Animal Well review – indie game of the year

Animal Well review – indie game of the year

Animal Well – you’re the tiny little brown blob in the bottom right-hand corner (Bigmode)

It might seem like the world doesn’t need another 2D indie Metroidvania but Animal Well will have you think again, about a great many things.

It’s been a depressing business covering the news this past week, with Microsoft’s appalling, yet sadly predictable, treatment of its developers made to seem worse with every new detail that leaks out. So, it’s a happy coincidence that this week happens to see the release of a glut of extremely interesting indie games (thereby confirming that indie developers are just as bad at scheduling as big name publishers).

We’ve already reviewed the charmingly horrific Crow Country, but there’s also Little Kitty, Big City; Gift; and the full release of V Rising. We don’t want to pre-empt their reviews by making any early comparisons, since they’re all quality games, but what is especially impressive about Animal Well is that it’s all the work of just one person: American programmer Billy Basso.

Basso has been working on Animal Well, on and off, for seven years and while what he’s created is technically a Metroidvania, with all the back-tracking and collectible abilities you’d expect, it is also so much more, with some of the cleverest puzzles, and well-hidden secrets, we’ve ever seen.

Although it wasn’t so much the case seven years ago, the 2D Metroidvania is now a rather overfamiliar concept amongst indie games. We fear that that, combined with the underwhelming screenshots – which barely hint at how amazing the game looks in motion – will put off a significant number of people. That would be a terrible shame, because this is a very different experience to your average Metroid or Castlevania clone.

For a start, it’s almost entirely non-linear, with no explanation for who you are or what’s going on. It’s not even clear if your little multicoloured blob of a character is animal, vegetable, or mineral, as you start the game emerging from a flower and immediately try to avoid being eating by the game’s menagerie of birds, lizards, and mammals. You do eventually work out that the wider goal is to collect four flames, but why exactly is not made clear.

When you start the game, all you can do is jump but that’s fine because the game doesn’t really have any combat. Because you’re apparently such a tasty little blob, everything is out to eat you and running away to hide, usually in a narrow section of the map they can’t get to, is the standard reaction to any nearby enemies. That or using a firecracker plant to scare them off.

Not only are there no weapons to collect but all of the new abilities you gain, in traditional Metroidvania fashion, are distinctly… non-traditional. One of the most important is a wand that blows bubbles that you can use, Bubble Bobble style, to jump on and which act as impromptu platforms, while also interacting with the environment and enemies using the game’s impressive physics engine.

Animal Well is a lot more puzzle-based than other, similar games and so many of the items you collect have more in common with Zelda, like the Frisbee which can be used to push distant switches but is also something you can jump onto or use to distract animals (dogs love it).

There are an awful lot of switches in Animal Well and many of the items provide new ways to get at them, including a yo-yo that can hit ones on a platform beneath you and a Slinky that can be dropped and sent on its way on your behalf – ideally after you’ve moved around the platforms in its way, to make sure it goes where you want.

Visually, the game might not look like much in screenshots but watch the trailers and you’ll see just how good the animation is and how the game world is layered with different particle and lighting effects, somewhat similar to Pac-Man Championship Edition. It looks fantastic, with lots of weird neon effects that Jeff Minter would be proud of, with everything seeming alive and mobile despite the essentially 8-bit resolution.

The game’s not especially difficult, and the map not particularly large, so most people will be able to beat it in at least six hours or so. That’s barely half the challenge though, as while the name is perfectly descriptive – you’re stuck in a well with a lot of animals – this really should have been called Secrets: The Game.

Animal Well – it looks amazing in motion (Bigmode)

Almost every square inch of every screen in Animal Well is filled with secrets to discover, some obvious and some extremely obscure. We doubt anyone’s going to find them all without help from YouTube, but we do implore you not to give in too quickly, as uncovering as many as you can is almost more entertaining than the main goal.

Some you may feel you come across randomly, but everything is signposted in some way, whether it’s animals acting oddly in one particular spot or cryptic markings on a wall. Surprisingly, the game also benefits form being played in handheld mode, as you can interact with objects on the touchscreen – which even after all these years is still a rarity for the Switch.

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Animal Well is an incredibly well designed and visually stunning video game. Its basic form may seem overfamiliar but one of the game’s key appeals is how uniquely different it feels. The only real flaws are some occasionally frustrating checkpointing and difficulty spikes caused by the fact that most of the platforming is very simple – until suddenly, for brief periods, it isn’t.

These are very minor problems though, in what is easily one of the best games of the year and welcome proof that big business will never destroy the joy and ingenuity of traditional video games, no matter how hard it tries.

Animal Well review summary

In Short: Much more than just another indie Metroidvania, as the intricate level design, gorgeous visuals, and clever item usage conspire to make one of the most entertaining puzzle adventures of the generation.

Pros: A fantastically well-designed game, in terms of its puzzles, platform layouts, and the myriad of hidden secrets. Interesting and varied tool items. Fantastic visuals and animation.

Cons: Some awkward difficulty spikes, when the platforming suddenly gets difficult for short sections, and restarting only at your last save point can be annoying.

Score: 9/10

Formats: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 5, and PC
Price: £20.99
Publisher: Bigmode
Developer: Shared Memory
Release Date: 9th May 2024
Age Rating: 7

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