The last time I played some Little Nightmares 2 it suggested a game following in the footsteps of its predecessor - a slightly dark, kids story gone wrong kind of vibe - but introducing more obvious horror tropes. I mean, I had to run away from a sack-wearing serial killer after finding his forest shack full of stuffed human bodies… but there was a sort of Hans Christian Andersen feel to it. My latest hands-on, however, has crossed over into full horror territory with a Silent Hill rivalling hospital full of twitching mannequin cadavers lurching towards your face.
And I’ve got to be honest, I liked it. I mean I hated it: the way they move, all broken and spasmy; the hodgepodge of mismatched old fashioned prosthetic limbs and partially formed faces made from all the wrong bits jammed into whatever socket was available - it’s proper nightmare fuel. However, it’s definitely a move in the right direction after the earlier forest level I played left me unsure about what felt like a half-hearted swerve into more traditional, obvious horror. The first game had a dark Studio Ghibli feel, using mundane settings like kitchens and storerooms, full of Burtonesque inhabitants, to create something that could best be described as twisted but twee. Its power came from the not-quite-right-ness of the otherwise ordinary settings. The murder forest I initially encountered in the sequel, on the other hand, was very clearly, obviously not right, which actually stripped away some of the charm and power. It was good enough to keep me interested in seeing more, but I worried the more obvious horror would actually lessen the impact.
Then I met the mannequins in this new level. One at first, later many, all horrible. They can’t move in the light leading to a hideous game of cat and mouse as you balance trying to get somewhere while making sure you can keep a torch beam on all of them at all times. It’s the kind of tension that makes you feel a little bit sick as you wave your little beam of light around as they judder and creak, rattling around on joints that were never meant to move. It really is a surprising amount of NOPE for a game that usually sits on the cuter side of sinister. The broken movement, clattery joint sounds, and claustrophobic lighting - everything, is up there with the best horror games. There’s an actual sense of desperation and panic as you struggle to hold them all under your torch as they surround you, backing towards an exit.
Outside of the mannequins, there's a heavy fug of wrongness that pervades the whole level. Some of the dummies have fully bandaged faces with hair poking through the gaps that suggest not all of them are made from leftover anatomical parts. Almost every corner has some little grubbiness, a hint or nod to further horrors that’s only formed enough to plant a nasty seed in your mind and let it grow. It even weirdly manages to channel the film Aliens at one point as you fight scuttling disembodied hands with a hammer you can barely lift. There’s a very pleasing slow, weighty heft to swinging the weapon overhead, to crunch into the knuckles of the face-hugging paw. Like the mannequin encounters it beautifully recreates a back to the wall, ‘how am I getting out of this' feeling that few scary games get right.
The whole level is just a great little horror set-piece. I’ve no idea why the new character Mono, accompanied by the returning raincoat wearing Six, are in the hospital, but it shines as a vehicle to show off what the game can do. The puzzles, revolving around physically manipulating objects and trying to find fuses to open doors, are satisfyingly chunky and easy to grasp in a mute game that can only communicate through show.
It does still have some of the old game’s issues - like a fumbling depth perception that occasionally makes its 2D/3D style a little unwieldy. There are also some moments that fall into that ‘well I guess I’ll just keep dying until I get what I’m meant to do’ trap, which will be familiar to anyone who played the last game. And, currently, the use of Six as an AI companion is little woolly in places. She can help by boosting you to higher areas or carrying crucial items but isn’t always fast enough to telegraph her potential help - there were a few moments where I spent some time poking and prodding every object in a room for help because I passed through the ‘Six can help’ area too fast to let her show she was actually the solution.
What problems I found in this short play though were easily eclipsed by the slick, creepy horror, however. In much the same way that the last game was greater than the sum of its occasionally fumbly parts, this has the same sense of growing, highly disturbed wonder from exploring and trying to piece together the world, as much as survive it. If the entire sequel can maintain the high level seen here then the full game is going to be an interesting, and horrible, journey.