There's something rotten at the heart of Little Nightmare 2's horror. An impressive unpleasantness that sticks to you long after you walk away from its strange, eerie world and twisted characters. I'm saying this is a good thing by the way, as this bizarre child-like place is quite literally nightmare fuel, somehow without any gore or jump scares. Everything just feels… wrong, in a way that seems to pull up some sort of almost primordial revulsion.
Release date: January 11, 2021
Platform(s): PS4, Switch, PC, Xbox One
Developer: Tarsier Studios
Publisher: Bandai Namco
It's things like the leering face of the Teacher, who chases you without moving with an endlessly uncoiling, creaking neck. Or the ceiling bound Doctor that scurries above the beds under him, occasionally dropping down to check his patients below - people who hate themselves so much they're happily replacing their body one prosthetic part at a time. There are moments where you feel like you might have had this dream, which could be why it feels so cloyingly sinister. While other horror games can be described with words like 'shock' or 'terror', this is probably best summed up by 'seeps'.
Continuing on from the previous game this is a sorta 2.5D puzzle platformer starting a tiny weird child. This time the playable character is Mono, accompanied by Six (the original star) as a companion. Together they navigate a strange city for reasons that are never entirely clear but also don't matter. It's an experience made of discrete moments, contained by the buildings they pass through. There's almost an anthology/short story feel to the beautifully disturbing moments crafted in the first chunk of the game, with areas defined by some sort of ruling monster whose character or purpose permeates their domain.
As I mentioned before there's rarely anything obviously terrible on display but Tarsier Studios just gets 'fucking horrible' as a concept at an impressively fundamental level. The rubber neck lady rules over a school of horrible, plastic doll children with cracked open hollow heads. They screech and swarm destructively over everything like safari park monkeys destroying a car. Sometimes you fight these child dolls, cracking their heads open like eggshells with a pipe you can barely lift. Elsewhere there are juddery mannequin people made of mismatched prosthetic limbs that creak and lunge in the dark but can't move in the light, leaving you wildly swinging a torch beam about to hold them back.
There's a huge darkness to all this despite the childlike presentation. Like when you trap and eliminate a certain character in a furnace, and Six sits down to warm her hands while the screaming is still happening. Another puzzle causes a mindless, disfigured creature that was clearly once human, to walk off the top of a building. That's followed by a whole sequence where multiple people step off rooftops as you pass that's pretty disturbing. And, when the game isn't outright trying to mess you up directly, it leaves just enough scattered around the environment to let your mind go to work on the horrible gaps.
All of this gradual, insidious descent into madness is aided by some superlative atmosphere, and world design. Each level is full of personality, and just exploring is rewarding in its own right thanks to the craft that goes into expressing the character of any given area. The sound design only adds to the layers. I can still recall the dreadful screech of triumph from a particular monster finding you far too clearly as I write this. The rattle of the mannequins lurching through the dark is also going to take some time to fade.
Even the camera works adds to the horror, tilting and leaning drunkenly in sections, almost imperceptibly at times but enough to foster a sense of unease. One monster is revealed from an almost ground level angle, framed in shards of window light. Chases, threats, and reveals push and pull angles in and out of the screen to articulate danger and attention in different ways. That said, while dramatic framing is great, Little Nightmares 2 does suffer from the same gameplay camera issues as the last game - that 2.5D, side-on view making some jumps and corners a fluffy and imprecise hit or miss affair.
Again, like the last game, the controls lack the reactive precision the game occasionally asks of you. Some moments arrive as spectacular set-pieces but quickly become muscle memory loops as you try to hit the perfection needed to complete them. There are a couple of chase sequences requiring an almost race track level of cornering precision to survive. One of the late-stage boss fights has a 'holy shit, WHAT?' impact when it's first revealed but soon descends into a joyless loop of playing the same few seconds over and over again trying to shave off the thousandths of a second you need to win. It also loops through increasingly difficult permutations and actively contributed to me reducing the score. There's so much I love in this game that I was muttering 'maybe it's a nine?' for most of my playthrough but that one boss fight ended that.
It also, like the last game, continues one of my least favorite design ideas: 'die to learn'. There are a lot of things that can kill you that you won't know about until it happens. A good example are lethal buckets of scrap that swing down from the ceiling. The first one will kill you, so you avoid it by moving to one side, and then the second one has an extra bucket in the place you moved to. At one point there's a door that immediately drops something on you and kills you when you open it that you will absolutely never see coming. Then there are bits where the game outright lies to you. One entire section has you using beds, the only safe place to hide under, to pass an enemy. When you get to the end and escape to apparent safety, the first thing you see is a bed which you race for because the game has just spent five minutes reinforcing the idea that bed = protection. But that's the one bed the bad guy can lift to kill you.
There's just such a varying mix of excellence and 'oh FFS' at times. I genuinely love this game and want people to play it but I'm also aware that the camera can suck, there are insta-kill bits and the controls aren't always as good as they need to be. But, even with the frustrations, it's probably already one of my GOTYs. When it gets stuff right it's excellent, filled with puzzles and ideas that are so clever and well done. There's a stealth section where you have to sneak past someone playing a piano, freezing every time they stop that had me laughing out loud. The mannequins are some of the best horror monsters I've encountered in ages and when Little Nightmares 2 takes the horror gloves off it is *up there* with the best. I would kill to see what Tarsier Studios would do with Silent Hill. When it's not trying to scar you for life there's even some lovely little touches with Six. She's more than just an NPC to help you climb walls, there's a real personality there - if you carry something for a puzzle, or throw an object, she'll join in. She doesn't really help all that much but the fact she tries makes you care about her. You can hold hands with her as you explore - it has no gameplay use, you'll just want to.
The first three quarters or so of Little Nightmares 2 are packed with enough creative pops of brilliance and an amazing, malevolent character that it outweighs the issues. They're frustrating but surmountable, with the exceptional moments more than enough reward for pushing through. The only reason I'm not marking it any higher is that the final act lacks any sort of character as high as the bar set by previous levels. After the excellent opening hours the conclusion is... fine. There are some good puzzles and things to take in, it just lacks the punch of a memorable antagonist compared to earlier encounters. Even without a really impactful ending however, there's still a great, creepy, weird, and memorable game here with moments that will bother you long after it's done.
Reviewed on PC. Code supplied by the publisher.