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This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Little Nightmares II.

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Transcript[]

Longtime viewers will know we've had a lot of fun here at the Zero Punctuation Combination Waterslide Park/Sewage Treatment Facility with the running gag that virtually every arty indie game is basically about a small child being lost in a scary world, probably because they're frequently made by tech nerds new to the industry, having to face the fact that it might finally be time to get a real job and figure out how to do their own laundry. Which also explains why the games are usually highly unsubtle metaphors for something from the standard list of tech nerd mental health issues: anxiety, depression, isolation, the fact that nice girls don't want to touch them.

In the past, I've occasionally stretched the criteria for "small child, scary world" to include indie games like Bastion, Braid, and Ori and the Blind Forest in order to continue claiming to be right in my adorably small-minded way, but absolutely no stretching is necessary for this week's subject; oh, dear me, no! Little Nightmares wears "small child, scary world" like a set of custom-fit pajamas, throws a big, comfortable duvet of oppressive atmosphere over itself, and goes to sleep. It uses all the tropes, even the really on-the-nose ones like "main character wears a hooded coat" and "soundtrack featuring sad children singing like the evil landlord just sold all their gruel vouchers". I might go as far to say that it officially takes Limbo's crown as the ur-example of "small child, scary world", since Limbo's pseudo-sequel Inside kind of gave it up when it transitioned from "small child, scary world" to "GIBBER, GIBBER, NONSENSE, NONSENSE, WEETABIX WITH LEGS!"

Little Nightmares II, I should say, which is the new one, but in general terms, the two games don't differ much, and I never reviewed the first because... I don't know; let's say a zeppelin crashed into my house, so might as well lump them together. They're both extremely creepy games about a tiny child with a big head navigating a sequence of horror setpieces and blatantly unfair traps as they continually physics platform their way in a rightward direction in the classic Limbo style, all drenched in an oppressive atmosphere of thick, slimy dread where anything might leap out and bite you off at the ankles at any moment, like a shark-infested gravy boat; only real difference is that II is a prequel to I, establishing the long-speculated-on backstory of the main character's raincoat. Spoiler alert: she found it in a puddle. Whoops, better update the wiki!

Which should more or less indicate that this isn't a game whose appeal hinges on the plot; there isn't much of one besides "small child wants something that, for whatever reason, is really far off to the right somewhere". There are little nuggets of background storytelling establishing some things about the setting but raise further questions - "Why are the funny noises coming out of the TV?"; "Why are all the adults hostile and look like characters from an Eastern European stop motion animated film apparently specifically designed to traumatize poorly-supervised children?" - but the thing is, the point of playing the game is not to resolve the plot, but to exist within that world for a while and drink in its atmosphere, which is, rather effectively and convincingly, like that of a nightmare. There you go; that's the plot. It's a nightmare; even gave it away in the title. It's all a nightmare and it doesn't have to make sense, so don't worry so much about that wiki after all.

In terms of building that experience, Little Nightmares rarely puts a foot wrong; it takes everyday, mundane settings and people and soaks them in liquid grotesque until they're all sodden and bloated, like an Edvard Munch painting that was hung over a steam vent. The environments are beautifully realized; the monstrous adults all look like papier-mâché projects your kids brought home from school and that you have to pretend are cute, and all the little details are spot-on, from the sound of their labored breathing to the way they jerkily animate like they just drank ten pints and are trying to remember which way's the floor and which way's the ceiling. And the animation of the main character, too; the way they scamper along with their head bowed like they're trying to get through a public park at night without being noticed by the scary teenagers.

So on the whole, the setting and atmosphere hit the mark like a boxer who hates people named Mark. ...Fuck you; I had writer's block. In fact, one might call Little Nightmares a game that's 100% atmosphere, because the moment you try to engage with it on a story or gameplay level, then it sort of stares blankly at you for a moment before a sweaty fat man chases you into a mousehole again.

As I said, the "challenge" aspect of the game is basically a sequence of traps where the objective is generally "make exactly the right movements or die and start again" which, in the abstract, is about as fun as playing Operation in a Parkinson's ward. There are chasey bits, where the monster catches up and stuffs you into a pita bread if you're not immediately sprinting in the right direction when it starts; there are combat-y bits, where you have to swing a melee weapon at precisely the moment an enemy is pouncing or get your head caved in on a floorboard; and stealthy bits, where you get spotted and eaten if you so much as startle a flatulent aphid, which leads to some moments having to be replayed and replayed, and dread gives way to boredom, gives way to anger, gives way to quitting, gives way to the right at a mini-roundabout.

I don't know how one fixes this. It's the classic horror game paradox: the threat of sudden death is necessary for creating the feel of being a little ant postman trying to deliver mail to Mrs. Trapdoor Spider's house, but the moment that sudden death actually happens, all the tension disappears, and each subsequent death as you struggle to get past the challenge is like the game continuing to stab an already-stabbed balloon. I suppose, ideally, you'd want to design it so the player escapes by the skin of their teeth each time, but that's a tough balance, because some players have slower reflexes, or are trying to play while hiding behind the sofa cushions.

