- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 25, 2021

A child helps his new best friend escape from a terrifying world in a platforming puzzler packed with tension, suffocating atmosphere and dread in Little Nightmares II (Bandai Namco and Tarsier Studios, rated: Teen, $29.99, reviewed on PlayStation 4).

How’s that sound for a fun evening in video-game realms?

The sequel to the 2017 hit brings back the young girl Six, no longer stuck in a massive underwater vessel called the Maw. She’s now acting as a computer-controlled companion to the new protagonist, a boy named Mono who enjoys wearing a paper bag on his head with the eyeholes cut out.

They both attempt to survive the horrors of Pale City using stealth and aggressive tactics as they ultimately solve the riddle of the mysterious TV transmissions.

With the action set in a 2.5-dimensional perspective, a solo player controls Mono as he climbs, wades, floats, runs, ducks, bounces, throws, illuminates, shoots, pulls, swings, breaks and lifts in a gantlet of five levels contained in environments ranging from the wilderness, a school and a seemingly abandoned hospital.

Six lends a hand when needed and will help Mono reach higher locations, using her hands to boost him up or ready to help open a window or steel door. The boy can also call out to Six and hold her hand when she is not occasionally being kidnapped.

The creepy locations and creepier villains allow the game to live up to its name and create a world that one might find in the most terrifying of Tim Burton’s imagination. Imagine him crafting a Resident Evil game set in the outskirts of Raccoon City.

For example, let’s enter a macabre scene with Mono’s desperate search for his partner in a school full of rowdy porcelain, bobblehead-like children and controlled by a teacher plucked from ancient Japanese mythology.

Known as a Rokurokubi, this nightmarish disciplinarian comes complete with literally an elastic neck to spy on her students — a neck that looks a bit too much like a small intestine stretching.

And why do I describe the children as porcelain? At points to escape the school, Mono will need to strike some of the aggressive bullies with various found weapons, and their heads and bodies will crack apart as they slump to the ground.

Death also permeates the game and is as strong as a perceived stench of mustiness and rot.

Specifically, Mono will die in horrendous fashion; luckily, load times are quick for the player, as he perishes often.

When the boy’s life is restored, he is always found huddled in a corner, hands resting on bent knees in the most heartbreaking pose possible.

Visuals to remind a player that he is always near death include ravens picking at dead meat, bodies hung outdoors and a vivisected corpse lying on a morgue table, for example.

The moments combine to bring to life a dead city highlighted with smoke plumes in a mooted color scheme, a constant rain, fog and abandoned, looted areas inside and out.

Sound also plays a crucial role in the action as well as delivering bouts of goosebumps, that is when able to be heard above a player’s heart pounding from tension.

Reference the unholy screeching of the teacher in pursuit; a round of deadly musical chairs (move when the piano music stops and die); or appreciate the subtle aural experience of Mono dragging a sledgehammer along wooden floorboards; the wind whistling; rain pounding; or doors slowly creaking.

I defy anyone to not feel disturbed by the visual and aural packaging of the isolating and often gruesome imagery.

Finally, the puzzles will occasionally confound, although they serve as a welcomed respite before the horrors continue.

For example, Mono may need to build the tops of chess pieces in the correct order to activate a switch, or use an X-ray machine to find a key in a teddy bear, or flip switches in the proper time to move an elevator to access a new floor.

In the age of massive and overwhelmingly epic first- and third-person shooters that often dominate a gamer’s time, I’ll put Little Nightmares II up against the best of them.

It’s the perfect mix of challenge and visual artistry packed into about seven hours of action and will easily stand as one of the best games of the year.

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