There’s something very special about spooky stories with a specific childlike innocence. Threading the needle between the whimsy that Tim Burton built his career on and the kind of spooks that won’t scar you for life is an exquisite brew, and when you get it right, you can make a lifelong horror fan out of any impressionable young kid. Little Nightmares II – a puzzle-platformer with a preference for the ghoulish – trades in exactly this balancing act, playing like a series of short stories ripped from the scariest dream journal ever written.
As a follow-up to 2017’s Little Nightmares, the world of Little Nightmares II extends far beyond the original game’s setting, which saw players navigating through ‘The Maw’, an enormous sea vessel with dark purpose. Opening in a misty forest (a far cry from the damp dank Maw, and a reminder of games like Playdead’s Inside), Little Nightmares II immediately steps up the series’ sense of scale, seeking to answer the question of just how messed up the world of Little Nightmares can be if something like ‘The Maw’ exists within it. Little Nightmares II wastes no time setting the pace, with the opening chase sequence taking place across shadowy fields of grass and inky black swamps while you avoid the searchlight of a particularly eager hunter, who will gladly shotgun apart whatever cover you manage to shelter behind.
Soon enough though, you’ll find yourself on the shores of Pale City, which is the setting of the majority of the game. At first sight, the city towers over you like so many other monsters before it. Its architecture is foreboding and grim, a new terror in and of itself for your duo of new characters Mono and Six, the latter of which was the protagonist of the previous game.
Enough praise cannot be given to the evocative level design of Little Nightmares, and the same goes for this entry. No matter what fresh hell you find yourself stumbling into, Little Nightmares II’s levels feel like they’d be equally at home within a particularly spooky pop-up picture book as they are in the games environment, with its stylised vision of a city succumbing to mysterious ruin full of environmental storytelling and details, which horrifically tease just what the hell happened in Pale City without a single piece of written or spoken dialogue. However, where the original wasn’t afraid to add splashes of colour to its environmental design palette, large portions of Little Nightmares II are bathed in deep, ghostly blues and greys, owing to the lifelessness of Pale City.
There’s an overall more sorrowful tone to Little Nightmares II. Where the monsters in the original game took on an almost comedic quality as they struggled to capture Six in her dazzlingly yellow raincoat, the threats here have a far nastier edge to them, sometimes even carrying an air of tragedy.
A lot of these have unfortunately been shown already in trailers and promotion for the game, so if you’re not wise to the dangers lurking within Pale City, do yourself a favour and stay that way. Ignorance is bliss, or in this case, terror. There are chases and stealth sections aplenty, but the moments where Little Nightmares II asks you to take a more – how should we say – direct approach to survival is a welcome change of pace.
Mono is able to use lead pipes and ball-peen hammers to defend himself, hoisting them up at one end and dragging them along the ground like a nine-year-old wielding a greatsword and, as with games like Dark Souls, it all comes down to the timing. Swing too early – or too late – and you’re toast, but get it right and you’ll be rewarded with the satisfying crunch of your enemy. As a new addition it’s hit or miss (pun intended), simply due to the diminishing returns of failing a combat encounter and having to restart, however Little Nightmares II isn’t drenched in combat, and you’ll still be running away far more than you’re smashing skulls… or fingers. More ways to interact with the world are added deeper into the game, like a flashlight and a remote to control televisions, but we won’t reveal too much about them here, suffice to say they’re used in unexpected ways and, unfortunately, are discarded too quickly.
“There’s an overall more sorrowful tone to Little Nightmares II.“
New mechanics aren’t the only thing that aren’t given enough time to breathe. While Little Nightmares II is touted as twice the length of the original game, it doesn’t feel twice as long, perhaps owing to the myriad navigation and platform sections in empty apartment buildings which seem to pad out the game’s length, but don’t leave much of an impression. There were times where we half expected to be hunted again by a monster that we thought we’d escaped hours ago, but Little Nightmares II is more interested in getting to the next set piece than it is in making its unstoppable monsters feel truly threatening outside of their defined areas or truly surprising you.
As a sequel to the 2017 original, Little Nightmares II does a fantastic job of delivering spooks, puzzles, and beautifully grim environments in equal measure. We did wish that it broke outside of its tried-and-true platform-puzzle-chase gameplay loop a little more often and subverted our expectations, but it still stands as a solid entry in the series, and we can’t wait to see where things go from here.
Little Nightmares II is available February 11 on Switch, PS4 and Xbox One.