Of course, one thing that might help is to not have us wrestle with the physics engine the whole way through. Why'd you have to add the third dimension to the "keep pressing right" Limbo formula? Uh-oh, three-dimensional movement plus platforming plus fixed cameras equals the square root of a faceful of piss. There's a bit where you have to jump off a ladder onto a rope that dangles from above, and there's absolutely no frame of reference for where that rope is, precisely, and you can only blindly hope it's positioned so that a jump straight off the ladder will hit it, which it turns out it wasn't if you've moved an inch or two to the left. And then when you're on the rope, whether you're swinging towards the next ledge or Skull Fracture City is a matter the game might as well be deciding with a Ouija board.

For me, Little Nightmares shows a stark contrast; much of its imagery and setpieces will come back to you, especially if you eat petrol station sausage rolls just before going to bed, but they're the only things that will, because the gameplay's as deep as a very disappointing pie. ...I had writer's block again; fuck you.

Addenda[]

  • Not so little these days: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
  • It'd have been even more convincingly like my nightmares if there'd been a bit where you have to justify your choice of careers to a praying mantis with my mum's voice
  • But what about scary children in small worlds
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2007
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2009
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2010
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2011
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Q2 Pokémon White · Yakuza 4 · Crysis 2 · Nintendo 3DS · Portal 2 · Castlevania: Symphony of the Night · Mortal Kombat · Brink · L.A. Noire · The Witcher 2 · Hunted: The Demon's Forge · Duke Nukem Forever (for real this time) · InFamous 2
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2012
Q1 Serious Sam 3: BFE · Top 5 of 2011 · Super Mario 3D Land & Rayman Origins · Sonic Generations · Star Wars: The Old Republic · Amy · Resident Evil: Revelations · Darkness 2 · Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning · NeverDead · Syndicate · Mass Effect 3 · Twisted Metal
Q2 Yakuza: Dead Souls · Ninja Gaiden 3 · Silent Hill: Downpour · Kid Icarus: Uprising · Fez and I Am Alive · Prototype 2 · Risen 2: Dark Waters · Sniper Elite V2 · Diablo 3 · Max Payne 3 · Dragon's Dogma · E3 2012 · Lollipop Chainsaw
Q3 Quantum Conundrum · Spec Ops: The Line · Walking Dead · Inversion · The Amazing Spider-Man · Half-Life · Wreckateer and Deadlight · Steam Roundup · Sleeping Dogs · Darksiders 2 · DayZ · Guild Wars 2
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2013
Q1 Top 5 of 2012 · Paper Mario: Sticker Star · Black Knight Sword & Hotline Miami · Anarchy Reigns · DMC: Devil May Cry · The Cave · Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch · Dead Space 3 · Aliens: Colonial Marines · Crysis 3 · Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance · Tomb Raider · SimCity
Q2 The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct · BioShock Infinite · Lego City Undercover · Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon · Injustice: Gods Among Us · Star Trek · Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon · System Shock 2 · Metro: Last Light · Next Gen Buyer's Guide · Fuse · Remember Me · E3 2013
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2014
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Q2 Titanfall · InFamous: Second Son · Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes · The Elder Scrolls Online · South Park: The Stick of Truth · FTL: Faster Than Light · Child of Day-Light · The Amazing Spider-Man 2 · Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure · Wolfenstein: The New Order · WATCH DOGS · E3 2014 · Murdered: Soul Suspect
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2015
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Q3 Alone in the Dark: Illumination · Batman: Arkham Knight · Yoshi's Woolly World · Cave Story · Godzilla · Rocket League & Tembo the Badass Elephant · King's Quest: A Knight to Remember · Nom Nom Galaxy & Freedom Planet · Everybody's Gone To The Rapture · Volume · Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain · Mad Max · Gears of War Ultimate Edition · Until Dawn
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2016
Q1 Top 5 Games of 2015 · Devil's Third · Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam · Assassin's Creed Chronicles · Xenoblade Chronicles X · The Witness & Bombshell · Gravity Rush · XCOM 2 · Firewatch & Layers of Fear · Far Cry Primal · Stardew Valley & SUPERHOT · The Division · Salt and Sanctuary
Q2 Republique · Shadow Warrior · Quantum Break · Dark Souls III · Ratchet & Clank · Star Fox Zero · Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door · Uncharted 4: A Thief's End · Doom · Homefront: The Revolution · Overwatch & Battleborn · Mirror's Edge: Catalyst · E3 2016
Q3 Mighty No. 9 · Inside & Shadow of the Beast · The Technomancer · Furi & Song of the Deep · I Am Setsuna · Headlander & Quadrilateral Cowboy · Quake · No Man's Sky · Grow Up · Deus Ex: Mankind Divided · Metroid Prime: Federation Force · The Curious Expedition & Mother Russia Bleeds · ReCore
