I really loved the first Little Nightmares and it remains one of my favourite games of all time to this very day. The attention to detail, the twisted version of adulthood as seen through the night terrors of a child, the stand-out imagery of horrible hulking monsters that stayed with you long after you'd turned it off. Ah! Perfection! And while Little Nightmares II doesn't feel quite as perfect as its predecessor, you know what? It's still really good.
It hits all the expected Little Nightmares notes - whether for good or ill. The sometimes-unfair chase scenes, where you're pursued by a rampaging, lumpen adult scuttling across the ceiling or a horde of monstrous somethings falling over each other like a wave, make a return. But the satisfying platforming puzzles return too, and some of those monsters, and the warped settings you encounter them in, are fabulous.
This time you play as Mono, a little barefooted boy in a trenchcoat who wears a paper bag on his head (though you can find other hats as optional extras throughout the game). Mono is accompanied on his desperate, gloomy adventure by Six, the protagonist from the first game. Together, you creep, crawl, leap, and sprint in terror through a dilapidated and hostile city inhabited by the imagined version of adult authority figures that kids are afraid of.
Mono and Six form a paradoxically sweet little team. They're so small in comparison to the rest of the world that they can walk under the average dining room table, and it's nice to approach this world of giant terrors with a pal. Though the controls are limited to running, jumping, crouching, and grabbing hold of stuff, the latter has now expanded to include Six. She can give Mono a leg up to reach a high ledge, or catch him when he makes a running jump over a chasm. But you can also use it to just hold her hand as you're running along somewhere.
Fans of the first game will enjoy a few references to it, as well as hints at Six's own hidden strangeness. There's a nice growth of Six's character, too. She gradually becomes more confident as the game progresses over its five-or-so hours, eventually leading the way where before she followed Mono more cautiously.
Little Nightmares II is a little longer than the first instalment, and the environments feel larger and less claustrophobic than the cramped depths of grim horror boat The Maw (a transparently terrible name for a ship, as if your gran would ever say "oh yeah, let's go for a cruise on The Maw, it sounds super wholesome"). The first level, where a masked hunter chases you through a forest full of traps, actually feels closer to the 1v1 monster-of-the-week setups of the first game; a kind of amuse-bouche to settle you back into the Little Nightmares mindset before the real business of the game begins and you're pitted against the thematically larger forces of institutions.
"Fans of the first game will enjoy a few references to it, as well as hints at Six's own hidden strangeness."
The city you run through is grey and depressive, with water from the perpetual rain leaking in through a myriad of holes in the walls and ceilings. Scattered throughout you'll find subtle bits of context and environmental storytelling to clue you in to what might be going on, so mostly I was content to look around at the world Tarsier Studios have made along with its horrible citizens.
Though the place is largely empty, with sets of clothes left empty on benches like a spontaneous rapture happened before your arrival, you soon break into a school full of porcelain children who have rigged it with traps. They're watched over by a stern teacher who grins like a crocodile, slaps the desks with a long wooden ruler, and can extend her neck almost infinitely, with a horrible crick-cracking sound. Then there's the hospital where a giant doctor with hands the size of shovels made of meat is making strange zombies from pillows and repurposed dummy limbs.
It's gruesome stuff, and it's thrilling to see these childhood authority figures stretched and pulled to grotesque extremes like chewing gum - probably the same gum you had to chip off the bottom of desks during detention. But there's another through line involving television sets and the grey, slack-faced adults obsessively watching them, even running off rooftops to get to them, which dovetails nicely with the watching eye motif that ran through the first game. That said, while the bad guy associated with these TVs is one of the scariest in the game, as a theme it feels a bit less "effective, sinister take on childhood fears" and more "Banksy's done it again!"
Still, even if some monsters aren't quite as hard-hitting as others, they remain my favourite part of Little Nightmares II, and the bits I enjoyed the most are still the sections where you have to creep and hide behind furniture, waiting for the terrible grown-up to turn their back so you can sneak over to the next table. These are accompanied by a thumping heartbeat sound that increases the closer your call is. It's an effect that's been carried over from the first game, but here it feels much more pronouced, increasing that sense of relief you feel when you finally get to safety. The pushing, pulling and climbing of furniture continues to be just as tactile and enjoyable as the first game, too, especially when the size disparity makes it all a bit uncanny. There are some standout puzzles that require a bit of extra thought, too, including a particularly good one that involves an X-ray machine.
Mono also occasionally gets to wield a weapon - maybe a hammer or an axe - which is a new feature, but it doesn't level the playing field. It takes so long for tiny little Mono to heft and swing that sometimes you'll probably prefer to just run away. It's surprisingly effective at making you feel triumphant and vulnerable at the same time.
Less welcome are those chase scenes, which are fun when you can dust them off first time, but less so when you keep missing one crucial button press half-way through and keep getting plonked back at the beginning (especially when you know you've not got enough distance on the baddy right from the very beginning, which makes the whole thing feel rather futile). I know The Olympics don't let their high jumpers off with a "Well, you almost didn't knock the bar down, so we'll let you have it", but I was hoping for a small bit more leeway from a video game.
Still, these flaws are small enough that I'm happy to place Little Nightmares II up on my shelf of excellence right next to the first one. Childhood fears are such a rich vein to slice open, and Tarsier Studios do it in a very thoughtful way. Little Nightmares II is such a splendid mix of cute and creepy, beautiful and awful, that it sort of defies categorisation. A childhood terror gothic, perhaps?