As someone still relatively new to scary games, I’ve noticed that there tends to be at least two major actions associated with them: running and hiding. When you want the player to feel empowered in a typical action game, you give them lots of cool tools and gadgets to tackle baddies. But in horror games, where you want them to feel powerless, you give them just enough to survive on.
Such was the case for the majority of 2017’s Little Nightmares, in which players controlled a tiny raincoat-clad child, named Six, as they navigated a ship full of gluttonous, child-eating giants. With little to defend themselves against the monstrous fiends, players had to strategically plan exactly when and where they would hide or flee, lest they become the giants’ next meal.
Hiding and running are still key in Little Nightmares II, but so are other new actions. This time, we control another small child named Mono, who joins Six, now an A.I. companion, through a derelict town in which most of its giant-sized denizens are entranced by hypnotizing televisions. Using a similar premise, tone, set of mechanics and 2.5D perspective, Little Nightmares II sets itself up to be a by-the-numbers sequel to the original, adding a few new toys to play with and monsters to run from before calling it a day. By the end, however, I was impressed by how much more ambitious and varied this sequel is than its predecessor, despite not all of this ambition turning out for the better.
Like the original, the game never utters a line of cohesive dialogue, leaving it to the player to surmise the story based on context clues littered throughout. Despite never fully learning everyone’s motivations, especially those of Six, I was still invested in seeing that these two survived the horrors they faced.
With both having ratings of T for Teen by the ESRB, one would think these games would be a bit less scary than their M-rated counterparts. Although it’s true that we never see highly detailed blood or gore, I felt just as, if not more, disgusted playing through it than any scene from The Last of Us or the like. Both games take the perspective of a child, and as such, twist common childhood (and adult) fears into something hellish for all ages (although perhaps a bit too traumatizing for actual kids). Among the five main “bosses” encountered throughout the game, two include an abusive schoolteacher and a ceiling-crawling doctor, each of their respective locations containing hordes of troublemaking kids (who are actually plastic figures, unlike Mono and Six) and reanimated hands and body parts of the dead. In these ways, Little Nightmares II takes fears many of us held as children but have mostly cast aside in adulthood and makes them more terrifying than ever.
It’s not a constant fright fest, though. Like any good horror game, some of its tensest moments are when no active threats are near, but might be. Other moments are lighter, and the presence of a helpful companion in the form of Six means the sequel isn’t quite as isolating. At first, I was sad that a second player couldn’t take control of Six to help out, but it becomes apparent that Six mostly serves as another element of puzzle-solving within gameplay, being needed to get Mono to otherwise unreachable areas.
Death is scary because of the inherent fear of being caught (heightened by increasing intensity of the heartbeat-like “thump-thump” of the controller the closer you are to an enemy), but it’s seldom actually punishing. Since even minor hazards will take you down in one hit, Tarsier Studios has been liberal with the checkpoints, which load in seconds after each death even on the SSD-lacking Switch.
Unfortunately, the frequent checkpoints aren’t enough to avoid frustration with its imprecise controls, which actually have been improved upon the original but caused me more of headache thanks to its disproportionately more complex platforming segments. I would lose count of the times I would die due to missing a jump or ledge-grab in some segments, leading me to do the same activity ad nauseum until all the tension the game worked so hard to create was entirely deflated. A few puzzles near the end are also far trickier than anything in the first game, with one stumping me for nearly an hour before finally getting it. The jury’s still out on whether this is due to an unfair difficulty spike or just my own stupidity, though.
I’d also advise against playing the Switch version if other platforms are available, since the resolution is a bit lower on the platform and I ran into a handful of glitches which forced me to reload, which I hope are Switch-exclusive but I have no means of verifying. If that’s all you have, these issues didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the game by any means.
Despite these issues, Little Nightmares II’s best moments outshine even those of the original, especially while utilizing new mechanics such as using blunt objects for light combat sections and a particularly fun Portal-like mechanic added in its penultimate act. Its varied environments and encounters definitely scared me more than the original and one moment near its conclusion made me audibly gasp.
When Little Nightmares rolled its credits after just around four hours, many players were left asking, “That’s it?” Multiple times before Little Nightmares II rolled its credits, I thought, “That’s not it?” When producer Lucas Roussel shared that the game would be “definitely longer” than the original, I was at first worried they’d take previous feedback the wrong way and make the game too bloated. Fortunately, the only things bloated in the game are its monsters.
Little Nightmares II’s ambition makes the original look like its introduction, and although this added ambition contributes to some of its frustrations, they ultimately don’t prevent it from becoming even more clever, gripping and chilling than its predecessor.
Little Nightmares II was developed by Tarsier Studios and published by Bandai Namco Entertainment. Our review is based on the Switch version. It is also available for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, with versions optimized for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S coming later in 2021.
Joseph Stanichar is a freelance writer who specializes in videogames and pop culture. He’s written for publications such as Game Informer, Twinfinite and The Post. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.