it is. A thing of terrible beauty that suffocates with detail. With all its organic grime and litter, the poacher’s house could have been transplanted directly from Resident Evil 7.”
It really is the little nightmares that matter, the individual moments and scenes. This sequel offers a more panoramic snapshot of its psychotically surreal world, with extra visual depth to peer into, but much is smartly left unexplained. The boy you control, Mono, wearing a long coat and a cardboard box hat, arrives unannounced, spat out of an old TV set rusting in a forest.
Horror in Little Nightmares 2 is seldom gory, but implies unspeakable violence that picks at the scars of human history. In a city where fleshy puppets cage and butcher straggling kids, the décor evokes the terror of oppression in mid-20th century Europe. Empty streets full of discarded clothes hint at mass purges. A preserved playground where you jump aboard a tire swing or see-saw briefly remind you that children used to do children things here.
While the first game climaxed in scenes of epic gluttony, here there’s a pervasive sense of controlled misery. With its TV motif, Little Nightmares 2 has something to say about obsession with manipulative screens leading to depression. And the impossibility of escape. Seeking refuge under pouring rain, you always know there’s going to be something much worse indoors.
Control and confinement are certainly appropriate themes in a world where everything, even the wiliest psychotic freaks, are parts in a clockwork machine. The game’s big gamble is balancing the horror of surprise against predictable triggers, trial and error and rapid restarts. Some risk of failure is essential to keep you alert, but nothing kills fear faster than mechanical repetition.
For the most part, Tarsier Studios maintains the equilibrium, but its methods are contentious. Just like the first game, the low set camera is perfect to ensure that everything looms. It makes the kids feel doubly stunted against giant buildings that curl forward like stacks of teetering paper, or the bloated mortuary attendant who skitters across ceilings. But it also diminishes your depth of perspective, and makes progress artificially difficult.
It’s often hard to judge exactly how platforms line up, even as shadows and indicative planks try to guide your jumps. You launch the boy heroically towards a ledge, only to flop helplessly to the floor like a cat in a Youtube Fail video. Running down a corridor, you snag for a fatal second on a table leg that you could swear was in the background. It’s infuriating.
“Just like the first game, the low set camera is perfect to ensure that everything looms. It makes the kids feel doubly stunted against giant buildings that curl forward like stacks of teetering paper, or the bloated mortuary attendant who skitters across ceilings.”
But what would Little Nightmares 2 be without it? A series of flat run-and-jumps? It feels like there’s intent here in enforcing a suboptimal view. Like the girl in the horror film running in the woods from a silent pursuer, it makes you trip and fall inexplicably to elevate suspense, and frustration. That inability to execute actions you take for granted is the nightmare.
For much of the game you can at least take your time. Between pursuits, deadly drops and flares of violence, it’s slow, brooding, storing energy. There are switches to activate, keys to find and the push and pull of rudimentary physics puzzles. A couple of memorable sequences revolve around a particular item – a torch, a TV remote – that shakes up the routine. How about a pitch dark room full of killer mannequins that only stop still when bathed in light? It’s as chilling as it sounds.
Just don’t expect much complexity. Barring a handful of head-scratchers, Little Nightmares 2 is geared towards bumpy but steady progress. It’s an approach best summed up by that AI partner who’s with you for much of the game. You’ll have to coordinate actions with her, but nothing intricate – mainly she’s there to keep you facing the right direction. While that smoothes out the poor signposting that hindered the original, the literal handholding can be smothering.
Ultimately, Little Nightmares 2 remains at its best when its mutated adult antagonists are in attendance, building tension and disgust as you spy them going about their macabre business, then unleashing panic as they chase you down with insane rage. The poacher is merely a taster, with a rubber-necked school mistress, in particular, charting new series heights for monstrous design.
They’re so good, in fact, it’s a shame they’re so tightly rationed. Little Nightmares 2 is longer than the first game, yet still a little slight. As it ended, we wanted another chapter, another hideous thing to try and eat us (especially since the final act is weaker than the rest).
A second run to uncover trinkets and trophies is worthwhile, but on rollercoasters like this, nothing beats the first time. Still, it’s preferable to leave the table feeling not quite full, rather than overstuffed. And our desire for further bad dreams says more about the thrill of the ride than its shortcomings. Little Nightmares 2 is a confident and wonderfully horrible sequel.
Little Nightmares 2 is a cautiously expansive sequel which expertly paces its shocks and creepy atmosphere. The detail and weight of its locations are unnervingly believable, while its monsters are hellishly otherworldly. Exciting, brutal and darkly humorous, we just wish it gave us more reason to stay longer.
- Supremely unnerving audio and visuals
- Perfectly paced suspense and action
- New weapons and items add extra dimensions
- Fixed camera can prove frustrating
- A little too brief