Very Little Nightmares
By: BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment Europe / Alike Studio
While I never played Tarsier Studios’ Little Nightmares myself, I heard a lot of great things about it. So I was excited when a mobile prequel was announced, called Very Little Nightmares (VLN), developed by Alike Studio. Since it was being designed specifically for touchscreens in an isometric view and in portrait mode, it made me think of Monument Valley, and looked like it could make a great addition to the puzzle adventure genre. I also liked the cute but creepy, horror-tinged atmosphere it promised. Unfortunately, though the game nails the environmental details, enemy animations and atmosphere, it’s lacking in almost every aspect related to gameplay and user experience. As much as I wanted to like VLN, it felt as though the game didn’t want me to.
Let’s begin with the good first. Very Little Nightmares starts off pretty promising. You play as a young girl in a yellow raincoat who wakes up in the Nest, a mysterious mansion with little robed creatures called Nomes scurrying about. She seems to have arrived by hot air balloon, but it crashes when you try to use it again. So time to find another way out! This involves walking across wooden planks, climbing up and down piles of cages, outrunning mine carts, and before long, sneaking past moving spotlights. Controls are pretty simple — tap on a spot to walk there, double-tap on the spot to run there. Interactive elements like a key you can pick up or a door you can unlock get highlighted when you’re close to them and then you just tap on them to pick up, activate, etc. For the most part, it works well. There certainly seems to be some variety to the puzzles and environments early on. Everything is in an isometric view, giving it a 3D look despite movement being on a grid. The sound design is solid, with an eerie soundtrack and plenty of little noises to create an immersive experience.
Your character is small, so she climbs up bookshelves and crawls through air vents to sneak past the two very creepy enemies in the game. As she walks across a desk, some papers may fly off, or a pen might fall to the floor. Sometimes she knocks down glasses that shatter. It’s a really nice effect and shows the effort made to bring these areas to life. Most notable are the Nomes who skitter about, hiding in all the smallest spaces, making little grunts and growls. In fact, my favorite part of the game was finding the hidden jack-in-the-box in each of the game’s eighteen levels, and I loved how the Nomes often lead you to them if you pay close attention. Like I said, the game captures the atmosphere well, and I wish the rest of the experience matched it, but it didn’t.
Already early on, the portrait mode bothered me and I was wishing there was landscape capability. Had the game fully embraced its verticality and been built around environments that exclusively fit the screen that way, it might have worked in portrait-only. But more often than not, the scene stretches horizontally and you’re only seeing a small portion of it. There’s also no way to zoom out or pan the camera around to see your surroundings. The only way to see what’s beyond the two inches in front of your nose is to walk there and look. It made me think of The Gardens Between, which also stretched upwards at times, but let the player decide whether they wanted to see things more zoomed in and detailed or zoomed out to cover more ground. It would have made a lot of sense here, too. The puzzles are also often so uninspired that this is used as a gimmick to make a puzzle seem trickier than it is and stretch out the length of the game. For example, you might walk one way just so you can see what’s over there, just to discover that you were supposed to go the other way first. The game is tap-to-move, which can make sense in many touchscreen games, but together with the portrait mode, that means backtracking is only more painful. You have to tap constantly just to move to the other side of the room. Compare this to Monument Valley, where you can see the whole scene at once, and imagine what it would have been like if they instead decided to zoom in and only show you a small portion at a time. It would have been a far less enjoyable experience.
I stuck with the game despite all this because I liked the look and sound of it and also wanted to see where it was going. And there are a few clever ideas peppered throughout — but they’re lost amid all the slog. My first real issue came during an early stealth level, where I had to sneak past moving spotlights. As with most of the game, you can’t see far ahead of you. You just keep going straight, running past each spotlight to safety. If you die, it’s no big deal, as there are plenty of checkpoints along the way. But the game let me pass a spotlight that I shouldn’t have been able to get past yet, and then I spent a good ten or twenty minutes trying to figure out what to do next. I’m not sure if this bug was fixed yet, but part of the problem is the game’s overall design. If I died, I was revived after the point I shouldn’t have been able to pass, so it made it harder to tell that something was wrong. And since there’s no way to zoom out or pan the camera to see what my surroundings look like, my only choice was to restart the level. I figured out what to do on my second try and avoided the bug, but the level involves a ridiculous amount of backtracking, which only added to my fatigue. This is where the game started to sour for me, and it was pretty early on.
