Stepping out of one’s comfort zone is always a difficult thing to do, especially with regards to art. Once you’ve worked for a certain amount of time on a certain kind of project, embracing change can be a tricky thing – especially if what you already do is well received and successful, but if you can recognise the potential in something new, and find a way to move into that, you have a massive opportunity to grow, and to flourish.
And that’s exactly what Marcus Lam; the creative mind at Invert Mouse – indie dev behind Clea – has done. Invert Mouse have been the developer of a robust catalogue of visual novels since 2012, and the Steam reviews show that they know what they’re doing when it comes to telling a story. Clea steps outside of Invert Mouse’s traditional format to explore the 2D horror genre; and although there are a couple of frustrations along the way, Clea manages to remain an atmospheric and successful 2D stealth horror; one that had me cacking myself like an incontinent child more than once by the end.
We kick off our story at Whitlock mansion. Clea is celebrating her Birthday with her Brother Ed and their Nanny (or Baker, I’m not sure) Florine. After a disturbing noise is heard, identified as an escaped Chaos Servant – eek! – Florine runs off to find your Mum and Dad, and on realising that she’s probably not coming back, Clea takes matters into her own hands to follow suit, find her parents and Florien, and get the hell out of there.
This opening scene is where two of the game’s finest attributes shine through instantly. Firstly, the game looks superb. Clearly not entirely ready to leave their visual novel roots behind, Invert Mouse have retained that overt anime inspired aesthetic. But in its 2D platformer setting, the movement of the characters against the props and backdrops in symbiosis with the wonderful lighting give the game a kind of shadow puppet effect. Moving through these creepy locations against the flickering of Clea’s candle, her little Brother surreptitiously following behind, clutching his teddy bear; I felt like I’d been dropped right in the middle of a children’s nightmare.
Secondly, and in similar devotion to their roots, the sound has been carefully constructed, and plays a huge part in the game’s success. The characters have all been professionally voice acted, which pays off, and will no doubt ring some familiar bells for fans of the anime genre. This atmosphere is supported throughout the entire game by excellent diegetic sound – creeping crawlies, haunting hotel lobby piano music, the squelching footsteps of predators, the flickering of a lonely flame or the chirping of crickets in the distant night. All the sounds weave together to create a lovingly crafted cushion of audio on which to set this story.
As I began my journey through Whitlock, it wasn’t long before I was introduced to one of the game’s primary antagonists – The Chaos Servant. Entirely clad in cultist robes with a terrifying ghostly expression lifted straight from a Japanese folk tale – the game was very clear and indicative that my task was never to try to attack these creatures, but to avoid and move past them as quietly as possible. I worked out that I had 3 functions of movement – run, walk, and creep. The run feature had a significant audible resonance, whereas the walk caused just a little sound, and creep allowed completely silent movement. The effect of sound is another element that’s implemented really well in Clea. The enemies don’t move on set paths, and will react to your running. You’ll know you’ve alerted an enemy with your heavy footing by a garbled noise of monstrous malcontent in the distance. It’s a device well put in place to stop you from running around the mansion for efficiency’s sake. You’ll soon realise you’re making it much harder for yourself in the long run when chaos servants start showing up in gangs. They’re manageable on their own, but as soon as you have more than one wandering around you, making your way from room to room becomes a much more difficult task. Despite my best efforts, it wasn’t long before I miss-stepped in the halls of Whitlock, and had to leg it from a chaos servant – this time a jovial chap clad in green garb with spiky protrusions emanating from its back. Sexy! Unfortunately for me, Clea wasn’t able to outrun the chaos servant, and then… Well…
Yeah, the death screen will scar you.
Making my way through the game, which essentially is a combination of stealth, item gathering and puzzle solving, I would inevitably misjudge a movement, or alert the chaos servants in some other way, and the game does an incredible job of making every encounter a heart pounding experience. Invert Mouse have put great focus on marketing this game as a horror game without jump scares. There’s nothing predefined in the horror you’ll experience in Clea – every tense moment and terrifying enemy appearance is entirely organic, and based on the way you choose to conduct yourself, and I love that.
Once I realised I couldn’t outrun the robed rascals, I was forced to try out different tactics. I discovered through trial and error that if I was able to make it to another door, I could escape through, giving me a short amount of time to find somewhere to hide. The many wardrobe/cupboard areas throughout the game were essentially safe havens, that if reached, provide immunity from being found or caught. These offered moments of respite in a game world that was for the most part entirely traversable by your enemies.
Clea offers two starting difficulties for you to choose from – Light and Dark, with an unlockable Chaos mode after completion. After trying the first stage on the Light difficulty, I chose to play through the rest of Clea on its more difficult starting mode – Dark – in order to understand the differences, which for the most part are based around the enemies reaction and speed. The concept of rewarding precise play, and punishing carelessness is something that I really enjoy, and for those that look for that same quality – the Dark difficulty will offer exactly what you need.
Clea’s Dark difficulty utilises a fairly unforgiving save feature. Taking the form of cakes, your save points can only be activated using single use candles that you can find around the game. This is a clear homage to Resident Evil 1’s save system, but unlike Resi 1, the save currency is incredibly rare in Clea. Don’t think you’ll be able to save as often as you like part way through puzzles as a safety net. You’ll need to decide when saves seem the most pivotal; when you feel a death would leave you having lost much covered ground – a task that you soon get used to after losing frustrating amounts of game time. You gain a sixth sense for it. For those that consider this a little too harsh, the Light difficulty allows you unlimited use of the save points – so don’t feel this form of masochism is a must.
