Animal Well Review - Going Deeper

  • First Released May 9, 2024
  • PC

Animal Well delights with its non-traditional approach to Metroidvanias, combining unique items with a reactive and surreal world that's full of surprises.

It's usually pretty easy to predict how a 2D Metroidvania is going to play out. At some point, you'll probably unlock a double or even triple jump to reach previously inaccessible areas, obtain an air dash that helps you traverse large gaps and pass through specific blockades, and acquire a weapon upgrade that functions as both a killing tool and a way to progress past certain obstacles. Animal Well contains most of these things, but never in ways that are expected. Created by solo developer Billy Basso and published by Bigmode, Animal Well is a surrealist puzzle platformer that's delightfully surprising. Even if its pixelated art style and genre trappings make it seem familiar on the surface, it is a game that often eschews conventional wisdom and stands out because of it.

You play as a nondescript blob who emerges from a blossoming flower into a strange vibrant world filled with creatures big and small. You can move and jump, but that's about the extent of your physical prowess. Upon awakening, you're free to explore in any direction you choose. Animal Well doesn't hold your hand and is exceedingly non-linear, letting you unlock items and abilities in whichever order you find them. There is an end goal that's revealed once you discover a map and get a lay of the land, as each corner of the map contains a flame you need to fetch in order to light the four beacons at its center. Why, you might ask? There isn't an explicit explanation for anything you do, but that sense of mystery is part of what drives the adventure forward.

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The other part is the world of Animal Well itself. At first glance, its pixelated art style looks simple, yet each screen holds a deceptive layer of detail beyond its neon-drenched exterior. Whether it's the cascading background elements, reflections on the water's surface, the sway of bushes and vines as you move past them, or the realistic smoke that billows into the air after igniting a firecracker, there's more to the visuals that it may seem on first blush. There are also physics, lighting, and particle systems at play that modernize the game's Commodore 64-inspired visuals, creating a world that feels very much alive, and that's without mentioning the abundance of wildlife.

From giant technicolor swans to iguanas with elongated tongues capable of snatching up other animals, Animal Well's creature designs possess an enticing, dreamlike quality. Music is used sparingly, with the sounds of nature--of chirping birds and the pitter-patter of falling water--dominating the soundscape. When music does enter the fray, it's usually done to ratchet up the tension, introducing ominous synth tones that wouldn't feel out of place in an '80s thriller.

Unlike many other Metroidvanias, Animal Well doesn't feature combat; the focus is purely on puzzle-solving and platforming. That doesn't mean there aren't any threats to your life, however. The tense music is there to complement a plethora of anxiety-inducing moments as you encounter aggressive animals and other nasties. Being chased by the ghostly apparition of a demonic cat is thrilling, just as being forced to cower underground as the long neck of an ostrich undulates towards you--its beak chomping at the bit--is incredibly suspenseful. Consumable firecrackers can scare away some creatures, while others require you to simply run away. Yet it's the gradual arsenal of tools at your disposal that makes a real difference.

Like any good Metroidvania, Animal Well features various items that act as keys to progression while also introducing new gameplay mechanics. As I mentioned earlier, the options here are pleasantly surprising due to how they break from the norm. Instead of unlocking a traditional double jump, for example, you acquire a magic wand that creates bubbles, allowing you to hop on top of a floating sphere to reach higher platforms. This might not sound groundbreaking, but when you factor in the way certain enemies and objects in the environment can interact with these bubbles, their impact is much more varied than a simple double jump could ever be.

The frisbee, meanwhile, can be used like a makeshift dash; provided there are two surfaces for it to bounce between. You can also launch it to flip faraway levers or distract certain animals, like dogs, giving you the opportunity to slip past unharmed. This emphasis on avoiding combat makes enemy encounters feel like puzzles to be solved, which seamlessly meshes with the rest of the game's engaging puzzle design.

I was never stumped for long by any of Animal Well's conundrums, yet the solutions were nearly always creative enough that I constantly felt satisfied whenever I solved one. Most of the puzzles revolve around opening the path forward by activating a number of switches. This might be done by dropping a slinky and moving blocks to guide it down the right path or manipulating animals to walk on switches you can't reach yourself. Sometimes, you might use a yo-yo to flip a switch underneath you, ricochet the frisbee off two different levers to cause platforms to activate and de-activate--creating a timing-based platforming section--or use a crank to rotate platforms and redirect the spray from a water fountain into a bowl. I'm deliberately describing some of the earlier puzzles because discovering Animal Well's various conundrums yourself is a significant part of the experience. But these examples are a decent glimpse at the sheer variety on show.

There are also secrets to be found in the nooks and crannies of Animal Well's densely packed map. These take the shape of various eggs that are then stored in a hub area containing a few locked doors. After finding a specific number of eggs, some of these doors begin to open, leading to new areas and new items. These items aren't necessary to progress towards the game's ending but instead seem to revolve around unlocking more hidden secrets. Once the final credits roll, you're free to continue playing in search of these mysteries, yet it doesn't seem like something one person will be able to figure out on their own. Maybe I'm wrong, but it has a similar feeling to Fez, whereby the internet is going to have to work together to uncover everything. That's an enticing prospect.

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For the most part, Animal Well's platforming isn't particularly challenging, but it feels precise to the point where you can stop on a dime in mid-air if you need to. The map is also small and interconnected enough that backtracking rarely feels laborious, although I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't have liked a way to move between areas instantly in those moments when I wasn't entirely sure where to go next. There are a couple of sections where dying multiple times is a distinct possibility, and it's here where backtracking can encroach on frustration due to the way respawning works. The last save point you used is where you'll reappear after dying, which can sometimes be a fair distance away. Normally, this is a non-issue, but when you encounter a section--like one involving moving platforms that can crush you in an instant--the long trek back quickly becomes demoralizing.

It's impressive that this is the lone blemish on an otherwise excellent addition to the pantheon of great Metroidvanias. This is a game that's chock full of pleasant surprises, from the way its items forgo tradition in interesting ways to the visual design and sense of atmosphere generated by its bizarre, neon-soaked world. Animal Well might look antiquated and familiar at first glance, but this well is cavernous and unpredictable.

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The Good

  • Items are unique, fun to use, and have multiple uses
  • Enemy encounters are suspenseful puzzles to be solved
  • The world's visual design is surreal and fascinating
  • Puzzles are engaging, varied, and satisfying

The Bad

  • Its most challenging moments force you to constantly backtrack after dying

About the Author

Richard finished Animal Well in six hours, splitting time between PC and Steam Deck. Review code was provided by the publisher.