For whatever reason you wake up. Crouched at the other side of the room is a squat figure. Just waiting, watching from the darkness. You lunge for the bedside lamp and immediately, the panic evaporates. In the light, that menacing form is simply the jacket you draped over a chair before going to bed.
This nightmarish situation – an example of pareidolia, if you want to sound particularly smart – sits at the thematic core of Creaks, the latest release from acclaimed indie developers Amanita Design. Several years in development, Creaks is the first puzzle platformer from the Czech studio known for the quirky, illustration-style point-and-click adventures Machinarium, Botanicula and the Samarost series.
Creaks may be a genre side-step for Amanita, but it’s as idiosyncratic as you would expect. Coming across aesthetically like the heavily-etched offspring of Tim Burton and Maurice Sendak, Creaks offers a Neil Gaiman-esque tale that is unsettling but never horrific. While investigating a flickering lightbulb, our everyman protagonist discovers a rickety ladder that takes him deep down into the earth. There he finds himself in a sprawling, ramshackle settlement populated by bird people, called avians, and other oddities, known as creaks.
Light has magical properties in this dark, subterranean world, turning robot dogs into bedside tables and spiky shadow people into coat stands. Light is also your most important tool in traversing the many stages as you advance to the root of the settlement. Your reason for doing so? There is a kaiju-grade creak battering away at the home of the avians, and you join forces to stop it.
That’s the sketched narrative of Creaks, although the game is dialogue free, so you piece together the plot from gibberish, gesticulated interactions with the bird people. Then there are the 18th and 19th Century paintings you encounter, which either relate the backstory of your new allies, or offer optional mini games that add more puzzle variety, and a handful of achievements, to the game.
Playing Creaks for review is problematic because the game shouldn’t be rushed. It’s clearly meant to be savoured, all round. There’s its distinctive art style, and intricate world design full of tiny details. It’s not just creaks that transform when exposed to light, you see. In this dark world, moving a lamp over a shrivelled plant causes it to bloom in full colour. Take away the light, and the plant crumples again.
Creaks has clearly been lovingly made, and the final ten or so minutes showcase exactly how the avians’ home is knitted together. As the menu screen establishes, this is one cohesive, well-constructed setting, and you often feel like you’re in the video game equivalent of a children’s storybook, deliciously dark and handcrafted.
For the record, once a scene is unlocked, or a painting has been found, you can replay them separately from the menu.
Then, of course, there’s Creaks’ primary drawcard: its stage traversal puzzles. Puzzle platformers remain a relatively niche genre, so an elegantly designed, if deliberately scruffy looking, new addition like Creaks is welcome. Although it debuted on Apple Arcade, Creaks is far from a breezy mobile experience. Three-hour walkthroughs may already exist online, but you’re far more likely to devote around eight to ten hours to complete the game.
As already mentioned, Creaks is meant to be savoured. Given its length, it’s quite easy to fatigue while playing the game, which has some extremely challenging, logic-centred levels. For the most part, just as a puzzle mechanic starts to teeter on tedium, the developers mix things up by introducing new elements, and new creaks with their own unique movement style to manipulate to your advantage.
Speaking of movement, if there are any complaints to be made about Creaks, it’s that the streamlined controls can let you down at times, leading to botched puzzles. For example, instead of climbing onto a transformed creak, you can end up pushing it out of a pool of light, which results in you being killed by its shadow form.
The official recommendation is that Creaks is “best enjoyed with a controller and headphones.” The latter is to fully appreciate the moody score by Hidden Orchestra. A further nice touch is that as you inch closer to solving a puzzle, the ambient sound changes, giving you a clue that you’re on the right track.
Those are the only hints you get with Creaks, which consistently surprises thanks to its originality. Although the protagonist frequently clambers downwards, as a player it’s difficult to gauge where the game is heading, leaning as hard as it does into its special brand of weirdness. One of those surprises is that there is no mega puzzle waiting at the end, with Creaks instead capped off by a long string of cut scenes. Then again, by this point you’ll likely feel like you earned a break from all the head scratching that preceded it.
Creaks is available right now through Apple Arcade. The game hits Windows, MacOS, Xbox One and PS4 next week, on 22 July. A version of the game for Nintendo Switch is also in the works.
Last Updated: July 16, 2020