Animal Well Review: Going Deeper into a Surreal Metroidvania

Animal Well Review: Going Deeper into a Surreal Metroidvania

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

In the dripping midnight glade, there is a telephone resting on the earth. It's an antique. I can tell that from the limited 2D pixel art. Although it's just a few lines and dots and smudges of light, I can imagine the weight of the receiver in my hands, almost feel that strange matte chill of the Bakelite.

Animal Well, created by solo developer Billy Basso and published by Bigmode, is a surrealist puzzle platformer that stands out in a crowded genre. While it incorporates familiar elements of Metroidvanias, it does so in ways that defy expectations, creating a fresh and engaging experience.

A World of Mystery and Intrigue

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 revealed once you discover a map and get a lay of the land, but the sense of mystery drives the adventure forward.

"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."

The game's world is a masterclass in pixel art, with each screen brimming with details that enhance its atmosphere. From the cascading background elements and reflections on the water's surface to the sway of bushes and vines, there's a lot more to the visuals than it may seem at first. Physics, lighting, and particle systems bring this Commodore 64-inspired world to life, creating a sense of immersion that's rare in the genre.

Unique Items and Puzzles

Unlike many other Metroidvanias, Animal Well doesn't feature combat; the focus is purely on puzzle-solving and platforming. However, this doesn't mean there aren't any threats to your life. The game introduces various items that act as keys to progression while also introducing new gameplay mechanics. These items break from the norm and offer pleasant surprises. For instance, instead of unlocking a traditional double jump, you acquire a magic wand that creates bubbles, allowing you to hop on top of a floating sphere to reach higher platforms.

"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."

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. Most of the puzzles revolve around opening the path forward by activating a number of switches. These can involve creative solutions, such as using a slinky and moving blocks to guide it down the right path or manipulating animals to walk on switches you can't reach yourself.

Atmosphere and Creature Design

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

"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."

Challenges and Backtracking

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 small and interconnected enough that backtracking rarely feels laborious, although the lack of a fast-travel system can make navigation a bit tedious at times. There are sections where dying multiple times is a distinct possibility, and it's here where backtracking can become frustrating due to the way respawning works.

Final Thoughts

Animal Well is an impressive addition to the pantheon of great Metroidvanias. It's a game 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.

- Sound and art work together to create a beautifully haunting world.
- Subverts Metroidvania conventions to create a unique experience.
- Unbelievably dense with secrets to uncover.

Animal Well might look antiquated and familiar at first glance, but this well is cavernous and unpredictable. It is a game that will keep you hooked from start to finish and long after. Fans of Metroidvanias need to play this game, as Billy Basso has created something truly special.

Animal Well kept me captivated from start to finish and far beyond. If you're a fan of Metroidvanias, or even a newcomer to the genre, this game will give you everything you want and more.

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