Sometimes, less is more - but when it comes to games, it's not quite as simple. If anything, it's got to the point now where most games come under one of two polar opposite camps - it'll either be a happy Nintendo style game, with an extensive tutorial to help new players find their footing, or a minimalist indie style game, with no tutorial, no instructions, and nothing to explain how the game works. And as you can probably guess, Little Nightmares comes under that second category.
From the off, Little Nightmares is a game with a lot in common with Limbo. Both had next to nothing in the way of a story, both were heavily puzzle based, both had a similar minimalistic, "really really dark grey" colour scheme, and both had a thing for luring the player into cheap deaths (we'll come back to this later). Like its inspiration, Little Nightmares is a dark, brooding, puzzle based platformer that all but bypasses its story altogether. With literally nothing in the way of dialogue throughout, the game instead kicks off with an incredibly brief intro that shows you a woman in what looks like a Japanese style dress, who turns to look at you, as the screen promptly fades out. Shortly after, the game fades back in to show a girl in a yellow rain coat standing in a leaky room, at which point you're supposed to twig the game has begun, and it's time for you to start playing. There's no transition from the cutscene to the game, nothing in the way of an interface, and nothing at all to tell you you're now in control (you can tell it's one of those games...) - but perhaps more worryingly, there's also nothing in the way of a tutorial, either.
In terms of its gameplay, Little Nightmares has been designed to get your brain working, and reward the observant. With each room containing a puzzle of sorts, it's up to you to find your way around its world, making use of the sparse objects you find so you can reach higher platforms, flip switches, and generally make your way through the game's sinister world. Certain objects in the world can be climbed, moved, or interacted with - but with nothing that really marks them as such, and with most of the world being so dark, grim, and muddy, it can sometimes be hard to make out exactly what's what.
Many of the puzzles here rely on a great sense of timing. You'll need to swing from chains, and leap off at just the right time to scrabble onto a platform; pull a lever to start a platform moving, before sprinting and leaping onto it before it trundles away; or flip a switch to temporarily trip an electical circuit, giving you precious few seconds to slip through some electrified bars. With such an emphasis on timing and precision, it'd be nice if the controls did their bit to help - but unfortunately, the kind-of side on camera makes it harder than it should be to line up your jumps. Having scaled a lengthy chain, leapt onto a platform, and pulled a lever, only to end up plummeting to your doom all because the game made it nigh on impossible to line your jump up properly is frustrating at best.
As we touched on earlier, it also really doesn't help that the game has next to no tutorial. Your first moments with the game will be spent going backward and forwards down almost pitch black corridors, because the game hasn't bothered telling you you can press circle/B to whip out a lighter (why a young girl has a lighter in the first place is anyone's guess). To get out of the newly lit corridor, you'll have to duck through a vent - but the game doesn't tell you how to do that either. This one's especially annoying, because rather than being on any of the normal buttons, crouch here is on the left trigger - so you really need to be told to know where to find it. We ended up spending ages trying to get through by pressing square/X, which seemed to make the girl slightly squat, but it turns out that's actually the button to make her sprint instead. Makes sense.
Beyond the challenge from lining up your jumps, Little Nightmares gets its scares from the often giant, angry creatures that litter some of the game's rooms and hallways. Never is this more frustrating than in the second level, where you'll come across an enemy with no eyes, but a keen sense of smell, and arms that are so long it can reach across the room and snatch you off the ground before you've even so much as blinked. With no way to defend yourself, all you can do is run, with enemies often becoming a permanent thorn in your side - only a thorn that can kill you in a single hit.
It's frustrating, but it's not only the one hit kill enemies that annoy. Like Limbo before it, Little Nightmares does its best to try and trick you into making mistakes, often leading to unavoidable deaths. One of the earlier examples involves a petrifying light, which first slows your movement to a tiny crawl, and then turns you to stone if it focuses on you for more than a few seconds. With no warning it's there, the first you'll know about it is when it flicks on and claims you as its first victim - hardly fair, and hardly fun.
While the game does at least have fairly regular checkpoints, even these are often just that little bit too far apart, forcing you to trudge through several rooms, and do some equally tricky platforming before you reach the thing you stumbled on the first time. And while there are also lots of lanterns you can light as you make your way through the game, we're still not entirely sure what they do. We had assumed they were some sort of save point, but as you never seem to start from anywhere near them, your guess is probably as good as ours - and again, there's nothing that actually tells you what anything does.
But perhaps one of the biggest areas that Little Nightmares seems to be lacking in is its story. A good story is a huge part of what makes a horror games scary, or creates that atmosphere of oppression. In Little Nightmares, you know you're playing as a little girl in a yellow raincoat, but you have no idea who she is, why she's there, where you are, or what you're meant to be doing. Without any reason to relate or sympathise with the lead character, and with no real motive, you end up simply not really caring all that much, because the game's given you literally no reason to do so. It's not an intriguing mystery that'll keep you questioning until the end - it's something you won't really care to find the truth out about in the first place.
Despite its budget price, Little Nightmares is a game it's hard to recommend. With less of an atmosphere than the screens and trailers may have you believe, next to nothing in the way of a story, frustrating one-hit kill enemies, awkward controls and an overly minimalist interface (not to mention a tutorial that's gone MIA), this is a game that sadly falls somewhat short of the mark. Kudos to Bandai Namco for taking a risk on something different, but it's a gamble that hasn't quite paid off this time.