While there are a few clue-based puzzles and those that feel like they’d be a good fit for a point-and-click adventure — like one where you have to locate a number of Nomes — most of the puzzles rely too heavily on hiding things out of sight. For example, one level has you light a match and then run to light a lantern with it before it burns out. If the lantern were in view the whole time, it would be too easy, because you could just double-tap it and the pathfinding technology would take you there automatically. So to make it “harder,” the game uses the limited visibility to keep you from doing that. But it means instead you have a lot of tapping to do, especially if you want to avoid accidentally going down the wrong path and wasting precious milliseconds. It doesn’t feel satisfying to get it right, just relief that you don’t have to go back inch by inch for another match.
And now that I’ve brought up the pathfinding, let’s discuss that in more depth. One of my complaints about Alike Studio’s previous game, Love You to Bits (LYTB), was that if you wanted to get to a higher platform and there was a ladder between them, you couldn’t just tap on the platform and automatically climb there. You had to first tap on the ladder to go to it, and then tap on the little bubble that pops up allowing you climb it. Then you have to wait for your character slowly climb up, and then tap again where you want to go on the platform itself. So that’s three taps and a lot of waiting when one tap and some running could have sufficed. I want to spend my time solving puzzles, not wasting it just to move around in a very inefficient way. VLN is an improvement on this, as you don’t need to tap a bubble — you just tap anywhere on the ladder-like structure that you want to climb. But once again, the ladder is somehow an obstacle. You can’t simply click past the ladder and let the pathfinder take you there, like you can in Monument Valley. You have to first tap on the ladder and then you can tap anywhere past it to continue on. With the narrow perspective, this is already an issue, as it forces you to tap more to get anywhere. But it’s an even bigger problem during time-sensitive sections where you’re outrunning some sort of danger. If you either mis-tap or forget to tap first on the ladder, you’ll likely lose precious seconds and die.
Another big complaint I — and others — had with LYTB is that there are no mid-level saves. The game has checkpoints if you die, so you would think those same checkpoints would act as save points if you close the game. But if you take a break for whatever reason — getting stuck on a puzzle or just needing to make a call — you’ll have to start back at the beginning of that level. There was one level I restarted so many times because one specific part of the puzzle was escaping me and I kept taking a break. It was just exhausting to have to redo everything each time just to get back to the point where I was stuck. It also meant that I was afraid to take a break during the more difficult sections, like one where you have to climb a wall while debris is falling and trying to kill you. I would have thought that for a game that’s forced into portrait mode, the developers would have the foresight to tell that people would be playing on their phones, something that is not a dedicated gaming console. It’s for multitasking, and quick-saves are absolutely imperative for a game like this.
My experience really started to suffer starting around the midpoint with the garbage dump level. Not only are your surroundings constantly trying to kill you, but once again there’s a lot of running back and forth, and of course without being able to make much use of the automatic pathfinding. It was tedious, and being unable to take a break made it that much worse. That wall at the end nearly made me give up, but I persisted and got through it. The rest of the game was, for the most part, less mean. But near the end, you have to endure a chase scene that has very few checkpoints and is reliant entirely on trial and error, all while still being unable to see more than a few inches ahead of you. And if you pause to stop and think, you’ll likely die and have to restart. There was nothing fun or interesting about this entire chase scene. You can’t know what will kill you until it already kills you, so it’s all just a lot of cheap deaths and memorizing what you have to do and hopefully doing so without messing up or slowing down. All while using clumsy controls. Once again, I wasn’t excited about finally finishing it — just relieved. In fact, I’m not sure I’m going to bother finishing my videos for my walkthrough because I can’t see putting myself through this torture again.
As much as I wanted to love Very Little Nightmares, it did not offer a very rewarding experience. The art, atmosphere and sound design are top notch, but the game built around it is just not that enjoyable. There are small moments of brilliance, but overall the game feels like a big slog. The puzzles are too reliant on gimmicks that are well-worn early on in the game. Even if landscape capability were added, I don’t think it would help much besides alleviating some of the frustration with the visibility and controls. But it wouldn’t make the uninspired puzzles more interesting. Mix in a lot of cheap deaths, an over-reliance on trial and error, lackluster controls, and a sprinkling of bugs, and you get a very disappointing game that does not live up to the hype. I wish I could say that a few small tweaks could make this a great game that would be easy to recommend. But most of the time I wasn’t eagerly playing so much as going through the motions. Even the parts that I enjoyed were over-reliant on backtracking, another issue carried over from LYTB. Modern point-and-click adventures tend to let you teleport from scene to scene because they know that backtracking is a time-consuming chore without it. This is a lesson that Alike Studio doesn’t seem to have learned, and it makes for a poorer user experience. So, the bottom line is, I wouldn’t recommend Very Little Nightmares unless you’re a fan of the original game and also have an abundance of patience. If you still want to give the game a chance, you can download it here.