Animal Well Review – Ain’t This Just The Cat’s Pajamas

I’m not a metroidvania guy. My frustrating and infuriating attempts at Super Metroid, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Hollow Knight, arguably the three most notoriously excellent games in the genre, should communicate all you need to know about my feelings on these kinds of games. Behold! Animal Well.

Animal Well is very simply a metroidvania with no combat. Explore, complete puzzles, and move on to the next set of rooms, finding some secrets along the way. End of gameplay loop. Animal Well has shattered my understanding of game design, both in the simplicity of its execution and the complexity it allows players to bring to it. It is not only my favorite metroidvania of all time, but flat out one of the best games I have played in years.

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Can I offer you an egg in this trying time?

Animal Well is so simple it’s hard to form a full paragraph describing the premise. You’re a little guy. You’re in a seemingly infinite well full of animals. You slowly unlock six tools over the 10 hour campaign that will give you more ways to solve puzzles and more rooms to explore. Collect hidden eggs while you do so for secret rewards. Most rooms will feature animals of some kind. Some, like the chinchillas or ducks, are friendly and want to assist your travels. Others, such as the porcupines and rats, simply don’t care that you are there. And of course some animals, including the whale and the dogs, are out to kill you. As I said, Animal Well features no combat. How do you fight back? You fight back with your brain. It’s puzzle time, baby. And the platforming feels amazing; this game excels with responsive controls, consistent physics, and easily controlled movement.

Animal Well features no dialogue and only a handful of bubbles of text that tell you that you have found a new tool or egg. From the very start of the game, I understood I was watching genius game design at work. In the best ways possible, it reminds me of the original Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo Entertainment Systen (NES). This game is hell bent on showing, not telling, you how to play, and it does it so deftly I want to erase tutorial boxes from the world for good.

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Most puzzles will span over multiple connected rooms in intelligent ways.

Four flames show on screen. They each disappear and spread in four directions. There is no text or story explaining your goal, but you know that you need to find those four flames, because you’re not stupid. Then you show up, at the bottom of the titular animal well, and you begin. The game clearly wants you to go right; you’ve played a video game before, so you know to go left first. Every player I’ve seen has started Animal Well this same way. Walking left uncovers a hidden room with a chest – a reward for your curiosity. You were correct to not go right. Animal Well presupposes not only that you have played many video games before, but that you already have an intimate understanding of how they are designed. It trusts that you understand games and will let that understanding guide your gameplay without hand holding or guidance of any kind.

You’re free to tackle this world in any order you like, in any direction you please. After the first few rooms that teach you how to play the game, the world begins to branch out in many directions. The map is excellent and very useful – you can always see exactly where you are, and soon you gain the ability to use stamps to mark interesting places that you might want to revisit later when you have new powers. But keep an eagle eye out, as there are dozens of hidden rooms just waiting to be stumbled upon. I was shocked to find friends playing Animal Well at the same time as me starting their adventure in rooms and with items it took me six hours to reach. But it all works.

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Despite not actually directly fighting it, the Ostrich is my favorite boss fight of the year so far.

As far as I can tell, there is no way to softlock yourself in Animal Well despite there being a seemingly infinite number of ways to tackle this vast world. That is an accomplishment all on its own considering the depth of play. There’s also not much punishment with failure. If you die by losing all four hearts, you restart at your last telephone save point. They’re all easy to access and with no combat, even if you get set back a few rooms it doesn’t feel like you’ve actually lost any progress. Falling in the water simply places you back on land with no health lost. Animal Well doesn’t want you to fight it. It wants you to play alongside it. It wants you to discover what this world has to offer with it, as partners.

I won’t spoil much about the tools you find along the way, because they are all so versatile and so much fun. Every time you think you’ve used these simple tools to their full capability, the find a new way to combine with either the environment or your other tools and blow your mind. And the way the tools interact with the animals is simply magical. Use your real world knowledge about dogs or flamingos or chameleons to work your way around and through these creatures. There are no hints in game. The hints are in the natural world around you. In other words, to get gud you’ll have to touch grass.

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I’d like to see a AAA studio with all their millions of dollars fit THIS many animals into one well.

I played the campaign of Animal Well on my Steam Deck and my gaming PC alternately, and it worked equally well on both systems. Perfect frame rate, no bugs, no glitches, and it is unbelievably less than half a gigabyte in size. Solo developer Billy Basso is a compression master, and whatever computer witchcraft he’s done with his handmade proprietary engine should be studied in universities. The music is solemn and sweet, while brooding and haunting when it needs to be. The sound effects of the animals are equal parts gleeful and terrifying. The pixel artwork is some of my favorite ever.

After the roughly 10 hour campaign, it’s time for the real work to begin – an egg hunt to rival the Easter Bunny. There are 64 total secret eggs to find, and after getting an item you receive from beating the final boss the world will greatly open up for you to explore further. I have seen reports that collecting all eggs offers up to 20 more hours of additional gameplay, all in new areas and with new animals just waiting to be discovered.

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I laughed so hard I dropped my controller the first time I jumped in a fish tube.

Animal Well has reminded me of Hades in a few ways, mostly in that it has redefined an entire genre by simply taking a core part of it – in this case, combat – and tossing it out the window. Most games will try to exhibit an innovative concept or else mastery of a familiar concept. Animal Well somehow does both. It is delightful at all times, and is as good a reminder as any of how damn fun a video game can be. It may not exactly be “Halo 2 meets Halo 3“, as described by publisher and YouTuber Dunkey, but it very certainly lives up to the quality level that joke promises. I am eternally grateful that this developer found a publisher that would make his vision a reality; I sense a very bright future ahead for both Bigmode and Billy Basso.

In the meantime, I will return to the well to begin my egg hunt, and I invite all of you to join me. Whether you love or have historically disliked metroidvanias, I demand that each and every person out there who loves video games play Animal Well. I advise you to go in as blind as possible with as few walkthroughs or trailers as possible. But watch your step – it’s a jungle out there.

Nirav reviewed Animal Well on PC with a purchased copy.


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