While other horror games are still trying to wrap their heads around it, Little Nightmares 2 understands modern horror. The Babadook, Midsommar, Get Out, Hereditary… these modern horror classics have eschewed jump scares and gore in favour of slowly building chills, unsettling atmospheres, and a constant sense of dread. Little Nightmares 2, much like its predecessor, weaves all of these feelings through its gameplay while others in the genre are still focusing on things that go bump in the night.
Speaking of wrapping your head around things, Little Nightmares 2 serves up what I’m pretty sure even in early February will be my biggest video game scare of the year. You play as a small boy, Mono, trying to make his way through a world full of oversized, monstrous grown-ups, and one of these grown-ups is a strict, elderly school teacher. That alone is enough to make me scared, so imagine my terror when her neck starts to slither out from her shoulders with a deeply sinister twitch.
The only way to survive is by hiding or outrunning her, while she tries to gobble you up like a snake. Eventually, it becomes a little overused and loses its sting, but the game always seems to know when a monster’s terror has become diluted, and shuffles them out for a new beast. There are a few times when it holds on for just a bit too long, and the once terrifying creature becomes just a bunch of annoying pixels you’re sick of escaping, but for the most part the balance is right.
Even when the game over-eggs it a bit, you have to give it credit for how much variation it squeezes into levels which, at first glance, seem incredibly similar. It’s hard to find a screenshot that doesn’t have a greyish-blue hue, deliberately underlit, with one small glow around the player character and something ugly and lumpy looming in the shadowy background. It commits to this aesthetic in nearly every frame, and just looking at the images in isolation, you’d be forgiven for thinking the art style would get old after a while. However, thanks to some intelligent level design puzzles and a relatively short runtime, it never really does.
This is helped by the fact the set pieces are so strange and compelling that they become the centre of attention. As well as the snake-necked school teacher, there’s the old horror staple of the walls of grabbing hands, as well as a bizarre puzzle where you need to find different chess piece toppers to complete the set. The king’s topper, rather than the wooden ornament, is instead a—possibly once living—puppet boy, slumped over the chess piece, eyes closed, limbs roped in place, with a small yellow crown on his head.
I didn’t scream when I saw this nightmarish chess game, and unless you have a phobia of chess, I doubt you will either. But it’s the perfect example again of why Little Nightmares 2 is such an excellent horror game. It’s not about making you scream, it’s not even really about making you frightened. It’s about taking the idea of a nightmare, all the unusual fears our brains can vomit up in the night, and mixing them together with one core idea: nobody likes being chased by something bigger than them.
While “it’s a chase game” is a simplistic reduction of what Little Nightmares 2 is—and doing so ignores the great puzzle aspects of the game—it’s definitely built around the notion of wringing every ounce of creativity possible out of relatively simple gameplay loops.
The aesthetic plays a big part in elevating the game’s inherent creepiness, building a foreboding sensation with each footstep. It’s tempting to keep focusing on the visuals, but the gameplay doesn’t just exist to lead you from one scene to the next. It offers very little instruction or handholding (apart from a literal handholding mechanic with your partner, Six), but that suits the eerie tones, and such trust in the player is welcome. Six is basically there to help you complete puzzles, give you general hints when you’re stuck, and protecting her drives a lot of the narrative, loose though it may be.
Little Nightmares 2 makes the most of open spaces. Since it’s a 2.5D affair, there are times when you can wander off into the background and explore, sometimes finding hidden collectibles or easter eggs nestled away. There are still limits to this—the camera remains fixed and eventually you’ll hit an invisible wall—but it makes the levels feel more like actual places and not like simple A to B throughlines as some sections can feel like in other sidescrollers.
The puzzles make the most of space too, though in a very different way. While exploration makes the levels more expansive than they initially appear to be, the puzzles often happen in small, truncated spaces. This makes it much easier to explore every nook and cranny for that hidden key, that secret lever, that solution satanically scrawled on the wall in erratic chalk markings. As a result, even the more elaborate ones never get too frustrating, because you always know the solution is here somewhere.
Unfortunately, whether it happens in big spaces or small spaces, the combat is pretty bad. Thankfully, it’s used sparingly, but if you ever have to fight your way out of a situation, prepare to be endlessly frustrated. That’s because all the melee weapons you’re provided with are too big for you, so you have to drag them across the floor, heave them up, then crash them down. With some enemies swarming you or jumping at you rapidly, it’s just too slow.
Little Nightmares 2 gets most things right, from the unsettling atmosphere and brilliant character design to the fascinating puzzles, but the combat is a swing and a (very slow) miss. It’s a game which pulls you into the shadows, knowing how to get scares without slapstick horror. It hits on a lot of the same notes throughout—and often the same notes as the original—but it plays them so well that it never feels repetitive. Making brilliant use of your partner, Six, Little Nightmares 2 builds on the first game well, but mostly sticks to what it knows best to great effect.