At first blush, it can be hard to differentiate Little Nightmares II from its predecessor. The latest from Tarsier Studios runs the gamut of what’s expected in a sequel to the 2017 outing: a minuscule child navigates an atmospheric, dangerous world; a linear path occasionally halted by straightforward platforming and puzzles; hidden keys for locks; even more elevators. In fairness, Little Nightmares II does build upon the original, expanding its world and upping its terrors — while unfortunately including an addition that fizzles. It manages to complete what it set out to do: the game shines some desired light on the overarching mystery, while placing even more horrors in your way. But this time, you aren’t meeting the threats alone.
You play as Mono, a small boy with a filthy paper bag on his head (you can find more hats scattered throughout the game — I was fond of the coonskin hat, myself). He sets forth on his journey, beginning in a misty, overshadowed forest. Here is where you’re taught of the dangers ahead, and of patience. Pine cones thrown into piles of leaves are followed by the metallic snaps of bear traps that threaten to cut you in half. Welcome back.
Two by two
Despite the series’ hallmark for solitude, Little Nightmares II is rarely a solo outing. Past the gnarled trees and inside an abandoned house, you discover a familiar ally. Six, the protagonist of the first game, is found locked away and in apparent need of rescue. Of course, trust in this world doesn’t come easy, especially with a mysterious boy keen on hiding his identity.
It doesn’t take long for Six to realize that having someone watch your back is useful, and the two start off. However, even though Little Nightmares II often includes two characters onscreen at once, it’s not a co-op game. Six is a computer-controlled NPC, lending a hand when needed. She comes in to help push or pull heavy objects, solve puzzles, or pull you up while you dangle over a chasm.
No words between the two are ever exchanged, but if you watch Six closely, she can clue you in on some actions. She’ll sometimes walk over to objects that can be interacted with, offering a clear nod at what needs to be done. Granted, most puzzles in Little Nightmares II won’t cause you to break a sweat. However, having Six as a companion helps give you some edge in regard to survivability. For example, in the aforementioned forest, you get chased by a mutated, shotgun-wielding hunter. During your escape, Six will duck her head into the murky depths of a stinking pond. It’s wise to follow suit in these situations. Soon after, the hunter sweeps a torchlight across the pond, seeking a target.
The bumps in the night are breathing
Yet, the pursuing hunter is merely a tutorial, preparing you for the many dangers ahead. The world of Little Nightmares II is chock full of fresh and fun ways to die. Pitfalls, falling furniture, and the ever classic Home Alone-esque traps, like swinging buckets, threaten to snuff out your tiny life. Having Six to count on does indeed help, but it’s tough out there for a person small enough to fit under a derby hat. Traps are just the tip of the deadly iceberg. You still have to deal with the world’s terrifying and surreal denizens.
Little Nightmares II introduces you to a new host of, erm, nightmarish giants that want you dead. The game evokes survival horror in these situations. You must crouch down low and sneak past them, all the while hiding around corners or behind convenient boxes to avoid their gaze. Timing and composure are rewarded with you surviving to see the next room. Otherwise, these enemies will chase you down once you’re spotted. And they usually win, unless you’re quick and clever enough to get away safely. Running is your best defense, and you’ll want to run the moment the jig is up. As per the series’ norm, these “big people” are ghastly. That stretchy neck lady is going to be living rent-free in my brain for a while.
Despite your efforts, however, you will probably die in Little Nightmares II. A lot. Thankfully, checkpoints are forgiving, often dropping you off in the room just before the one in which you met your end. Death in the game is often a learning moment, allowing you to take stock of your missteps before you continue on.
A swing and a miss
On the subject of missteps, the side-scrolling platformer introduces an ability that causes it to trip up some. For reasons worth speculating, the game includes weapons. Hammers, axes, and pipes can be found on occasion, usually in rooms contextually designed for their use. Broken doors can be smashed in, but that’s only one function. There’s also combat. No, really.
It’s about as intuitive as you’d expect. Weapons have heft, and Mono, being such a smol boy, can’t exactly swing them with much urgency — even when it’s needed. You have to time your attacks when assailed by the game’s diminutive enemies, and it doesn’t always work as imagined. Whiffing against a foe could lead to an early death, but some of the time you have more than one chance.
However, the animations in Little Nightmares II, at least at the time of this writing, aren’t as finely tuned as they should be. Mono and Six animate beautifully. On the other hand, enemies can have rare situations where animation frames go missing. It’s one thing if you witness a larger enemy or piece of fabric jerk slightly, but it’s another when combat is involved. More than once I missed a swing and prepared to follow up, only for my attacker to suddenly snap into a takedown animation, seemingly warping across the short gap that separated us.
It’s just not fun. Smashing down the busted doors that populate the ruined world does make thematic sense. And there is a moment near the end of the game where weapons are more centric to the plot. Elsewhere, it feels shoehorned in as if to justify the inclusion later.
Although minor, I do have a bone to pick. I’m sure you recall my mention of running from enemies. Escaping pursuers does happen on occasion in Little Nightmares II. Mostly, your survival to the end of the sprint is done by trial and error. However, lightly brushing against walls or objects can halt you in your tracks. And in a game where a mistake is the line that separates life and death, these jarring stops can become frustrating. If you lose momentum after tapping against a wall, you may as well put the controller down and wait for the grisly end.
It will gaze back into you
My gripes, however, are minor when stacked up against what Little Nightmares II does so incredibly well: the atmosphere. Horror games live and die by their atmosphere — Little Nightmares II thrives in it. Its dark, apocalyptic world feels frozen in time, save for the slow collapse of ruined buildings. Shadows play at every angle of its blue-tinged environments, keeping your eyes darting around the screen for a hint of movement. Clothes lie empty and scattered on chairs and rafters, as if the last sane residents simply vanished into nothing. Decaying remains litter the ground under a cloud of buzzing flies. Moving across a room, you may freeze in place at the unmistakable sound of something being torn to shreds. Crouching low, you sneak up to a nearby door, slowly opening it on its creaking hinges to peer at the fresh terror beyond.
You do have new tools that help to literally shine light on your surroundings. Namely, Mono gets equipped with a flashlight, which is something that may come as a relief if you’ve played the first game. It’s much better than Six’s flip lighter, I’ll say that much. Just, you know, don’t shine it in people’s eyes. It’s rude, and not everyone in the game will take it kindly.
The game does include a juncture in which Mono must brave the dangers alone. Yes, unfortunately, Little Nightmares II can’t escape the uninspired “women in refrigerators” trope, and Mono goes off to rescue his comrade. However, these are times in which the atmosphere of the game is especially crushing. The dreadful isolation and Mono’s frailty are driven home when you have no one to watch your back.
Maybe the real horror is the friends we made along the way
A bit longer than its predecessor, Little Nightmares II has plenty of secrets, while offering a peek into its mystery — if you survive the journey. Not everything is explained, mind. The ending will be something players will speculate on for some time.
Though its issues may cause some apprehension, Little Nightmares II is still a trip worth taking. Just don’t trip too often; there’s usually something not far behind you.