There was a time when the definition of a "kids movie" was unusually broad. The Neverending Story, a story of a young boy entering a fantasy world and flying around on a magic dragon, was pitched as movie for youngsters. He even got to ride around on a sweet horse! But nowhere on the VHS box was anyone warned about a harrowing sequence where the boy's loyal horse would get stuck in a pit of mud and slowly die because he's too sad to move. (Don't get me started on that enormous wolf monster.) Long story short: kids movies used to have an edge to them, a reason to hide under the covers. Little Nightmares, a platformer whose Limbo influence is loud and proud, reminds me of watching The Neverending Story.
You aren't given much context for what's happening in Little Nightmares. Players suddenly wake from sleep on top of a suitcase, as water drips from the ceiling. Draped in little more than a yellow jacket, you're given precious few ways to interact with the world: run, jump, crawl, slide, climb. You have a lighter that can illuminate the area immediately surrounding you, but don't expect to set anyone on fire with it. Unlike Limbo or Inside, Little Nightmares doesn't constrain you to a 2D space; players can poke, prod, and move about the whole environment.
Split into five chapters, with each presenting a different ghoulish figure to sprint away from, Little Nightmares opens strong, as you're presented with a spider-like figure with unsettlingly long arms, completely wrapped in bandages, who wails uncontrollably when you startle him. You encounter this thing when it's wrapping bodies, child-like figures awfully similar in size to you, and placing them on hooks to be taken….somewhere. Making a sound will alert this Hellraiser reject to your presence, at which point he takes a labored breath and begins searching for you. If he does, his long fingers slowly wrap around you, and the screen cuts to black.
Games typically incentive players by killing them if they screw up, as does Little Nightmares. And while Little Nightmares isn't outright gory or filled with jump scares, it falls under the horror mantle. Think about your favorite horror scenes, though. They tend to follow a pattern when the protagonist is running or hiding from the Big Bad Thing Lurking in the Shadows: they get away. Narrowly, yes, but they escape its grasp; the tension of will-they-or-won't-they fuels the scene's anxieties. In a horror game, this uncomfortable feeling is exasperated by making you control the protagonist and responsible for their escape. In an ideal world, you'd never actually get caught by the creature and die, always barely escaping.
This is a balance that Little Nightmares often gets wrong. The first time you're caught, it's terrifying. The second and third time, there's still a rush as you scramble for the exit. The eighth? The tenth? It's diminishing returns, and frustration sets in, as you're desperate to figure out what you have to do to move forward. The chase sequences in Little Nightmare are often little puzzles, which would be less of an issue if they were always easily decipherable. But thanks to the game's penchant for visual darkness and the squishy way the game handles navigation—it's very easy to get caught on the corners of objects, and your character frequently grabs the wrong thing—you sometimes wish the game sacrificed its desire to give the player options and focused on ratcheting tension.
Struggling through these moments are worth it, though, especially for the twisted visuals that await, a sort of parallel universe where Jim Henson started making R-rated puppet films. (Granted, creepy movies like The Dark Crystal felt like R-rated puppetry when I was a kid!)
The strongest motivator in Little Nightmares is seeing what awful thing is hiding around the corner, and I was rarely disappointed. The game doesn't overstay its welcome (three hours?), delighting in introducing one way of making your skin crawl, before quickly moving right onto the next fresh horror. I'm glad this game didn't exist when I was a kid. My guess is I wouldn't want to look under my bed.