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2017
Q1 Top 5 Games of 2016 · Let It Die · Dead Rising 4 · Hitman · Gravity Rush 2 · Resident Evil 7 · Yakuza 0 · Nioh · For Honor · Nintendo Switch & Breath of the Wild · Horizon Zero Dawn · Nier Automata · Ghost Recon Wildlands
Q2 Mass Effect Andromeda · Yooka-Laylee · Persona 5 · Remastered Editions · Outlast 2 · Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3 · Prey · Wilson's Heart · The Surge · Injustice 2 · Vanquish · E3 2017 · Strafe
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2018
Q1 Top 5 of 2017 · Okami HD · PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds · Fortnite and Dusk · Doki Doki Literature Club! · The Inpatient and Doom VFR · Monster Hunter World · Subnautica · Kingdom Come: Deliverance · Metal Gear Survive · Hot Coffee · Hunt Down The Freeman · Ghost of a Tale
Q2 A Way Out · Far Cry 5 · Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom · Extinction and Attack on Titan 2 · God of War 4 · Yakuza 6: The Song of Life · Silent Hill 4: The Room · Conan Exiles · House Flipper and FAR: Lone Sails · Detroit Become Human · Agony · E3 2018 · Vampyr
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Q4 Dragon Quest XI · Star Control: Origins · Assassin's Creed Odyssey · Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 · Return of the Obra Dinn · The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories · Red Dead Redemption 2 · Call of Cthulhu · Fallout 76 · Hitman 2 and Killer7 · Darksiders III · Just Cause 4
2019
Q1 Top 5 of 2018 · Super Smash Bros. Ultimate · Gris and Ashen · Katamari Damacy Reroll · Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes · Resident Evil 2 · Kingdom Hearts III · Metro Exodus · Far Cry New Dawn · Anthem · Crackdown 3 · Left Alive · Devil May Cry 5
Q2 The Division 2 · Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice · Unheard and Outward · Yoshi's Crafted World · Mortal Kombat 11 · Katana Zero · Days Gone · Close to the Sun · Rage 2 · Observation · A Plague Tale: Innocence · E3 2019 · Blood: Fresh Supply
Q3 Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night · Judgment · The Sinking City · My Friend Pedro and Sea of Solitude · Acclaim Entertainment Hall of Shame · Wolfenstein: Youngblood · Horace · Rebel Galaxy Outlaw · Control · The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan · Remnant: From The Ashes · Blair Witch · Gears 5
Q4 Astral Chain · Contra: Rogue Corps · Ghost Recon Breakpoint · Indivisible · The Outer Worlds · Call of Duty: Modern Warfare · Luigi's Mansion 3 · Death Stranding · Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order · Shenmue III · 2019 Games I Haven't Reviewed Roundup · Phoenix Point & Bug Fables
2020
Q1 Top 5 of 2019 · The 2010s' Most Significant Games · Boneworks · MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries & Wattam · Journey to the Savage Planet · The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners · Kentucky Route Zero · Zombie Army 4: Dead War · Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem · Dreams · Doom Retrospective · Black Mesa · Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Q2 Doom Eternal · Half-Life: Alyx · Resident Evil 3 · Animal Crossing: New Horizons · Final Fantasy VII Remake · XCOM: Chimera Squad · Cloudpunk & Streets of Rage 4 · World of Warcraft: The Corrupted Blood Incident · Ion Fury & Void Bastards · Maneater · Minecraft Dungeons · Shantae and the Seven Sirens · Desperados III
Q3 The Last of Us Part II · Persona 4 Golden · Stadia · Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise · Paper Mario: The Origami King · Ghost of Tsushima · Carrion & Beyond a Steel Sky · Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout · Mortal Shell · Spiritfarer · No Straight Roads & Battletoads · Marvel's Avengers · BPM: Bullets Per Minute · Serious Sam 4
Q4 Hades · Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time · Amnesia: Rebirth · Remothered: Broken Porcelain · Ghostrunner · Watch Dogs: Legion · The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope · Assassin's Creed Valhalla · Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales · Yakuza: Like a Dragon · Immortals Fenyx Rising · Cyberpunk 2077
2021
Q1 Top 5 of 2020 · Bugsnax and Super Meat Boy Forever · Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond · Demon's Souls (Remake) · Hitman 3 · The Medium · Werewolf: The Apocalypse - Earthblood · Little Nightmares II · Breathedge · Persona 5 Strikers · Harvest Moon: One World · Loop Hero and Everhood · Evil Genius 2: World Domination
Q2 Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town · Outriders · Oddworld: Soulstorm · It Takes Two · Balan Wonderworld · Resident Evil Village · Returnal · Biomutant · Subnautica: Below Zero · Miitopia · Necromunda: Hired Gun · Sniper: Ghost Warrior Contracts 2 · Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
Q3 Scarlet Nexus · Mario Golf: Super Rush & Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights · Ys IX: Monstrum Nox · Cruelty Squad · Death's Door and The Forgotten City · The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles · Dreamscaper and Jupiter Hell · Twelve Minutes · No More Heroes III · Psychonauts 2 · Tormented Souls and The Artful Escape · Deathloop
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