Little Nightmares Ii SchoolSource: Bandai Namco

Little Nightmares is a franchise of which I was peripherally aware. For whatever reason, I simply never took the time to dive in and properly check it out. The original came out in 2017 and launched to widespread praise for its atmospheric Tim Burton-esque horror stylings. The game very vividly manages to be simultaneously cute and chilling.

Little Nightmares is essentially a puzzle platformer, operating on a side-scrolling 3D plane. Little Nightmares is made by Tarsier Studios, who worked on Sony's adorable LittleBigPlanet franchise. In some ways, it wouldn't be wild to say Little Nightmares is what might happen if LittleBigPlanet collided with Silent Hill.

Having never played Little Nightmares before, I went into preview Little Nightmares II completely ignorant of what to expect. After the two-hour preview, showcasing two of the game's early environments, I'm now immediately in love with the franchise, and went straight to grab the original and all of its DLC (which, by the way, is currently on sale).

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Little Nightmares II launches on February 11, 2021, for every platform, including Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S and PC, and here's why it might be among the first must-play games of the year.

Schools out

Little Nightmares 2

A day in the life

Little Nightmares 2 continues the spooky-meets-cutesy tales began by its predecessor back in 2017, with expanded gameplay features and a broader scope.

A world that wants to kill you

Little Nightmares Ii SchoolSource: Bandai Namco

I still haven't completed the original, and I'm actively avoiding spoilers for it, but it's fairly obvious from the outset that Little Nightmares takes place in a very hostile world. In the original, you play as Six, armed only with a yellow raincoat and a tiny zippo lighter (which is so damn cute).

As Six, you navigate a malevolent world that resembles the bowels of a creaking ship, filled to the brim with nonsensical nightmarish architecture and truly terrifying inhabitants, self-mutilated and malformed in otherworldly ways. Little Nightmares leans heavily into environmental storytelling, with scenes that give hints about the true nature of the world, without an explicit narrative. The mystery has spawned a huge community of theorists and artists who attempt to connect the dots and explain the mechanics of this purgatorial domain. I suspect Little Nightmares II will shed light on the questions as much as it raises new ones.

In Little Nightmares II, you take control of a new character, named Mono, endowed with a paper bag mask and a scruffy trenchcoat. Little Nightmares was about escaping the misty, watery dungeons of the prison-like Maw. Little Nightmares II seems narratively broader in scope, as Mono and his companion embark across the wider world.

The first level takes place in a swampy forest, filled with bear traps and the ever-present deranged woodsman, who wields a shotgun with reckless abandon. Indeed, Little Nightmares II changes things up by adding even more combat elements into the mix to complement its side-scrolling puzzles and tense stealth segments.

There were a few opportunities for Six to use the environment to dispatch enemies in the original game. Little Nightmares II takes it a bit further. Mono can wield small weapons he finds on the ground, such as hatchets, pipes, and even kitchen utensils to dispatch smaller enemies. Sometimes these weapons are also used to solve puzzles, such as breaking down objects or through broken doors. The weapons are heavy for him to wield, though, and require very meticulous timing. If you miss your swing, you may very well find yourself getting eaten by the game's crazed inhabitants.

Without spoiling, the first preview level was clearly a rescue mission, with Mono saving a companion from the aforementioned swamp dweller. After doing so, you gain a range of new abilities for puzzle solving, with the A.I. partner able to perform tasks you wouldn't be able to alone. Rushing through the forest with shotgun spray lapping at your heels, you may find the only option is to fight fire with fire. By himself, Mono wouldn't be able to aim and action the trigger of a human-sized shotgun, but working with his companion, suddenly, you can become quite deadly despite your tiny size.

A day in the school from hell

Little Nightmares Ii SchoolSource: Bandai Namco

The weaponry in Little Nightmares II is by no means central to the gameplay. They are fully situational and are often left behind due to their size and weight. It's for those scenes without weapons that you must revert to stealth play, and the next section of the demo really rammed this point home.

Little Nightmares II cleverly envelops you in a sense of dread without resorting to cheap jump scares.

After the forest area, Mono and his companion traverse across a lake and come upon an urban area, devoid of life. The environmental details paint a bleak picture, with suicide victims hanging from ceilings, disembodied from their clothing as if they had been raptured up into the sky. Little Nightmares II is absolutely crammed with hints at a wider conspiracy that I'm sure fans will love spending hours pouring over when the game finally launches.

