The best horror games build a sense of dread and vulnerability, and this moment from “Little Nightmares 2” captures those feelings perfectly, through unsettling sound design, Tim Burton-like art direction and a slow, gradual buildup to a scare. Even when you’re safe, you don’t feel safe. You fear not just what is in front of you, but what is yet to come, and that’s what makes this harrowing experience so effective.
“Little Nightmares 2″ combines intuitive puzzle design, excellent platforming and environments ripe with scares that happen so often, you can barely catch your breath. While the previous game excelled at creepy atmosphere, “Little Nightmares 2” is more consistently terrifying, so much that it can be emotionally exhausting. That’s not a knock against the experience, either — but this is a petrifying game through and through, with clever homages to horror classics like “Silent Hill,” “The Exorcist” and “Slenderman.”
You play as Mono, a young boy who inexplicably wears a bag over his head (which can be swapped for other unlockable hats the more you progress). Throughout the game Mono navigates disturbing environments — like drab apartment complexes or a hospital overrun with sentient mannequins — each filled with furniture two sizes too large. He befriends a young girl, Six, who served as the first game’s protagonist. The two endure a terrifying adventure where survival is never guaranteed.
To progress, you solve puzzles and platform over obstacles. Sometimes, Six nudges you in the right direction or picks relevant items up, serving as a helpful minimalist hint system. With little to no user interface and few prompts, you’re easily absorbed by the striking environments and ambiance. The onus is on the player to carefully examine surroundings to figure out where to go and what to do next. Sometimes it’s as simple as opening a drawer to climb up a desk, other times, puzzles involve multiple steps, such as manipulating an elevator to reach an unseen floor, distracting enemies, or luring foes into traps. At some points, you have to work with Six, as she gives you a boost to a higher platform or helps you across a large gap. Because puzzles rely on either a keen eye or intuition, they’re incredibly satisfying to solve even if you get stumped occasionally.
By far the most arresting qualities about “Little Nightmares 2″ are its art and sound design. Every environment is unsettling, even in the smallest of ways. On a rainy street I found a suit, hat and tie, all perfectly placed and slumped on a bench, as if their wearer disappeared into thin air. Other moments are more explicit in their terrors, like a fumbling, massive creature chasing you, crushing every bed you crawl out from underneath. Every chase feels like a close call.
I was constantly awed by the attention to detail. For example, walking across an oversized piano, suspended in the air by two cords, would activate individual keys. When cords snapped and the piano fell, those same keys could still be played, but they were now out of tune. It’s easy to overlook, but that transition from functional to distorted and broken one reflects the game’s world: One with a demented sort of beauty.
A clever addition to “Little Nightmares 2″ is how you hear strange, vague sounds in the distance — like a rope tightening — but you’re not sure what it means, or exactly what it is. You have no choice but to follow the sound and confront it, yet you still feel helpless: the most terrifying of monsters can’t be defeated directly. You find them, run and hide, though there is more interaction between monster and player in comparison to the first game. Hiding doesn’t always save you, however. I once hid behind a fallen bookshelf in a school, thinking I’d be safe. Yet a horrifying, puppetlike schoolteacher found me by extending her neck to unnatural proportions to see behind the bookshelf, eating me alive. I still shudder at the thought.
In a hospital level, for example, your flashlight wards off living mannequins, who freeze in their tracks if you shine a light on them. Once they freeze, you carefully navigate around them, guide them toward traps or bait them toward a certain area to solve a puzzle. When entering a room full of mannequins, not all of them creak and squeak to life. Unpredictability only adds to the terror.
Some smaller monsters can be defeated by wielding a hammer, including disembodied hands or strange children wearing porcelain masks. The hammer, however, is large and tough to control; it scrapes across the ground as you hold the end of the handle. Every swing is slow, and it isn’t easy to land hits accurately. Though it can be frustrating to die frequently in these scenarios, with each death you hone your strategy to get the timing right, making it satisfying in the long run. Thankfully, checkpoints are generous too, never respawning you too far from where you left off.
Although the focus in “Little Nightmares 2″ is excellent gameplay, there is a surprisingly engaging story that ramps up in the latter half of the game. With no dialogue, the narrative is minimalist and focused on survival, though there are fascinating connections between the monstrous world and the characters within it.
“Little Nightmares 2″ shattered my expectations. I expected something scary, but the impeccable sound design, terrifying enemy encounters and clever puzzles make it worth revisiting, even after completion. This nightmarish experience has a lot to offer. Just don’t expect to get much sleep after playing.