When small, so-called indie developers get together to make a game, they have a massive advantage over their established peers: a complete lack of expectations. So they can let their imaginations run riot, without having to worry about commercial viability and concentrate on creating something fresh and original.
Little Nightmares operates according to just those criteria: it's a 3D, side-scrolling platform/stealth/puzzle game which extensively mines the sort of bizarre, feverish nightmares we can all remember having as kids, to pleasingly macabre effect.
It's also a game with a slightly unexpected provenance: publisher Bandai Namco was hitherto seen as very Japanese and parochial, but Little Nightmares is the first of a new programme of indie games that its European division is nurturing. Developer Tarsier Studios is Swedish, has been around since 2004 and its highest profile previous effort was bringing LittleBigPlanet to the PS Vita.
Little Nightmares review: Stripped back simplicity
In time-honoured indie-game fashion, Little Nightmares keeps things as minimal as possible – for example, there isn't a single line of dialogue in the entire game, nor will you find any conventional form of storytelling in it.
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However, its story does unfold as you progress through it – in large part through your own imagination, trying to make sense of the weirdness it contains. Which is a property that marks out the very best indie games from the rest: if you had to compare it to an existing game, Limbo would spring most readily to mind.
Little Nightmares' plot is thus: you control a tiny little girl (at one point, you encounter a pigeon, which is barely smaller than she is), called Six, who wears a yellow oilskin to give the character some distinctive on-screen presence.
Six wakes up in a pretty inhospitable place which has the feel of a prison to it – dark, dank and uninviting. The only item she has is a lighter. You understand that she must escape from the hellhole in which she finds herself.
Little Nightmares review: Simple mechanics
Six can do all the things that any little girl can: jump, run (not very fast), crouch, pick up and throw objects and climb – and that's it; she has no special powers whatsoever. So, Little Nightmares' gameplay revolves around working out what you must do to keep her moving forward. That it game ebbs, flows and evolves is a testament to Tarsier Studios' ingenuity.
At first, Six is more or less on her own, bar the odd rat, and black slug-like creatures that will kill her if they catch her (the game is heavily checkpointed, and whenever you resume after a mishap, cutely, you must wake Six up). Next you encounter robot eyes, which frazzle Six if they catch her in the light they shine. But then weird, misshapen humanoids begin to enter the equation: sinister figures with ridiculously short legs and long arms, and later obese, vaguely troll-like creatures.
There are some great, Limbo-style mechanical puzzles to negotiate too: Six can pull levers (usually by jumping up to them and swinging on them; even door-handles are too high for her to reach without something to stand on) which, for example, de-electrify bars that she must squeeze through, and you encounter moving contraptions which might, say, let her hang from meathooks (as long as those meathooks aren't already carrying a butchered body) and move to inaccessible areas.
Little Nightmares review: Stealth gameplay
Stealth mechanics soon come into the mix, as Six escapes from one area to the next, each of which has its own distinct feel.
One group of enemies is blind, but has preternatural hearing, so you must figure out how to keep to sound-muffling carpets and avoid creaky floorboards – and use sound-making objects as lures.
Another set of enemies can see, but has such a short attention-span that if you hide Six underneath a table or the like, they soon give up looking for her. While you have to use stealth techniques in such sequences, Little Nightmares stops a long way short of Metal Gear Solid levels of stealth-rigour.
By the end, Six becomes bolder in her encounters with humanoids, and things eventually hit a really freaky crescendo – there's even a final boss-battle, in which Six's sole item of equipment is a mirror.
At that stage, you're left in no doubt that she isn't as sweet and innocent as she looks. The first indications of that appear when she periodically experiences hunger pains and must find food before being able to carry on her escape (she makes some very strange meal-choices). That's an example of how Tarsier Studios has taken every opportunity to ensure that Little Nightmares is satisfyingly dark, often gruesome and always riven with black humour. Its macabre ambience is perhaps its best aspect – at times, it's reminiscent of the film Delicatessen.
Of course, it isn't perfect. After all, it's a little indie game which will only set you back £16, so it was always bound to be short, and indeed it is – you can breeze through it in maybe three hours. Nor is there a vast amount of replay value, although you can revisit particular chapters that stuck in your mind, should you so wish.
Little Nightmares offers a perfect illustration of what the indie development sector brings to gaming.
It's out-there, endlessly clever, truly original and very entertaining – especially if you have a sense of humour which tends towards the darkest end of the spectrum.
Although short and without much replay value, Little Nightmares is impressive entry from Bandai Namco into the curious world of indie games.
Little Nightmares is available now, priced £16, for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Microsoft Windows