After moving through some dilapidated buildings, I came upon a very harrowing sight for any veteran horror gamer — a big old-fashioned school. Silent Hill's school section is forever burned on my psyche as one of the most paralyzing and claustrophobic experiences in my gaming career. After playing Little Nightmares II, though, I may have to add another harrowing school sequence to my list of upsettingly memorable gaming moments.

The way this level is structured is nothing short of genius, especially if you're familiar with schooling across Britain and perhaps Europe in general at the turn of the century. Corporal punishment was only banned in British schools in 1987 (not long after I was born, phew). Even then, it was legal in most private independent schools all the way up to 1999, which is crazy. Either way, this whole level really does evoke stories my parents told me in my childhood, where my dad was rapped across the knuckles with a wooden ruler several times in front of a school assembly for accidentally breaking a window with a football. A punishment that is simply unthinkable in today's times.

To that end, this level features one of the most twisted creatures I've seen in a game, complete with classic school tropes warped inside out and deliciously smart pacing. Little Nightmares II cleverly envelops you in a sense of dread without resorting to cheap jump scares.

This segment takes place across a full day in a twisted school ripped from some kind of Dickensian acid trip. The pacing was cleverly set across school class periods, a lunch break section, and even lesson prep, complete with frog dissection trays. As you sneak through the halls, you'll find hundreds of psychotic porcelain doll "children" who want to murder each other as much as they do you.

Little Nightmares Ii SchoolSource: Bandai Namco

When there's no teacher present, all chaos breaks loose, with dolls trying to smash each other to bits while turning the surrounding areas into total pandemonium. Despite how violent they are, they remain terrified and wholly obedient to the level's mystifying centerpiece, known as The Teacher.

With a rubbery elasticated neck, The Teacher can spot unruly students by turning her head at very frightening 360-degree angles, speaking to that old meme of "teachers have eyes in the back of their heads," only now literally.

This segment takes place across a full day in a twisted school ripped from some kind of Dickensian acid trip.

Her favorite form of punishment includes rapping students with a large wooden crop, typical back in old-fashioned British schools. You'll also find hidden compartments throughout the game, where "students" are punished by being locked in a small space, hidden away from the rest of the school, reminiscent of The Chokey in Roald Dahl's Matilda.

However, The Teacher won't spare you such a lenient fate. In the case of Mono, she will simply reach out with her Medusine neck and bite you to death. Little Nightmare's ventilation ducts were a source of safety in the original game. In Little Nightmares II, though, those tiny spaces of sanctuary are no longer beyond your enemy's grasp.

Some of the scenes throughout this sequence were truly jaw-dropping, with painstaking detailing and great sound treatment. One puzzle segment has you break the floor with a giant piano, which had fully playable keys. After breaking through the floor, you can still play the piano, but you can hear all the insides completely broken with snapped wires plucking against the stale wood. It's detailing like this that makes every nook and cranny worth exploring, as you fully immerse yourself in this enthralling and mystical world.

One of 2021's first must-play games

Little Nightmares Ii SchoolSource: Bandai Namco

I wholly believe Little Nightmares II will emerge as one of the year's early must-play games, based on the two-hour slice I've played. It was so lovingly polished, so well-realized, and so beautiful that it quite easily sits up there with the likes of Unravel, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, INSIDE, and other heavy hitters in this side-on format.

I cannot stress enough how much this game should be on your radar. Emphasis on stress..

Little Nightmares differentiates itself with some truly demented art that sits in this uncanny void where real-world animatronics and stop-motion plasticine often sit, rarely explored in the medium.

As I said in the opening, the brief slice I played for this preview immediately made me hooked on the franchise as a whole, and I cannot stress enough how much this game should be on your radar—emphasis on stress. I am confident that Little Nightmares II will become one of 2021's big success stories if the full game is anywhere near as good as what I experienced in the preview.

Read more: Little Nightmares 2 preview: Hospitals just got even creepier

Nightmarish

Little Nightmares 2

Back to school

Little Nightmares 2 is a suspense-led puzzle platformer with stealth elements, set in a nightmarish universe where everything large and small wants to murder you.

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