Pinball mixed with dungeon crawling lives up to its promise.
The high concept nature of Flight School’s new Switch game Creature in the Well is admirable and endearing. At a glance, it’s a straightforward indie dungeon crawler, brimming with a mysterious atmosphere and a muted yet memorable soundtrack. But beneath the surface of this depressed robot story is an excellent hook: instead of regular old hacking and slashing, you use weapons to swat balls around rooms in pinball-esque fashion. The implementation is relatively no-nonsense, so much so that the game lays out its mission statement right away and just keeps building on it slowly but surely over the course of eight dungeons. While the ingenuity of Creature in the Well might run out at times, more often than not, it’s a breath of fresh air with novel puzzles, tense moments, and above all else, a killer vibe.
To get to the highs, you need to survive some rough opening moments, though. I applaud the way Creature in the Well sets the tone to start, but a lack of explanation makes learning the mechanics frustrating. In general, this is a hard game, but the most difficult moments are likely at the beginning since the concept is so new. It takes a while to get used to this specific brand of dungeon crawling as you learn the tricks of how best to bounce balls around the room to hit targets while avoiding obstacles. Death is liable to happen, potentially frequently, and when it does, you’ll experience a laborious sequence where you are kicked out of the well by the eponymous creature and then have to slowly walk back to the dungeon with virtually no health. Right before you go back to the dungeon, there is a pool to get your health back. This was not clear to me until I accidentally stumbled into the pool and furthermore, the clumsy loop of reentering the dungeon can just become monotonous and repetitious. The overall lack of explanation for that, in addition to the way you upgrade your character, can make the opening unnecessarily vexing.
The difficulty follows a consistent curve after the initial steep beginning, leveling off at a firm terse but fair qualification. Each dungeon has its own unique hook that adds more nuance to the puzzles and gameplay. One might focus more on obstacles that can fire back at you. Another features more time-focused challenges. It keeps things fresh in the face of repetitive and reused surroundings. A simple-to-read map also papers over some potential issues of areas looking virtually identical. This easily could have been a major problem, but the overarching design transcends reused room designs.
Mostly this game does that by being distinctive and fun. It’s rewarding to line up a perfect shot or chaotically send balls all over the place to clear bumpers and circles. Figuring out the optimal way to bank a shot around a room is enjoyable. When the pinball dungeon crawling clicks, dungeons are enjoyable romps with branching paths, secrets, and sneaky challenges. Most of my play sessions were dotted by moments of just wanting to eke out one more room or wipe out one more boss.
Creature in the Well is an inventive experiment that executes a quirky concept very well. When you’re embroiled in the pinball dungeon crawling, it’s transcendent with only fleeting moments of repetition. The periphery is unfortunately a little maddening, with death gameplay loop and general lack of explanation topping the complaints. My advice would be to not go into it fully blind and don’t be afraid to ask for help at the outset. It’s well worth trotting through the rough opening to get to the gooey center of excellent genre blending.