Amanita Design are known for their off-the-wall productions like the Samorost series and Machinarium, where real-world logic and spoken language take a back seat to delightful visuals and inventive gameplay. Their latest adventure, CHUCHEL, is no different, though it more closely resembles Botanicula among the indie Czech studio’s previous releases, which should come as no surprise as both were designed by Jaromír Plachý. This game involves a small black ball of fluff as it bundles through a barmy land of anthropomorphised objects in a (literally and often figuratively) fruitless pursuit of its favourite treat. Experienced genre fans can leave their usual pixel-hunting, inventory-combining adventure brains at the door. But while CHUCHEL is slight in both challenge and length, it dispenses more than enough amusing weirdness and variety to make up for it. If you’ve wondered what a children’s picture book might look like if it came alive and took some drugs, this is your chance to find out.
If you’ve seen the Ice Age films, you’ll be familiar with Scrat, the sabre-toothed squirrel who doggedly seeks to find and protect an acorn, even when it means putting his own life at risk. Our orange-capped hero in CHUCHEL is much the same, except with a cherry. The fluffball is accompanied at times by a red rat-like creature who switches between friend (or at least useful ally) and foe – when there’s only one cherry up for grabs, it’s everyone (or everything) for themselves. Occasionally a pair of giant grubby hands will reach from the skies to nab the cherry too. Apart from that, there’s no plot to speak of. Instead, you work your way through thirty self-contained vignettes that could pretty much be played in any order, though you must originally go through them in the prescribed sequence.
A given scenario could last a minute or fifteen, often switching between control schemes and gameplay types from one to the next. Some can be overcome through experimental clicking – essentially trial and error as you interact with everything on the screen. Because the outcomes are so esoteric, you can’t exactly plan a solution, but it’s fun seeing what happens nonetheless. For example, an early scene has the cherry bouncing endlessly on a round green frog. Clicking the creature opens a pictographic context menu, giving you the options to try to reach or leap for the prize. You can also attempt to use your little friend, but to no avail. It’s only once you’ve exhausted all these choices that a new (and much more whimsically absurd) solution presents itself. The entertainment comes from watching these failed attempts, the mounting frustration yet dogged determination growing in the exasperated expressions of our lead.
That’s not to say there’s no complexity at all. There's a handful of levels that require more manipulation. One sees you surrounded by bathroom items, like a walking toothbrush and a dozy-eyed soap dispenser, with the aim being to nab the cherry from a glass that also contains an angry set of dentures. Another scenario is set in a forest where the cherry is guarded by a yellow bear, which requires you to use body-manipulating beans to sneak past it. These areas take longer to complete, providing some welcome thought requirement to balance the easier tasks elsewhere, and are paced nicely amongst the more bite-sized sequences. If you do get stuck, a clickable help sign will drop down to provide hints (or sometimes an outright solution) after a while, though you’ll probably be fine without it.
Some dexterity is occasionally required, like making use of the WASD keys to take part in a robot battle, flying on a bird while dodging smiling blobs, or leaping at aliens in a Space Invaders knock-off. Frankly, you can button mash your way through many of these as they are very forgiving, so don’t let them put you off if anything beyond point-and-click seems scary. In CHUCHEL variety is the spice of life, not difficulty. Everything is thrown at the wall and all of it sticks. I didn’t think there were any dud sections, the joy being found in the continually unexpected, and you’ll move through them all at such a rate that there’s no time to get bored.
Everything in CHUCHEL tends to communicate by grunting, laughing, humming and making other incomprehensible noises. While there’s no spoken dialogue, you won’t miss it – the accompanying sounds convey everything you need to know and bring it all vividly to life. There’s never a moment without something unique to hear. Everything from the obvious, such as the smooth, upbeat electronic and string soundtrack, to the subtle, like light drumming whenever characters move, is pitch-perfect. I didn’t quite appreciate how well-timed every action was to some sort of sound until I took a moment to focus on it. You could almost classify this as musical adventure, due to how instrumental the soundscape is in building atmosphere, the oddball cast even arbitrarily breaking into 'song' at certain points.
In addition to the audio treats, this is an adventure packed with charming animations. The lead character is wonderfully expressive, using its flexible stick arms and legs to display everything from excitement to despondence to tripped-out relaxation. Yet it isn’t only the protagonist who displays been such wonderfully animated detail. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a smug jelly before, but it’s achieved with ease here thanks to a little smile, a tilted arm and a wobbly laugh. Or a quacking egg which, when the crown of its head is taken off with a spoon, nonchalantly pops on a flowering hat. It’s downright delightful. And if there’s any opportunity for something to have eyes and a mouth, it will.
In stark contrast to other Amanita games, throughout most of CHUCHEL the background artwork is sparse. Usually the only detail consists of a few scratches, specks of dirt or doodles against an off-white backdrop. The focus is on the foreground, though even these are not exactly full. This can mean there aren’t many hotspots on-screen, which is a shame since the interactions are always great, but it contributes heavily to the clean and brightly coloured picture book aesthetic. There’s a nice hand-drawn quality to the art. It’s intentionally raw and not overly fine, but boasts personality at every turn. Prying open the top of a creature’s head (stay with me here…) reveals a pool of water, from which three other jaunty beasts pop out, surrounded by bubbles and dancing fish. Elsewhere, ink blobs fired into space turn into stars, which eventually manage to knock out the moon. There’s a fine line between genuine absurdist humour played for laughs and randomness simply for its own sake, but CHUCHEL treads it well thanks to its innate charm.
As wonderful as the experience is while it lasts, CHUCHEL is undeniably short at just about two hours. While I had no qualms with my time spent with the game, it isn’t something I’m likely to revisit, though that’s not necessarily a negative, as I think I experienced everything the first time around. This feels like the type of game that would be particularly ideal on mobile devices, to dip into when there’s a few minutes to spare. Nevertheless, playing it in one sitting on the computer was highly enjoyable – I loved the quirky humour, the variety of interactions, and the appealing animations. So CHUCHEL certainly comes recommended, but make sure you know what you’re getting into. The entire thing is best summarised as a semi-interactive wacky sketch show, with the occasional traditional game-y element thrown in for good measure. Amanita seem to care more about making you laugh than engaging your grey matter, and that’s fine by me.