Enemies can appear very suddenly in Clea, and you’ll rely heavily on your heartbeat sensor and your ear for the sound of their footsteps to gauge where they are in the level. The sound proximity system in Clea is actually quite an advanced system with three separate elements. The heartbeat sensor will give you a general indication of when enemies are approaching, but if you listen for footsteps, you’ll not only get an idea of how far away they are, but also which direction they’re approaching from, making headphones a real must have for this game. The third element is extremely ambitious, and works remarkably well considering. Clea encourages you to make use of the sound of enemy movement on the other side of doors and walls as well, in order to best estimate when to move to and from areas. This adds a whole new level of dynamism to the game, giving you that sense that the mansion is a living entity beyond what you see on the screen at any one time. Occasionally I found directions and distances too hard to distinguish for enemies in other areas to be of much practical use, but even then it gave me that unnerving feeling that there be monsters beyond the wall, and I dug it.
There are some other tools to use to your advantage, which are key to your survival in Clea. You can peek left and right beyond the screen’s natural field of view using the shoulder buttons (on controller). It’s very useful, but I wish you could use this feature while moving, as opposed to only when standing still. Having to stop in order to peek always seemed overly risky considering the speed that enemies could approach you, and I kind of felt that by sacrificing your view one side in order to look further into the other, you were already at enough of a disadvantage without needing to remain still at the same time.
It’s important to note that making sound is not always putting you at a disadvantage, but can also provide tactical benefits in Clea. Interacting with in game objects or purposefully running on the hardwood flooring can be used as a makeshift lure. These tactics worked nicely during my playtime, providing the enemies didn’t run up to where I’d made the noise, and then just hobble back the way they came. This could happen, as the direction that an enemy chose to go after they investigated a sound seemed to be random. It wasn’t a big issue, but did mean that I had to repeat my tactic a few times in some instances until the enemy moved off the way I wanted them to.
The game’s range of puzzles felt fresh in every scenario, and made use of the game’s core stealth mechanics in slightly different ways each time. The second stage was a multi layered affair traversing four levels of the mansion in order to solve memory puzzles, with chaos servants looming, and roaming in and out of hallways. Another stage involved a more intimate 1 on 1 scenario with a demonic version of Clea – a character integral to the game’s plot. In this I had to navigate through a labyrinthine maze of shape and colour coded doors in a dreamscape garden, collecting keys in order to unlock the exit.
Another stage introduced a new invisible enemy equipped with its own set of chilling soundbites (wait ’til you hear laughing boy), forcing me to utilise the tight audio mechanics in the game instead of relying on visual enemy movement. This was probably my favourite stage in Clea. The complexity and difficulty really spiked from stage 1, and although I struggled for a short while, I’m glad that was the case. Once I had an understanding of all the game’s mechanics, something clicked for me, and I found myself far more successful in my first attempts for every stage following on from that point. Once the stealth and hiding mechanics are fully understood, there’s a real flow to Clea that perhaps isn’t experienced in the opening couple of hours of play. Bear with it, and it rewards you. I don’t think the game needed any more tutorial. It’s not an overly long game, with me registering 5 hours for my first play through, and it was super fun to discover all these elements on my own.
There are a couple of niggling issues. I’m not a fan of the chaos spider enemies – or more specifically I’m not a fan of them in conjunction with the door opening animation. These little suckers will come at you out of nowhere, and can be scared off easily enough by moving towards them. However, if you’re very unlucky, one might appear just as you’re hitting the button to open a door. You’re not protected when you’re in this inescapable animation, and there were plenty of times that I was caught by a chaos spider that had appeared just as I hit the button. If there was a health bar, we could maybe not worry about this. But as every enemy is a one hit kill, this caused me a great deal of frustration on more than one occasion.
There was another instance where I was creeping past a significant boss enemy in the game. I’d worked out that creeping was key, and allowed me to slip by unnoticed. However for some reason when I reached a certain floor, the tactic didn’t work, and the enemy was able to catch me regardless of what I did. I eventually worked out that I was just supposed to run for a hiding spot as soon as I reached this floor, but there was nothing to indicate, and no explanation that I was going to have to do this, and it took quite a few failed attempts before I got through.
“Clea is a carefully folded paper portrait of horror, and I’ve enjoyed every fright, failure and victory.“
However these minor frustrations are very minor when weighed up against the game’s many successes, and throughout writing this review, I’ve been constantly picking Clea up to try new things, discovering new elements, and honing skills; and that’s a testament to its allure. Clea is absolutely charming in its own creepifying style, and I felt a need to discover, and ultimately unravel more of the mystery. Having finished the game, I do still feel mostly clueless as to what caused the Chaos to escape, and how Clea’s family fit in to the picture, but I know the game is brimming with hidden rooms, and unlockable content that I no doubt failed to uncover in my play time. Clea is a carefully folded paper portrait of horror, and I’ve enjoyed every fright, failure and victory. I can’t wait to see what InvertMouse come up with next.
Clea is available on Steam now at an introductory price of £4.07 (usually £4.79)
Check out the full trailer below!