WASHINGTON — A child helps his new best friend escape from a terrifying world in a platforming puzzler packed with tension, suffocating atmosphere and dread in Little Nightmares II (Bandai Namco and Tarsier Studios, rated: Teen, $29.99, reviewed on PlayStation 4).
How’s that sound for a fun evening in video-game realms?
More on Little Nightmares II
Little Nightmares II is the sequel to the original 2017 hit game. It brings back the young girl Six, who’s no longer stuck in a massive underwater vessel called the Maw. She’s now acting as a computer-controlled companion to the new protagonist. He’s a boy who goes by the name Mono and enjoys wearing a paper bag on his head with the eyeholes cut out.
Together, they both attempt to survive the horrors of Pale City. To accomplish this, they employ stealth and aggressive tactics to solve the riddle of some mysterious TV transmissions. The action in Little Nightmares II unfolds in a 2.5-dimensional perspective. In this environment, a solo player controls Mono as he climbs, wades, floats, runs, ducks, bounces, throws, illuminates, shoots, pulls, swings, breaks and lifts.
He traverses a gauntlet of five levels in environments ranging from the wilderness, a school and a seemingly abandoned hospital.
Six lends a hand when she’s needed, ultimately helping Mono reach higher locations. She accomplishes this by using her hands to boost him up or by standing ready to help open a window or steel door. Mono can also call out to Six and hold her hand. Except during the times when she’s busy being kidnapped.
Excellent creepiness all around
The creepy locations and creepier villains allow the game to live up to its name and create a world that one might find in the most terrifying of Tim Burton’s imagination. Imagine Buton crafting a Resident Evil game set in the outskirts of Raccoon City. There. Now you’ve got it.
For example, let’s enter a macabre scene. We find Mono desperately searching for his partner in a school full of rowdy porcelain, bobblehead-like children. They are controlled by a teacher plucked right out of ancient Japanese mythology. Known as a Rokurokubi, this nightmarish disciplinarian comes complete with an elastic neck to spy on her students. Unfortunately, that neck looks a bit too much like a small intestine stretching beyond its capacity.
So why do I describe the children as porcelain? Arriving at points where he can escape the school, Mono needs to strike some of those aggressive little bullies with various found weapons. As he does so, their heads and bodies crack apart as they slump to the ground. Rarely are character deaths so bizarrely cool.
It’s all a matter of life and death…
Actually, death permeates this game. It proves as strong and pervasive as encountering the horrible stench of mustiness and rot.
But it’s also central to this game Mono will die in horrendous fashion, early and often. Luckily, load times for Little Nightmares II are quick for the player. And that’s a good thing, as Mono perishes quite often. Each time the boy’s life is restored, we always find him huddled in a corner, hands resting on bent knees in the most heartbreaking pose possible. Visuals materialize reminding a player that he is always near death. Gruesome hints include ravens picking at dead meat, bodies hung outdoors and a vivisected corpse lying on a morgue table.
These various macabre visions and moments combine to bring to life a dead city. And the game highlights this unearthly mood with smoke plumes in a muted color scheme that’s tormented by aconstant rain, fog and abandoned, looted areas inside and out.
Aural and physical elements
Sound also plays a crucial role in the action as well as delivering bouts of goosebumps, that is when able to be heard above a player’s heart pounding from tension.
For example, check out the unholy screeching of the teacher in pursuit. Enjoy a round of deliciously deadly musical chairs (move when the piano music stops and dies). Or appreciate the subtle aural experience as Mono drags a sledgehammer along wooden floorboards. Next: Add the whistling wind, the relentless pounding of the rain or the classic, creepy sound of heavy doors slowly creaking on their hinges.
I defy anyone to not feel disturbed by the visual and aural packaging of the isolating and often gruesome imagery in Little Nightmares II.
Puzzles and challenges
Finally, the puzzles in this game can occasionally confound. That said, they do serve as a welcome respite before the horrors in this game continue.
One example: Mono may need to build the tops of chess pieces in the correct order to activate a switch. Or he might need to use an X-ray machine to find a key in a teddy bear. Or the situation may challenge his reaction time, as he flips switches at the right time to move an elevator to a new floor.
We live in an age of massive and overwhelmingly epic first- and third-person shooters that often dominate a gamer’s time. But that’s why I put Little Nightmares II right up there against the best of them. It’s the perfect mix of challenge and visual artistry.
You’ll find it packed into about seven hours of action. And you’ll agree that it easily stands as one of the best games of the year.
• This story originally appeared in The Washington Times.
— Headline image: Mono navigates a terrifying corridor in Little Nightmares II from Bandai Namco and Tarsier Studios.
A graduate of Northwestern University with a degree in communications, Joseph Szadkowski has written about popular culture for The Washington Times for the past 25 years. He covers video games, comic books, new media and technology.