All artistic endeavors require some amount of iteration. Books go through many drafts before ending up on shelves, and sequels surely take on the lessons learned while writing the original. Actors and directors hone their craft, improve technology, camerawork, stunts, and more. A season of television will often start a little rough, and find its footing after a few episodes. Iteration and improvement exists in all these mediums, yet there’s nothing quite like the lessons learned and improvements on display in a video game sequel.
Does Terminator 2 invalidate the original? Is Aliens a blanket improvement on Alien? Obviously not. And while opinions are all over the place as far as which films are better, it’s clear that they are all great films trying to accomplish different things. And yet with game sequels they so often feel like they fix their predecessors. Gears of War 3 is a better game than Gears of War and Gears of War 2, and I feel like it’s pretty hard to argue against that opinion.
This isn’t a blanket rule. There are game sequels that are worse than the originals, and there are games that feel more like my movie comparisons above. I’d argue The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II fall into that category. The sequel surely improves on things technically, but it doesn’t come anywhere near invalidating its predecessor. In fact there are many who would argue the opposite. Still, situations like the Gears of War 3 comparison above happen often, and there’s nothing quite like a game sequel that improves on the original in every way.
Which brings us to Little Nightmares and Little Nightmares II. I played these games back-to-back and had almost completely different experiences with them.
While I enjoyed the atmosphere and storytelling of the original Little Nightmares, I spent the majority of this 2D horror puzzle-platformer frustrated and exasperated. “How did anyone think this was fun?” I found myself asking through the majority of this 3-4 hour experience.
In Little Nightmares, you play as a tiny girl in a bright yellow raincoat. You navigate a world where everything is just a bit larger than it should be. The proportions of everything feel wrong, giving the environment an off-putting feel and ensuring that you always feel small and fragile.
I immediately loved controlling this little girl. The game lets you run, jump, clamber onto ledges, duck, and grab objects. These simple interactions all felt great, and went a long way to making the rest of the game a bit more tolerable.
But the trouble starts when you first start dying. Sometimes it’s easy enough to die, learn the lesson, and do better next time. Other times these lessons come in layers, or they aren’t very clear. As a result, the game piles on one trial-and-error sequence after another, often leaving you with an unsatisfying solution. The only small relief being that you’ll never have to repeat that part of the game again.
That’s not a great way to feel about a game, but it persisted from beginning to end like so many band-aids I needed to rip off. I was happy to be done with it, even if the small bits of storytelling kept me interested.
I went into Little Nightmares II hoping for the kind of big iteration and improvement I mentioned above. I expected those trial-and-error moments to be stripped out, replaced with something far better. Instead, I got a game that stuck to its guns and still managed to be a better experience in every way.
Yes, Little Nightmares II does have a lot of the instant death and trial-and-error moments that plagued the original, but here they are almost universally improved. This is a more thoughtfully considered game from top to bottom. Action sequences provide enough wiggle room to allow you to have a brush with death and survive—a key difference that transforms the game.
The fact that I was able to survive and escape death so much more often also, ironically, made Little Nightmares II a scarier and more thrilling experience. In the original, every death stripped some of the magic away. A horrific, unpredictable creature became a rote, annoying AI with each new peek behind the game design curtain. Little Nightmares II is more forgiving, but that allows the magic and terror of it all to remain.
It would be easy to say Little Nightmares II is like Limbo or Inside, or the dozens of silhouette-style 2D horror games that have come and gone over the last decade. But to be honest I found my time with Little Nightmares II had more in common with a Valve game. The way you move from carefully crafted sequence to carefully crafted sequence, with a story that’s told through the environment and action more so than dialogue, evoked Half-Life 2 and Portal in my eyes.
I think it all comes down to pacing, something that is equally excellent across Little Nightmares II and those older Valve games. There’s a ton of variety, clever puzzles, exciting action, and quiet exploration on display here, and it’s all in service to the rest of the formula. It even has its own “We don’t go to Ravenholm” sequence where the addition of a flashlight and a new type of monster increases the scare-factor well beyond the rest of the game.
Overall, while I was disappointed with the original Little Nightmares, I loved my time with Little Nightmares II. I’d still consider playing them back-to-back, though. The original is pretty annoying, but it’s not too long, and it’s fascinating to see a decent idea honed into something spectacular. If you only have time for the good stuff though, Little Nightmares II is a must-play.