Many of my all-time favorite horror games can’t quite hold a candle to the macabre scenery of Tarsier Studios’ Little Nightmares, the 2017 puzzle-platformer that looks and plays as if the Laika Animation team went rogue and really tried to traumatize its family-movie demographic. While the first lacked much buzz leading up to launch, it was well-received afterward, leaving some sizable shoes for a sequel to fill. And Little Nightmares 2 fills them quite well. While it’s perhaps no better than the original overall, it’s also not really any worse. With a few interesting innovations and a greater sense of storytelling, there’s every reason to believe Tarsier’s sequel will keep you up at night just like the first one did.
In Little Nightmares 2, players take on the role of a new suffering child, Mono, though Six and her now iconic yellow raincoat do return to join you on most of your travels. Where the first game trapped players on the Maw, a brooding ship out at sea, seemingly fated to float adrift forever, the sequel washes players ashore in the Pale City, a setting that feels more expansive and vast, even if levels themselves are on par with the first game’s.
As the name suggests, the engine that keeps Little Nightmares 2 moving runs on the fumes of pervasive thoughts, bad dreams, and downright night terrors all through an innocence-lost childlike lens. Pale City is home to a decrepit schoolhouse full of wooden students who do their rubbernecked librarian’s bidding. The hospital houses a predator who scurries along the walls, picking apart the parts of left-behind prosthetic limbs. Each spot along this new nightmare feels like the unraveling of a child’s mind in those moments where they’re alone in their room and can’t get to bed for the shape of the shadow lining their wall.
The enemies in Little Nightmares 2 feel slightly less inspired than the cooks, gluttons, and others from the original, and this is most apparent in the game’s first setting where players escape a hunter with an admittedly unnerving burlap sack over his face much like an early Jason Voorhees. But there’s much less to be scared about when it comes to his hunting rifle as compared to, say, the otherworldly appendages of the janitor. No matter how loud those shots ring out, a gun just isn’t as scary in a horror story, as illogical as it sounds. Horror stories get this typically, which is why so few slashers and monsters carry firearms. Later enemies, especially the last two whom I won’t spoil, are much stronger though, and feel more akin to the quality of villains in the series debut.
Little Nightmares 2 is a sidescroller, but even calling it 2.5D seems off. There’s once more a lot of space to work with, as players can move far from away from the camera and even manipulate it a bit manually to get a better look at threats ahead or chasing you from behind. As before, this results in a few depth perception issues, as the Z axis can be hard to judge at times, but the developers seem to understand this and tend to work within their limitations. There’s a greater sense of defense in the sequel too. Virtually every puzzle in the first game demanded players run for their lives, but in the sequel, you’ll often lure enemies one way only to smash them to bits with a metal spoon or hammer when they’re distracted.
Be it these weapon-wielding puzzles or more typical platforming, escaping the clutches of the monsters often involves some frustrating trial and error where you have just enough time to move perfectly or else get stuck. Experiment, or simply delay, and you’ll hit the game over screen. As annoying as that can be, each scene is set smartly to subconsciously guide the player through in that first go, and when it comes together and you narrowly evade some hideous threat, Little Nightmares 2 is as thrilling as ever. As with the previous game, it feels boom or bust. Do it right and it’s an unforgettable tour of a macabre museum. Slip up, and you may soon find yourself washing out the thrill before getting through it. At least on new consoles, the load times are virtually nonexistent, which makes dying much more tolerable than it used to be in this series.
When the game does give players a breather, the puzzles are satisfying because the answers often hide in plain sight. Full of “aha!” moments, Little Nightmares 2 would much rather scare you than confuse you, but it successfully mixes in puzzles, secrets, and fun collectibles for the completionists to indulge in during those rare moments when some unfathomable terror isn’t scratching at their heels.
The same somewhat unwieldy controller scheme and heaviness return from the first game. It seems to take a second too long to get into a full-speed sprint and those weapons you wield can hardly be wielded at all, with the weight of them really coming through with every button press. The first time around, I felt the game’s default controls were a flaw, but in the sequel, I grew to appreciate them. Like Silent Hill 2 or the survival horror games of old, a moment is enhanced when you don’t feel like you have totally reliable control over your actions. Nothing is broken, it’s just purposely cumbersome, but four years since I first tried, I find it’s better for it.
As up and down as those gameplay decisions can feel, the story feels more important and fascinating, building on the strange lore of this nightmare world. Before Little Nightmares 2, I’d have believed there is no unifying logic to the story universe, that all things seen and heard are there simply because they unsettle the player the most. But Little Nightmares 2 seems to have something to say beneath its persistent superficial goosebumps, and the third act’s heavy lifting in this regard is intriguing to see unfold.
Seemingly inspired by both Slender Man and It Follows in different ways, Little Nightmares 2 may be revealing a puzzle the player never knew they were solving. It’s certainly a series in which I’d love – and expect – to see another game from in the future. There’s still more to discover, and despite my guttural reaction to its grotesque world, I wanted to see it all.
Darkly enchanting in its disquieting art direction and twisted lullaby of a story, Little Nightmares 2 feels like a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It’s not a sequel that moves the series forward all that much, though it’s also fair to say it doesn’t play it safe. It takes some risks, narratively and otherwise, and they work out more often than not.
You’ll struggle to lose sight of its monstrous creatures even after the credits roll, as you find yourself dwelling on what it may all mean. Little Nightmares 2 pulls players into its in-between, peeking through the veil of safety and security toward something innately upsetting, but also mesmerizing. Even when you can’t run away fast enough, it’s just as hard to look away at all.
Little Nightmares 2 review code for Xbox One provided by the publisher.
Little Nightmares 2 is out February 11 on Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch, and PC.