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Little Nightmares series [2017-2021 -- Tarsier Studios]

Started by Doc_Brown, Jul 07, 2023, 11:57 PM

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I'm a fan of the cinematic platformer genre, particularly anything in the vein of 1991's Out of this World*.  Flashback was the closest at the time, but it wouldn't be until Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee six years later that we got something more similar.  That series, in turn, was seemingly the sole standard bearer until Playdead came along and gave us Limbo in 2010, really kickstarting a renaissance in the (sub) genre.

*Note: I've never minded that they changed the name for the North American release.  One, because it works on multiple levels, and two, because Another World (the title elsewhere) would have made for a better name for the sequel than Heart of the Alien.

Something that distinguishes Limbo, Inside, and the Little Nightmares series from their predecessors, though, is their protagonists.  They're all children, you see, whereas the player characters of yore are all adults (Jumpship's Somerville also features an adult lead, which I suspect is partly why it wasn't as well received).  Making the grown-ups the bad guys heightens the stakes in a way the others just can't replicate.

The exception there, of course, is Limbo, which doesn't feature any adults whatsoever, not even evidence that they once existed.  As much as I like the game, particularly its aesthetic, I feel this is one of the things holding it back compared to its contemporaries.  Mind you, a game where the grown-ups were wiped out or taken away could still work, but I feel that element of the narrative would need to be explicit.

The other thing holding Limbo back is its more deliberately dreamlike nature.  The strength of Inside and the Little Nightmares games is that, no matter how bizarre things get, there's still the feeling that it would make sense if you only knew what was going on.  With Limbo, you get the impression that it isn't supposed to make sense, which ends up making it feel like nothing that happens ultimately matters.

But enough rambling, this is supposed to be about Little Nightmares.  I chose to focus on this series, despite being 2.5D versus the others in 2D, precisely because it's a series.  Taken as a whole, this means there's more to it, something like eleven hours of total playtime altogether, compared to the three-and-a-half hours Limbo and Inside have to offer (unless you want to treat them like a double feature).

What's interesting to me about the series is how each entry (and I'm including the first game's DLC as one) feels distinct from the others, despite all taking place in the same world.  While there are some great enemies early on in Little Nightmares, the game really gets into its groove later on with the Chefs and the Guests, emphasizing ravenous hunger as its theme, and culminating in a final battle versus The Lady, who's behind it all.

The DLC, Secrets of the Maw, feels like it's more focused on those other elements, bringing back the Janitor* and, possibly, the Shoe Monster (The Granny behaves almost identically, and since you never see the Shoe Monster...).  Six, the original protagonist, carries a lighter, while the DLC's PC gets a flashlight, and though you can see further with it you lose the ability to illuminate your immediate surroundings.

*Note: While this is technically his name, I prefer to call him the Custodian because, much like Out of this World, I like how the name has a double meaning the other doesn't.

Little Nightmares 2, meanwhile, moves the action from the cramped confines of the Maw to the expansive Pale City.  Well, technically it starts in a forest, seemingly as a nod to Limbo and Inside which do the same.  As such, lighting is less of an issue (you do get a flashlight briefly), with the protagonist Mono instead being able to defend himself with melee weapons (and later on a remote control—it makes sense in context).

You're also not alone this time, being joined by Six.  Her AI is surprisingly good, and you can even hold hands like a dark version of Ico.  The antagonists start out a little weaker than the other entries, but things pick up in the latter half of the game.  While some of the gameplay beats can feel similar to Secrets of the Maw, they're somewhat better executed, as though the DLC was a trial run for them.

On the negative side of things, this entire genre is based around trial and error.  Until you figure out what the game wants from you, you're going to die repeatedly, and how much of that you're willing to put up with will come down to how much you like these worlds.  Little Nightmares is a little worse off in this regard due to being 2.5D, which can make some of the precision jumping more difficult than it otherwise would be.

As a closing note, I never realized that Tarsier Studios were the ones behind the cancelled City of Metronome, though it seems obvious now.  In a way I'm glad, because we might not have gotten Little Nightmares otherwise.  Maybe they'll incorporate more elements from that defunct title into the next game.  Of these cinematic platformers, it seems to be the one best situated for multiple entries, and I for one am all for it.
Roads?  Where we're going we don't need roads.