Review for Creaks
Adventure Gamers Awards
If, perhaps as a child, you've ever wished your house had a secret door or even a hidden room, I bet you never imagined it would lead to a whole new world full of talking birds playing shower-head trumpets and living in a giant, tumbledown underground castle. Or that they'd fill that castle with ingenious traps and robotic guard dogs just in case a curious human happened by. In Amanita Design's Creaks, though, that's only the start of your adventure into their ramshackle wonderland. Best known for the quirky delights of Machinarium and the Samorost games, the indie Czech studio’s latest effort is their offbeat and charming take on a puzzle-platformer, filled to the brim with idiosyncratic creatures and satisfying challenges. The eccentric story isn't as involving as it might be, but that matters little when the journey is this magical.
Taking advantage of the late-evening peace, you're sitting at the worn-out desk in your cramped, lonely room, reading, drinking coffee and maybe contemplating the universe. Just then, the lightbulb flickers out. Sighing, you get up and wiggle it back to life. Then again, a few seconds later, sighing more heavily this time. All you wanted was a bit of quiet time, but it seems your room has other ideas because the wallpaper starts peeling off the wall, revealing a hidden hatch that's just begging to be opened and explored. So of course you do, grabbing your trusty flashlight and crawling through to find a short, brick-built tunnel on the other side. Where could this go? Before long, the tunnel ends at a sheer drop and a rickety wooden ladder. Just as you're starting to think this was all a bad idea and maybe your coffee hasn't gone cold yet, the floor crumbles away, sending you tumbling onto the ladder, agonising inches from being able to clamber back onto the platform. Committed now, the only way out is down.
What could possibly be down there? Are you about to meet the old ones from beyond the depths of space and time, lurking in the darkness to devour everyone and everything? Nope. A colony of mole people, then? A little closer, but still no. Looking down, you find yourself near the roof of an enormous cavern filled by a teetering, sprawling castle stretching up from impossibly far below. And what could be more natural to find in an ancient castle hidden beneath the earth than . . . bird people? Human-sized bird people wearing frock coats, no less. As if that weren't enough, they share their subterranean keep with all manner of eclectic creatures, from square-jawed metal dogs to glowing-eyed goats and floating air jellyfish. Except these all have a Jekyll-and-Hyde existence, coming to life in the dark but hardening into furniture in the light. Yes, you read that right: flip a light switch and that snarling and snapping metal dog directly underneath will transform into a harmless wooden chest of drawers. With a plant on top. That you can climb on to reach a ladder, if you need to. Likewise, the jellyfish turn into globes of the world and the goats into chairs. Why? Well, why not?
Creaks is a game that loves to ask "why not?" Indeed, Amanita Design seems to revel in creating gloriously bizarre worlds filled with eccentric life and beauty. They want you to explore and experience just for the sake of it, without getting hung up on why, exactly, anyone would build a robot dog that can moonlight as a bedroom cabinet. Or live in a castle that mixes medieval stonework and stained glass with crumbling Victorian brickwork and part of an Egyptian tomb. Better to just roll with it and explore. In that spirit, all those maddeningly intricate puzzles, set up just in case a random stranger wanders down here, shouldn't even raise an eyebrow.
Compared to Amanita's previous work, the art style has gently evolved. Still lovingly hand-drawn and unique, this time around we're treated to intricate Machinarium-esque pen-and-ink drawings but with more of a watercolour wash, creating a palette of soothing grey-blue and warm brown backgrounds, against which the occasional pools of light can really pop. We're also, for the first time, greeted by a tousle-haired human protagonist. With his sweater vest, bulging eyes and wary curiosity, he presents a startlingly normal counterpoint to all the weirdness around him. The castle is a majestic place that looks like it was not so much built as accreted over the years, hanging together in defiance of physics and comfortably lived-in, with pans hanging from wonky wooden beams and piles of books everywhere. An enormous creature outside is also tearing great chunks out of it, leaving rubble and broken wood scattered around great holes in the walls and floors that hang out over nothing. The bird people are trying to rebuild, though, so you'll also run across scaffolding and hoists hanging perilously out into space.
Every room is a little different and beautifully realised, from the sprigs of herbs that rustle as you pass to the plants that grow towards the light. There are bottles here, a cobweb there, a broken-down vintage car and smiling kites flying in the wind. There are statues blowing bubblegum bubbles and a cheerful skeleton in a fedora. Wherever you look, background details and little animations help this impossible place feel alive and real.
The music and sound effects are similarly crafted to set the mood without becoming overbearing. Sometimes you'll hear nothing but the building groaning and the wind sighing, but then you'll turn the corner into a new area and be greeted by a perky, scene-setting melody played by a small band, ranging from tribal drums to gentle violins. Rather than play on a loop, it fades out once it's made its point to leave you to think. A particularly nice touch is the way the music's tempo and energy often pick up as you come close to solving a puzzle, cheering you on to the finish line.
