Animal Well is a 2D Commodore 64-inspired Metroidvania puzzle platformer, with a heavy emphasis on allowing the player to discover what’s on the next screen without any handholding.
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Indeed, sole developer Billy Basso sat alongside me as I played and told me to just go ahead, declining to tell me anything about the game or what to do and imploring me to just see what I think and what I can find. He says he spent the last five years working on the title.
You play as a nondescript blob in what must certainly be a well for animals, but the title is designed so that you’re completely unaware of what lies ahead or behind the nondescript blob you play as, until you’re able to find a map and get the lay of the land. In the demo, this was never used in a mean-spirited way to screw with the player — we never went to the left screen and dropped right onto a pit of spikes, for example — but rather to surprise the player with an unexpected visual or new area.
There’s a strong tension to not at all knowing where you’re going or what you’re supposed to be doing. You may go to the left and find a puzzle area you’re not quite sure what to do with at first, then maybe you’ll drop down to a lower screen and figure out a segment that leads you to a key or an item that you can use in the aforementioned area.
One of the first challenges is facing off with a blue ghost that mirrors your every movement as it darts in your direction — if you jump up, it heads down toward you, and if you go straight ahead it just tracks you head on until you die running into it — and you have to figure out how to make it to a ladder without it killing you. It took a few deaths and some experimenting with the game’s speed and physics systems, but when I finally outran the jerk, I felt outright catharsis.
The platforming is sharp as a tack. Some of the jumping puzzles have tiny, precise platforms, but this is a rare title where it feels like you can stop exactly where you need to mid-air or when you’re about to fall. For a game that at a glance looks antiquated and simple, there’s a stunning sense of balance and polish. Another puzzle in the demo requires you to rotate platforms to direct spray from a water fountain to bounce from one platform to the next to unlock a door. Describing it makes it sounds like a basic riff from a Legend of Zelda dungeon, but in practice there’s quite a lot of room for error and when you finally figure it out, it feels great.
The art style at first looks simple — another pixelated game in a lonely, dank underground?— but the areas are deceptively flooded with details, hints, and creatures like giant swans and technicolor, marching peacocks. There’s also a physics system, particles galore, and other massive animals. Even in short snippets of play, we could detect a penchant for the bizarre and a delight in surprising the player.
Basso says the full game will be accessible in terms of getting to the end, but will be full of esoteric secrets that may require online communities working together to solve — which sounds an awful like like Fez. This was easily our game of the show, and if the balance and sense of joy and discovery is consistent in the full title, I could easily see this being a cult classic — if not a game of the year contender — but we’re a sucker for the genre.