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Animal Well: Animal Well - Review...

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Published Time: 10.05.2024 - 00:02:43 Modified Time: 10.05.2024 - 00:02:43

All of Animal Well is like this. Dog in the way? Throw the frisbee you just unlocked. Did you just pick up a slinky? Maybe you can make it walk down some stairs to hit a switch you can’t reach. Throwing spaghetti at the wall is rewarded swiftly and consistently, and if you don’t understand what to do in any given situation, it’s okay to give up and explore somewhere else. Everything will be where you left it when you return later on. Which you will. Many, many times. Animal Well


It’s hard to dive into the specifics of Animal Well’s brilliance without spoiling the whole darn thing, because even telling you what your basic objectives are takes a bit of the fun out of figuring them out for yourself. It a metroidvania, with a sprawling map that gradually opens up more as you unlock new ways to interact with it, but it’s one without combat and with few challenging platforming . It trades mechanical difficulty (mostly, as there were one or two later areas that took some practice!) for intellectual challenge through layers of puzzles and a focus on experimentation. 

Every single screen in this game has at least one, if not far more, secrets lurking in the pixelated shadows. At first, I was deluded into thinking those secrets were as simple as using a frisbee to hit a button so I could enter a hidden room, or collecting a difficult to reach treasure chest. But the longer I played, the more obsessive I became scanning every pixel of every wall, every niche corner of the map, and every background image for answers to Animal Well’s seemingly endless parade of strange questions.

What’s so brilliant Animal Well is that despite the lack of context or tutorials, it does a pretty darn good job of rewarding the experimentation it encourages. Very early on, a freaky purple cube-shaped ghost thing blocks your progress. What can you do? Not much… until you meander down another path and find some bright red flowers on the ground and the barest prompt: “Pick Firecracker.” You pick one. Naturally, you want to know what it does, so you use it, and it emits a flurry of colorful sparks and a lot of loud noise. Of course. What’s the one thing you’ve seen that might react to something like this? The ghost. Fire away, and the ghost is gone. 

All of Animal Well is like this. Dog in the way? Throw the frisbee you just unlocked. Did you just pick up a slinky? Maybe you can make it walk down some stairs to hit a switch you can’t reach. Throwing spaghetti at the wall is rewarded swiftly and consistently, and if you don’t understand what to do in any given situation, it’s okay to give up and explore somewhere else. Everything will be where you left it when you return later on. Which you will. Many, many times.

Animal Well’s map is so big, detailed, and secret-infested that you’re almost never bottlenecked. Your most immediate objective - reaching those four flames scattered across the map - is even more enjoyable if you embrace the meandering. In true metroidvania fashion, each flame’s “zone” has a key item hidden within it that the area is then built around. These tools are collectable in any order, but having ones from other zones - such as a bonus jump-granting bubble wand - can make the area you’re in easier or more rewarding. You’ll eventually discover, often by accident, combinations of key items that will help you climb higher, move faster, uncover hidden passageways, distract enemies, and more. Your little blob never gets more powerful than it is at the start, but your mastery of a growing toolkit will eventually have you bouncing all over the dang place. And at least some of the tricks you’ll learn will make subsequent playthroughs faster and easier, if you’re into that sort of thing. (Speedrunners… hello.)

You will eventually stumble into “boss” encounters - though again, these are not like what you might expect from a Metroid, a Castlevania, or a Hollow Knight. Despite your blob being non-combative, Animal Well expertly creates tension and anticipation in the build-ups to its biggest moments. For instance, one major zone themed around a giant ghost dog had me seriously on edge throughout my entire trek across it, just because of how it telegraphed what I’d eventually have to accomplish. Your blob may not be able to fight, but that doesn’t make a successful escape from imminent demise feel any less triumphant.

The longer you play Animal Well, the more time you’re likely to spend circling many of the same areas over and over, looking for bits you might have missed. While that might sound tedious, it helps that this world is gorgeous to look at, and oh-so deliberately tangible. It’s got a retro pixel aesthetic with the detail dial turned up to 11, with bonus (and optional) scanlines adding to that marriage of classic style and modern art capabilities. Every single screen feels meticulously crafted, every pixel perfectly placed, from tiny flowers and draping vines to massive waterfalls reflecting shimmering lights. The well is lush, with a beautiful and thoughtful use of both color and light that draws the eye to objectives and, sometimes, protects well-hidden secrets. And is constantly moving! Vines sway as you push past, grass rustles, key items have meaningful physics when they bounce and clatter off of stone floors and glass walls.

While playing on a gamepad, everything my blob guy touched prompted some level of additive rumble, whether it was a light bump as I passed a switch or a harder plop as I fell in water. The delicious tactility of everything felt good on its own, but was enhanced even further with each new discovery I made of how my little blob fellow could influence its environment in ways both large and small, simply by moving through it. There’s even touch screen compatibility on Switch that let me rattle hanging lamps and disturb the grass just by poking at the screen. 

I also want to praise Animal Well’s excellent sound design, which fills this well with haunted creature cries, eerie echoes, and mysterious, ambient noise - but I do wish it had more music. I think I understand why Animal Well forgoes a traditional soundtrack in favor of silence most of the time - there something appropriately unsettling the lack of background music throughout most of the well. But I still miss it, especially as I loop repeatedly through the same areas on my umpteenth secret hunt.

Despite taking place entirely in a network of dark caves, all this beauty also boasts plenty of ecological diversity. Animal Well is largely divided up into four major animal-themed zones (dog, chameleon, ostrich, and seahorse), which in turn are made up of a number of smaller biomes themed after other animals. Every single sector is distinctive, and often unexpected. A subtle giraffe biome, for instance, is deep within the cavernous ostrich zone and draped in gorgeous, glowing, hanging plants. The seahorse biome has lots of deep water, but also includes a tranquil pool where giant herons dip their beaks among floating lily pads. I love the cackling ravens in the lizard biome, whose chatter can devolve into chaos if you disturb them.

It only took me five hours to reach the credits. For many, that will be satisfying enough, and apart from ending a little more abruptly than I expected, it’s hard to find fault in the most basic, bite-sized experience Animal Well has to offer. But after the credits rolled, it became clear to me that some of the optional distractions held deeper secrets than I’d previously realized. So I scoured each zone again, jumping aimlessly into blank walls in hopes of uncovering secret tunnels. I slathered my map with question mark stamps as reminders to loop back to already-explored areas as I uncovered new tools or tricks. I obsessed over markings on the walls, weird animal movements, and funky statues I had previously thought were just fun background details. It took me another 20 hours of exhaustive searching, thrilling moments of discovery, and occasional head-splitting frustration to be more satisfyingly rewarded for my thorough efforts. Was I finally done? Had I finally seen everything? No. Not even close.

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