Monday, May 8, 2017

Nightmare is right

It's a wonder that there have not been more games like Little Nightmares: whole cloth rip offs of Limbo and Inside that come close in some ways but are wholly deficient in others. Neither of those games are perfect but they do nail an unsettling atmosphere and control well enough that their intuitive physics based puzzles are not a chore to complete. Little Nightmares has two out of three of those and but the one that is missing is really, really bad.

While not as dark as the games it apes it does have a very unsettling, almost nauseating mood, partly because what is happening is downright bizarre and partly because the whole game slowly shifts back and forth. This is explained later, and the explanation makes sense, but if you happen to suffer from visual induced motion sickness you may want to avoid this one.

Little Nightmares is also just as inscrutable as Limbo but has at least some sense of journey to it like Inside. It may not be clear where you are going, but you are going somewhere with a purpose, and it does keep the game's momentum moving forward. There are also actual boss encounters that create clean divisions between the sections. Creepy, unsettling boss encounters that can end with your little character being eaten alive or stuffed into a fish. It's weird shit.

The one issue with Limbo that was solved in Inside was the game's total lack of a crescendo. Limbo started out as good as it was going to get and trailed off from there. Inside built up to a bizarre conclusion and Little Nightmares does the same, saving the Tim Burton meets Spirited Away fever dream section for the very end.

So what was the problem and why was it so unforgivable? Little Nightmares decided, foolishly, to exist in a 3D world instead of a 2D world. Platforming 101: when jumping in a 3D setting some clue needs to be given as to the player's orientation in the world. Usually this is done with a shadow below the character. It's a simple solution that has been is used for fucking decades. Guess what little nightmares does not do.

I died to missed jumps more than I died to anything else. These are easy missed jumps that saw me fall either in front of or behind my target because I could not tell where in the world I was. There is no excuse for this. I don't care if adding a little shadow did not fit with the developer's vision of the world, it is a gameplay mechanic that is required.

This problem with perception is not limited to jumping. There are a few chase sequences that would be quite exciting if fitting into small gaps was easier. I ran into walls died slightly fewer times than I missed jumps. A quick look at Tarsier Studio's history and this makes sense: they are responsible for the most recent Little Big Planet, a games whose platforming is as loose as its idea of what makes a good mascot.

I cannot recommend Little Nightmares in its current state. Not because it is only about five hours, I actually have come to enjoy short games, but because those five hours are overshadowed by poor controls. The game's world is confusing to both navigate and live in. Only one of those makes for a good experience.

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