The Whitlock Mansion is a strange, eerie place. Monsters called Chaos Servants stalk the halls, attacking anyone with whom they cross paths, a strange spirit haunts the eldest daughter, and the lord and lady of the manner seem to have more than a few secrets of their own. On her birthday one year, Clea decides she’s had enough—she’s going to take her little brother, Ed, and escape once and for all.
This sets up Clea in a classic side-scrolling survival horror framework as the eponymous heroine makes her escape. Getting out of the mansion means sneaking past the many Chaos Servants and other horrors that roam free, with no means of fighting back. Hiding and misdirection are the only real tricks that Clea has at her disposal, and the way out is hidden behind a maze of locked doors and keys hidden behind puzzles.
As such, Clea needs to rely on her wits. An encounter with a monster spells instant death, so keeping track of their whereabouts at all times is crucial to success. A limited scope to peek under doors and a short distance to the left and right helps a lot, but Clea’s most valuable tool is her sharp sense of hearing. The plodding footsteps of the Chaos Servants, skittering sound of deadly spiders, and creaky sound of doors opening and closing all help to locate potential threats and figure out which way they’re going.
Where other games would turn listening into some clear and present visual signal—think The Last of Us and a “listening” mode that amounts to a full-blown radar—Clea demands that you rely wholly on your own ears. If you wait for a visual cue, it’s usually too late; you need to really stop and listen to hear if footsteps are getting louder or softer, and match the sounds of doors to what you know of the layout of the mansion. At the same time, monsters can hear you if you’re not careful, but that’s also something you can use to your advantage—deliberately making a noise and then hiding nearby can be an effective way to encourage stubborn Chaos Servants to get out of your way.
One of Clea‘s more interesting wrinkles here comes in the form of Clea’s possession. She starts each chapter under the influence of an evil spirit, which you can see in the tears of blood streaming down her face; in this state, she’ll periodically let out an uncontrollable shriek, alerting all nearby foes to her location. In order to stave this off, you need to find a potion hidden somewhere in each chapter—after that, you’re safe (well, safer), but if you don’t have a spare potion on you at the start of the next, you’ll be back down the possessed road once more.
Using sound as your primary sense can be tricky at first, but becomes surprisingly intuitive before too long and something you can actively work to your advantage before much longer after that. There’s a lot owed to the quality of the sound design here; scouting by sound is only reliable because of how clear and distinct those sound effects are, and how well they communicate the information that they need to.
The trade off to this is that playing without sound isn’t really an option. The PC version of Clea has a hidden accessibility option that adds visual sound indicators for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, but I couldn’t find any such option in the Switch version—not in the options menu, not by using the console’s buttons to try approximate the code to activate this feature in the PC version (0011), not by searching online. If it’s there at all, it’s not at all easy to find, which seems to defeat the purpose.
The puzzles that you’re tasked with solving as you try to escape the manor are all fairly straightforward things: looking for hidden keys that open rooms to more hidden keys, until you finally find the one that opens the way to the next section; deciphering the right order to hit a series of switches; using the layout of a level to bypass a particularly tenacious foe; that sort of thing. The puzzle design in Clea is nothing groundbreaking, but it works.
Similarly, the story is a little forgettable. There’s a lot of promise early on, with a lot of the sort of vagaries that help to build up the tense atmosphere and lay the groundwork for whatever horrific reveal is to come, but the truth that eventually comes out manages to both over-explain the whole situation, at the expense of the atmosphere that comes with the mystery, and deliver an especially lacklustre conclusion in its place. There’s nothing wrong with a simple, minimalist story—especially in a horror game, where there’s so much thematic potential in being kept in the dark—but Clea misses the opportunity established by its interesting premise.
On the other hand, the art design and presentation works wonders in building up that eerie atmosphere and sense of dread. The whole game has a sort of gothic papercraft puppet aesthetic to it, blending victorian fashions with creepy doll-like faces—not just for the monsters, but for the few humans you encounter, too. Clea herself is no exception, with a decidedly unsettling look to her that grows exponentially if you’re unlucky enough to see her possessed. Add in animations that make characters, friend and foe alike, look like puppets on a string, and you’ve got a game that can look rather unsettling.
It’s that sense of style that helps carry Clea through to the finish, despite its shortcomings. It’s not a groundbreaking horror game by any means, but what it does, for the most part it does well: a simple but effective cat-and-mouse loop with plenty of tension, underscored by an art style that emphasises that atmosphere well.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.