As with Amanita's previous games, there's no dialogue as such, just occasional mumbling and gesticulating to get a point across. This works particularly well here, given that you wouldn't expect to be able to understand bird people anyway, and it's remarkable how much emotion this can still convey. Interestingly, too, each of the three birds you meet looks to be descended from a unique species and "speaks" with a different voice, from the brash squawking of the military leader to the gentle trilling of the steampunk-goggled inventor.
Creaks has possibly the smoothest and most seamless interface I've ever come across. Right from the start, when the main menu fades out and you suddenly realise the menu backdrop was your character's bedroom all along and the game has begun, everything is beautifully integrated. For example, rather than having obvious cutscenes, the protagonist simply bends down to see what's going on through a hole in the wall or peers through a grating. The castle also feels like one continuous space, with only the occasional brief pause as you walk or climb from one area to another. Likewise, the only overt tutorial consists of a few brief prompts to walk, climb ladders, jump or drop from manageable heights. (Gamepads are also supported, but mice are not.) After that, all the puzzle mechanics are introduced by having you stumble across them. For example, you're shown that the castle's denizens won't willingly step into a pool of light by dropping you into a room where you're protected from a dog by standing under a lamp. None of this is anything new, but it feels particularly smooth and frictionless here.
As you progress, you run across wildly different creatures with their own behavioural quirks, as well as pressure plates, movable platforms, timers, and all the usual puzzle-platformer staples. At their heart, however, most of the delightfully inventive puzzles are about playing with light and dark. As well as turning an angry canine into a convenient stepping stool, manipulating light sources can give substance to otherwise weightless jellyfish, divert water down elephant-trunk pipes, or just let you freeze enemies in place so as to wriggle past in safety. Combine that with the ways the different creatures interact together, such as dogs scaring goats but being repelled by jellyfish, and you have an increasingly complex set of pieces to slot together, making for a wonderfully brain-tickling experience.
Each room’s challenges are essentially self-contained and almost always fit onto one screen (even if the view sometimes has to zoom out a bit to fit it all in), but don't let that apparent simplicity fool you: they're heavily layered with multiple elements for you to unpack and arrange just so, if you're ever to make it to the exit. That layering is literal, too, with spaces often consisting of two, three or even four levels for you to navigate and play off against each other. In a genre that usually focuses on just getting from one side of a screen to the other, this vertical emphasis is refreshing, and fits perfectly with the protagonist’s overall descent into the depths of the castle.
There's no hint system, which left me on the edge of frustration a few times, but although the puzzles are tricky they're always fair. For me, at least, a short break and trying to think it through step-by-step usually turned up a solution. On the couple of occasions when I felt properly stumped, light eventually dawned when I realised I wasn't thinking far enough outside the box. It’s an inventive world, so be prepared to put apparently standard puzzle pieces to inventive uses!
If you read that part about running away from angry dogs and worried about needing precise timing, there is indeed a degree of dexterity needed, but thankfully it shouldn't be an issue for most people. All the creatures either move pretty slowly or clearly telegraph their intentions, giving you plenty of time to get away. Generally, whenever my plan involved moving quickly and having split-second reactions, that was a pretty good indicator I was barking up the wrong tree; I rarely ran into problems once I'd figured out what to do. And if you do die, you're rewound to the nearest safe spot with little fuss.
If Creaks has a weakness, it's that it perhaps relies too heavily on your innate desire to explore, with the fairly lightweight plot bubbling along beside you as you go. Only towards the end are you drawn in to become actively involved in the struggle to save the castle, rather than simply watching as the bird people do their humble best against overwhelming odds. That didn't always sit well with me, even if their leader didn't seem to mind on the couple of occasions we ran into each other. I'd have preferred to (for example) be drawn in by their cry for help rather than feeling a bit like a sightseer in a warzone. That's nitpicking, though: you always know it's going to work out for the best, as the birds bounce optimistically from one scheme to another, and ultimately it's about the journey rather than the destination.
Your trip also has other rewards as well, in the form of more than thirty oil painting music boxes for you to find, some in plain view and others hidden in secret corners. These are delightful extras, paintings with moving parts that come to life and play a tune when you pull the cord. Several of them can even be wound up and played as mini-games, making you jump a marionette over obstacles or sneak past a courting couple. Some fill in a bit of background about the birds' world, but they're mostly just there to be charming objects in themselves, an expression of the love and playfulness that suffuses the rest of the game. They certainly go well beyond the usual collectibles and, even without them, this would be a meaty experience at around 8-10 hours of playtime.
Overall, Creaks is simply a joy. From its intricately hand-drawn graphics to its imaginative world filled to the brim with gloriously bizarre sights and curious characters, it's packed with creative energy and fun. That creativity also yields increasingly tricky puzzles, but they’re so cleverly designed that they’ll have you scratching your head rather than tearing your hair out. The story may play out around you rather than because of you much of the time, but who cares when you're along for such a spectacularly idiosyncratic ride? Don’t expect a typical Amanita gameplay experience, but it’s heartily recommended to anyone whose inner child is looking for a challenge.