One of the first things you find in Little Nightmares II is a desiccated bag of strung-up corpses which happens to be leaking shoes. That very bluntly set the tone for the rest of my demo. What a fascinating, terrifying gem of a game this is shaping up to be.
Little Nightmares II lives within the genre of spooky platformers such as Inside and Limbo, using a pint-sized protagonist to comfortably carve out its own niche. Tarsier Studio’s knack for playing with scale and making the player feel small and vulnerable is truly something to behold, a feature of the first game that feels just as novel in the second, nearly four years later.
In the first level, the player is dropped into a fog-filled forest which is full of life-sized traps. I use twigs and pine cones to trigger bear traps and tripwires, clearing the path forward for our bag-headed protagonist, Mono. The great trick in every level is that you know you’re always approaching an encounter, which makes the air thick with tension.
I feel a bit like an archaeologist, working my way through the paraphernalia of some barbarous evildoer to understand what I’m up against. Little Nightmares II starts to enter familiar (but effective) territory when I make it to the hunter’s house, creeping through a filthy kitchen past their disgusting dinner. This is where I find my first hat, which swaps Mono’s paper cowl for a raccoon pelt. The wholesome cosmetic find, however, is quickly undone by the discovery of taxidermied humans, placed into unsettling still-life scenes, scattered throughout the house.
As if the scenery wasn’t enough, the sound design is also nail-biting. The unsettling quiet of the forest gives way to a haunting tune from a music box in a distant room when I made it inside the hunter’s house. This music eventually leads me to the first game’s protagonist, Six, who I find trapped in the basement.
One of the most interesting changes in the sequel is that you’re now tasked with shepherding two characters at once. I’m not sure whether this persists throughout the game, but it doesn’t feel like a tiresome escort mission – at least so far. Six can very much handle herself, as proven by the events of the first game.
As Mono and Six ride a broken door through the littered sea and wash up on the shore of The Pale City, I start to appreciate the staggering art direction of Little Nightmares II. It feels like somebody broke into my house, stole my PS2 copy of Ico and replaced it with a cursed facsimile. It’d be absurd to call it trite when it successfully realises so many of our darkest fears.
Exploring this new realm, I get the feeling that Little Nightmares II wants to make you feel like you’re part of a wider world, rather than have you move through a set of disconnected rooms. Recurring motifs are everywhere, chief of them is a television screen, from which a sinister transmission haunts the entire game. This gets adapted into an awesome puzzle mechanic, where Mono must use his hands on the screen to tune it manually and create dreamlike pathways.
In the School level, it kicks off with some terrifying environmental design. You flick off a light in the hallway and realise that the teacher’s eyes are scratched out of a portrait on the wall, revealing hidden peepholes used to keep a watchful eye. This develops as you unravel the trap-filled institution, the sound of pens rattling in a jar persistent in the background as you explore, keeping your heart rate high throughout.
There are even some small spats of combat now that the game lets you use items in your hand. I end up smashing hammers into unsuspecting enemies to clear a way forward when subtlety wasn’t all-important. I will say that this is probably the least impressive addition – eventually, it just leads to fights where you have to make the same input over and over again with clinical timing to wipe out groups of enemies, which is more frustrating than fun.
Ok – I don’t want to, but I feel like I have to talk about the body horror tour de force that underpins the main antagonist in the School level. The first time it rears its ugly head, I contort in my chair like I’m being sealed in a vacuum bag.
*Mild spoilers follow for Little Nightmares II*
Essentially, her neck elongates indefinitely like a twisted serpent with glassy human eyes and a charmed expression. She chases you through the level like this in order to gobble you up and it is pants-shittingly scary. The way her skin crackles as it grows is a sound that will haunt you for a while.
Overall, I enjoy how, in spite of the game’s limited control scheme, I’m always presented with fun new twists on gameplay. There’s a brilliant disguise and stealth sequence in a freaky food hall full of porcelain children. In another scene, you’ll use the sound of a monster playing the piano to mask your movements and escape.
So what’s wrong with it? Not a lot, honestly. The visuals are striking, the sound design is chilling and investigating these creepy dioramas is heaps of fun. There are some amazing little details as well, like the simulation of individual piano keys as you walk across them, and the fact your call gets a different echo if you make Mono wear a tin can hat.
I’m not even a fan of horror games, but I was delighted with what I played of Little Nightmares II. I’m pretty confident this is going to go down well at launch, especially if you are already a fan of the original. The sequel has kept the winning formula but expanded its scope, delivering some awesome worldbuilding and a persistent feeling of vulnerable terror. The demo was only an hour or two, but I’m excited to pick up where I left off and see even more of its inspired world.
Roll on February 10!