The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Little Nightmares II’: A hypnotic, dark fairy tale

“Little Nightmares II.” (Bandai Namco)

Little Nightmares II

Developed by: Tarsier Studios

Published by: Bandai Namco

Available on: Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One/Series X/S

It is not uncommon for children to fear the nocturnal world. The creaks at night and the shifting shadows along the bedroom wall intimate to a young person’s mind that the external world is uncontrollable. But as we get older and realize that we are subject to untamed, internal impulses, we learn to fear ourselves. “Little Nightmares II” is an exquisite game that bottles this truth. The story it tells, of a boy trapped in a world of predatory beings, is packed with mesmerizing details and graced with an admirably grim ending which reminded me of a line in the classic film, “Le Cercle Rouge” — “All men are guilty. All.”

“Little Nightmares II” opens in a dreamy, blue-lit corridor. As the camera sweeps down its length, a door becomes visible at the far end. Carved above the door’s handle is an eye out of which a pool of static grows, destabilizing the image. From there the scene cuts to a dark forest where Mono, a small, barefoot boy with a bag over his head, sits with his back toward a boxy television with a static-filled screen which quickly shuts off. Trudging off to the right, threading his way past bear traps on the ground, he comes upon a house — just what you’d expect in a backwoods horror flick.

Entering through a window, Mono emerges into a foul kitchen where insects buzz over towering dirty dishes. After making his way through the room and down the stairs, the sound of a music box grows louder. Locked behind a door to the left, a girl sits on a forlorn carpet listening to the tune which is quite the earworm. (I hear it in my head now, and I’m sure I will when I fall asleep.) In a room on the right, Mono finds a hatchet that’s just about as long as he is tall. After dragging it behind him with both hands, he smashes it through the rotted wood of the locked door and frees the girl, whom players of the first Little Nightmares will recognize as Six, the girl in the yellow raincoat who survived her own ordeal.

Together, the two help each other get through the rest of the house and eventually they make their way on a makeshift raft to Pale City, a place where many inhabitants stare captively at staticky television sets. As they investigate the secret behind the hypnotic television signal, Mono and Six visit a school full of feral children and a hospital where prosthetic limbs overflow storage bins like so many amputated doll parts.

“Little Nightmares II” is an exemplary, beautifully animated sequel that benefits from having the two children work together, giving it a more mischievous flavor. The new game also adds a few combat encounters. Occasionally, Mono will have to use tools (such as a hammer) to defend himself, which makes for a nice visual flourish since whatever he uses is so big in comparison to his tiny frame. He swings a hammer like a sledgehammer — slowly. This adds tension to combat encounters since one must be very precise. A swing and a miss can easily result in death.

The boss fights at the end of each of “Little Nightmare II’s” five chapters are grand affairs. With the exception of the last I found them quite straightforward and manageable, but that’s not to say I wasn’t urging Mono on aloud. This is one of those games that knows how to ratchet up the suspense to get you talking to yourself. I would love to describe some of The Post-fight animations, but those should be seen with fresh eyes as should the rest.

A refined study in creepiness, “Little Nightmares II” is the first game of 2021 that I have recommended to all with any interest in video games. It is a gripping adventure that soars beyond its predecessor and raises the dark fairy tale to new heights.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

Recent game reviews:

‘The Medium’: The real world and spirit world split in this unusually dynamic adventure

‘Call of the Sea’: Strictly for hardcore puzzlers

‘Cloudpunk’: Exploited future workers of the world unite

‘The Pathless’: Less than the sum of its parts