Nightmares tend to tap into our specific waking fears. Little Nightmares, while quite vivid, lacks any such specificity, opting instead for short-lived atmospheric thrills. There’s no explanation given as to how the game’s tiny, genderless (possibly human-less), yellow-raincoat-wearing protagonist came to be in the bowels of a giant prison/pleasure ship, awakening in a coffin-like suitcase. There’s also no reason provided for why this hero chooses to venture out of the relative safety of that starting position, nestled somewhere deep within the ship, only to have to flee from the vessel’s grotesque crew. (Those loose and fleshy folds of skin bring Pan’s Labyrinth to mind, though Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen seems like another obvious inspiration.)
For the first two of its five brief chapters, the game thinly succeeds by turning the ordinary into the macabre as you scramble up the sides of corroded filing cabinets, ride the noose end of a pulley, and wade through a veritable ocean of cast-off shoes to safety. The superior Neverending Nightmares uses its frights to hint at its protagonist’s underlying psychosis. By contrast, Little Nightmares monomaniacally and superficially portrays its monsters as gruesome gluttons, without any cause to consider what might have made them so. Worse, aside from their menacing size, the game fails to distinguish the villains from the protagonist. We’re meant to be disgusted by the way in which these creatures sluggishly clamber and crawl over one another in an effort to gobble up the protagonist, and yet, once per level, players temporarily lose control of the character and are forced to watch as the hero does the same thing, slowly and inexplicably eating his or her way up the food chain from dead flesh to live rats and more.
If Little Nightmares is intent on tackling the theme of hunger throughout its campaign, then why is the game’s most prominent recurring motif that of an all-seeing eye? Sometimes that eye serves as a Medusa-like spotlight that players must sneak around, and sometimes it’s recklessly scrawled on the walls; in one case, a series of blackened handprints spill from beneath an eye’s lids like inky tears. In isolation, these images can be creepy, but as a whole, they’re unclear and inconsistent in their intent, and that’s a problem that persists through the game. For instance, one of the game’s earliest images is the sight of a giant’s legs, swinging above the chair from which he presumably hung himself, but this sort of self-harm seems totally at odds with that of all the other greedy monsters. The game never clarifies its morbid imagery, which makes the whole thing feel aimless and borderline tacky.
Little Nightmares is the equivalent of wax fruit, beautiful to look at from a distance but disappointing up close and ultimately functionless. Whereas the fully realized Inside uses its imagery, mechanics, and puzzles to communicate without words the loss of free will, this game remains coolly detached from any broader commentary—except perhaps for the way in which the generic puzzles speak to the protagonist’s faceless anonymity. None of this is helped by poor controls, which require too much tedious trial and error to overcome, especially in the stealth sequences, which are more hair-pulling than hair-raising. There’s no indication of when one of the human monsters can hear you, and it’s hard to tell which hiding spaces are considered to be in plain sight. The worst offenders are needlessly complex; in one sequence, players must not only use the noise of a cymbal-clashing monkey as a distraction, but they must be sure to throw it precisely far enough away, such that they have enough time to to get through the next room before the giant returns.
The game’s platforming is equally graceless, thanks to fixed camera angles that provide no depth perspective and a stubborn physics engine that frequently causes the player to get stuck on tiny objects, something that’s particularly irksome when your protagonist is trying to run away from some sort of danger. Even if the checkpointing was more forgiving and loading was less sluggish, this wouldn’t ameliorate some of these fundamentally flawed designs. The few genuinely clever puzzles, like one in which players must first fill a meat grinder so that they can crank out a chain of sausages on which to swing to freedom, only emphasize how lackluster the rest of the game is. Given that, Little Nightmares is fated to be the sort of dream that, forgotten before you even awaken, may as well have never existed in the first place.