Author Topic: ANIMAL WELL (Switch) Review  (Read 727 times)

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Offline whilhorst

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ANIMAL WELL (Switch) Review
« on: May 09, 2024, 05:00:00 AM »

Finding Secrets in the Deep

Diegetic gameplay, very simply put: games that teach their player without the aid of a text-box, is a rare occurrence nowadays. Perhaps it is the fear that confusion and a lack of direction will alienate most players or simply because a combination of game mechanics can get confusing rather quickly. I was therefore pleasantly surprised that while playing ANIMAL WELL, the only text boxes that would pop up were that of confirming whether to save or not. ANIMAL WELL is shrouded in mystery and designed with a clear intent. While not every cog in the machine flows as smoothly, it makes for a memorable metroidvania-like experience that sets itself apart from the competition almost every chance it gets.

ANIMAL WELL does not feature a lengthy text crawl, or a description of where you find yourself but immediately drops you into the middle of a dark and sprawling dungeon, it's titular well. While a lot is left in the dark, literally and figuratively, your main objective is to retrieve four flames located all around the map. Armed with nothing but a jump, you will need to solve puzzles, find paths to proceed and activate switches to open doors and locks. All the while darkness envelopes the depths of the well and its animalistic inhabitants.

The vagueness in that description is really just my personal, “spoiler-free” interpretation. The creator of ANIMAL WELL has stated his intention of keeping many of the games' secrets hidden and the game does a pretty good job at that, even at times to its own detriment. I cannot tell you the events of what happens in ANIMAL WELL. Unlike Hollow Knight where a thread is laid out for you to follow, ANIMAL WELL is truly all about the vibes. And man, what vibes they are. Looking like an old 8-bit or 16-bit game, with accommodating scanlines, the game manages to look absolutely gorgeous at nearly all times. Its strength especially is in the lighting and depth of field effect in the backgrounds. From droplets falling from the ceiling to the lighting of firecrackers that fly off in colorful trails and all directions. If you play the game on a Switch OLED model in handheld mode or an OLED TV it looks stunning due to its use of blacks.

Lighting and your own field of view becomes key as you navigate the twists and turns inside the well. The locations of flames are all easy to tell apart and feel distinctive in its setting and atmosphere. From the watery depths at the bottom of the well, to the growth that has taken over the higher reaches. With some clever tricks and those aforementioned secrets the game quickly becomes about learning how to navigate the well while solving puzzles. As you go about you obtain items that serve as power-ups. For example a stairwalker, that when dropped on an elevated surface will start to move downwards and can hold down switches. Another item is a Yo-Yo that can be used to reach long distances or even attract animals to move around to specific locations. Combined with the instantaneous traversal between screens, which is something I didn't know I needed in my metroidvanias, it makes combining all the pieces together incredibly satisfying.

You may have noticed that I have not used the word enemy once yet. What genuinely surprised me is that ANIMAL WELL does not feature active combat whatsoever. Where Samus can fire beams at will to defeat enemies or interact with the world, ANIMAL WELL relies just on timed platforming, positioning yourself and distracting obstacles or aggressive animals. It is a bold choice, especially since the game features several what could only be described as “boss battles”. Where during the exploration it is fun to run around and figure out methods to get rid of obstacles or attacking Animals, these bosses really felt like they broke with the core identity of ANIMAL WELL. Since you are unable to directly attack bosses, they tend to resort to discovering patterns and trying to survive for as long as possible. These were really some of the most uneven and frustrating difficulty spikes of the game. One boss chases you through a long stretch of the level as you have to make your way to a specific spot. It can be fun to plot out the route, but having to retry this over fifteen times became dull and frustrating. On the other hand, the final confrontation was surprisingly anticlimactic and short, leaving me wanting more.

There are a ton of hidden secrets and collectibles you are able to obtain as you learn better and better how to navigate the well. Using your map is just as essential as learning to time your jumps. All this makes ANIMAL WELL memorable in ways that cannot be said for other recent metroidvanias. Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown has an enormous map and fairly in-depth combat system, whereas ANIMAL WELL is short and concise in teaching the player how to explore. Metroid: Dread is about segmented gameplay chunks, where each biome relies on another skillset. In ANIMAL WELL I felt that the game never felt the need to withhold information but wanted me to almost sequence break from the word go. And Hollow Knight revels in its atmosphere and world building, but ANIMAL WELL is set on unnerving the player by not explaining a single thing. It makes the game exciting, it feels tense to play at times and even when committing myself to only a short 20-minute session I found myself getting sucked into its mysteries and refusal to enlighten me. That is a tightrope that not a lot of games can walk, but ANIMAL WELL does it masterfully.

It is not perfect however. The aforementioned boss battles can be tedious and frustrating. Some secrets or passages were a little too obtuse at times. And one thing I was particularly not happy with was a segment where caged up animals, cats in this case, made such an awful sound of pain and anguish that I resorted to muting the game entirely. I would love it if the developer could add these particular “animal distress sounds” as a toggle in the sound options. Finally, the game is surprisingly short if you aren't set on finding all the secrets and collectibles. I'm sure there are players that will have a field day with this and can easily expand their playtime. But just when I had found most of the items and defeated the final challenge I was hoping for a bit more meat to the game. I guess I'll have to go back and hunt all those Easter eggs.

ANIMAL WELL is really unlike anything I've played. At first glance it looks like a stylish and gorgeous metroidvania that harkens back to a retro feeling. But under the hood, the game juggles so many ideas at once that slowly engrossed me into the experience. By the end, it felt like I've seen what the future of the metroidvania genre could hold. Even though it drops a few balls while juggling all these mechanics together, such as the boss battles. Still, ANIMAL WELL is a brilliantly put together game that I'd highly recommend to anyone who wants to get lost in a small but intricately designed game. I am quite convinced that both designers and players will be delving down deeper into this well over the coming years.