Leave a light on for me
Creaks is not the kind of game you might expect from the stable of Amanita Design. The Czech developer has been releasing beautiful, meticulously crafted adventures for the last seventeen years, the majority of which have fallen into the point-and-click genre. The likes of the Samorost series encouraged players to explore the (often single-screen) worlds, clicking on contraptions and switches with abandon to see their results — and the story formed around their discoveries. Their breakthrough hit, Machinarium, provided the same and more, veering into more familiar traditional point-and-click adventure territory, while follow-up Botanicula was a surreal mash-up of their previous work layered with a very distinctive “plant” aesthetic.
In comparison, Creaks is a linear puzzle platform game. That fact alone may prove disappointing to fans of the studio expecting a horror take on their earlier games. Yet all of Amanita’s hallmarks are present and correct: sublime sound design, fantastic hand-drawn artwork, kooky animation and gibberish voice acting that passes for language in a far more endearing way than Yooka-Laylee and its ilk managed.
The bedsit of a young man kicks off the creepy shenanigans, revealing a hole in his wall that leads to an underground world filled with weird inhabitants. Floating jellyfish, robot dogs and evil doppelgangers all work to block your way from one room to the next as you descend into ever stranger depths. Getting caught by one is an instant fail, but each room contains ladders, levers and switches which your protagonist must use to block off enemies, force them outside of their standard patrol patterns, or even turn them into household objects by shining a light on them. Once transformed, the now harmless hat stand or bedside table can be moved to hold down pressure pads to open up new areas or manipulate the room in other clever ways…as long as the light remains on them.
Where Creaks suffers is in its familiarity, both with the genre and — later — with itself. There is usually only one route through a room which you need to figure out by watching the movements of the creatures and tinkering with the switches to see what they activate. It’s a linearity that will be familiar to puzzle fans but perhaps not to those with knowledge of Amanita’s back catalogue, who may be expecting the delight of uncovering new and quirky discoveries on their own rather than being funneled down a set route.
The game drip-feeds incremental changes throughout, such as giving you a remote control to activate lights, or throwing puzzles at you requiring several layers of challenges to be solved before progressing. Even so, the sheer number of rooms you are tasked with overcoming means that repetition starts to creep in at the halfway mark. When timing puzzles are introduced, the frustration factor jumps significantly — though that is matched by the satisfaction you’ll feel in cracking a puzzle involving lining up multiple creatures to set off switches.
The interaction between your enemies (some are terrified of others and will actively retreat from them) provides innovative solutions as well. Each creature has specific ticks that let you know what their next move will be: dog eyes turn red before attacking, doppelgangers thrust their pointy heads towards you if you get too close, and the passive jellyfish look up and down to determine their next path. Manoeuvring them into place provides the meat of Creaks puzzle design over the eight to ten hours it’ll take to complete.
As is Amanita’s brand, the story is told through mime, gesticulation and garbled nonsense, and it works incredibly well. The colossal monster plaguing the underground city’s bird-like denizens makes for some fascinating cutscenes. The dingy setting is equally epic; libraries, rickety lifts, dusty cellars and halls filled with faces all add to an otherworldly atmosphere that your tousle-headed hero looks completely out of place exploring. His nervous scratching animations and perpetually freaked-out expressions are always fun to watch. Creaks also includes a number of mechanical paintings to discover. Some of these are there to be watched and enjoyed, while others are minigames — none will prove too taxing — but they all add yet more flavour to the environment and are a highlight.
Criticising Creaks too harshly for taking the easy route through the well-worn puzzle-platform genre would be unfair. The care poured into the game is visible from the outset, while the challenges presented are both clever and considered. The game would have benefitted from more ruthless editing to cut out some of the repetition in its design, but its trial-and-error approach is generously signposted and the mistakes you make will eventually lead you down the right path to the superb conclusion. The fact that we were looking for even more from the game clearly shows how high Amanita has set the bar for its unique brand of storytelling.
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