Animal Well review: A deep and rich well

In Bigmode's publishing debut, developer Billy Basso gives us a rich and atmospheric metroidvania platforming experience with endless secrets to discover.

9

There has been no lack of metroidvania platformers over the years, but while puzzle-solving is certainly part of the equation, combat is almost another pillar of these games. Not so in Animal Well. Your defenses in this game are little more than your platforming reflexes and your growing understanding of how to use your items. Other than that, this is a no-combat, puzzle-solving adventure filled to the brim with mystery, suspense, and a rich, sometimes unsettling atmosphere.

A mysterious journey

There is little sense or context to what is happening in Animal Well. It simply is. You are a sentient bud that hatches from a flower and goes exploring. To that end, you have just a few functions to start: Moving, jumping, and interacting with certain scenery. You do gain much more, but this forms the core of your adventure, and it’s a fundamentally solid one. Movement and jumping feels good in the game and platforming feels smart and responsive. It’s easy to fail, but it’s just as easy to get right back up.

And you will fail here and there. You might notice I mentioned you have no way of attacking, but that doesn’t mean the world of Animal Well is safe. It is inhabited with creatures, some of which are friendly, others benign, and ones that are openly hostile. For instance, you’ll find crows that won’t bug you if you don’t startle them, but if you do, they become big jerks quickly. Likewise, there are otters that don’t care much for you or your efforts, but will go nutty if they see you use tools, going right after them. Every creature encounter is a lesson in whether it means you harm, how it will hinder you, and whether or not you can use it for your puzzle-solving.

The flower bud navigating hedgehogs and chinchillas to reach a button in Animal Well.

Helping you to interact with these creatures and the world of Animal Well is a collection of items that, in typical metroidvania fashion, give you ways to open more of the world. Getting past aggressive dogs can prove difficult, but if you have the disc, you can throw it and they’ll chase it happily instead of you. Likewise, there’s a walking spring in the game that can be thrown down hills to press far away buttons while you navigate otherwise impassible doors. Each tool has multiple uses, and exploring those uses to their fullest is key to exploring every nook and cranny of Animal Well.

Secrets of the Well

Crows chasing after the flower bud after using a slinky in Animal Well

The environments, level design, and atmosphere of Animal Well are a big part of what make it so cool. Yes, it tells you very little story, but the world around you still invites players to dig deep into its secrets, even if they may sometimes be unsettling. Animal Well is divided into a multitude of biomes each with a wealth of thematic design. One biome features dogs that require different distractions throughout it. Another is full of porcupines that wander around the tops and bottoms of platforms and can be navigated towards solvable puzzles. Yet another is filled to the brim with water and air jets you’ll need to navigate with special tools I won’t spoil here.

Helping you to navigate these areas and keep track of what you’ve done are a map, stamp, and pencil that all must be discovered separately. It helps to give players some level of context for what to do or what they’ve done, but these three things being items you can discover actually made things difficult for me. Animal Well is very free form. You can go where you want as long as you have the correct tool to get past obstacles. Unfortunately, that means I missed map tools like the stamp at first and had no way of marking where I had been or opportunities I’d need to backtrack to for a bit. It’s similar with the pencil. I feel it’s actually a pretty crucial implement in helping players mark the map with notes and ideas, but I feel you get it far later than you should for how useful that can be.

Dogs chasing the flower bud to a tunnel in Animal Well.

It's also because of Animal Well’s sheer lack of overt story or context that these even become issues in the first place. The simple fact is that because of that lack of direction, it’s easy to forget where that one door that you left locked was near the beginning of the game, or the exact place where a ledge was just a bit too high to jump up to before you found a key item. Animal Well’s minimalistic story and atmosphere are definitely part of its charm, but it also potentially holds the game back a bit on a first playthrough or on different sessions.

Even so, the game has quite a bit of variety and length to it. Ultimately, the goal is to delve deep into biomes and discover four flames, and the journey to them is quite fascinating, not to mention filled with secrets in every unexplored nook and crevice. At the very least, the locations of these flames are always shown on the map, so at least there’s some semblance of the main direction throughout the game. Even so, there might be more to explore even when you think you’re done and have finished the main adventure. That’s for you to discover in what is a lengthy and robust journey.

Where to, little flower bud?

The flower bud passing over storks in Animal Well.

Animal Well is one of the strangest metroidvanias I’ve played in a lot of very good ways. It’s pretty, funny, and scary in its atmospheric visuals and audio. Its platforming is also very satisfying and makes you feel good when you figure out how to use your tools properly to solve a puzzle. There are also secrets a plenty and a post-game to explore, as well. It's also just interesting to me that you don't directly fight with enemies and instead use your tools to work around them. The main double-edged sword here is the complete lack of context and hand-holding, which makes Animal Well charming and mysterious, but can make it difficult to keep track of what you were doing or where you should be going next. Nonetheless, if you want a solid and quirky adventure that will put your reflexes and puzzle-solving to the test, Animal Well is an absolutely fascinating journey.


This review is based on a PC review key offered by the publisher. Animal Well comes out on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, and PC on May 9, 2024.

Senior News Editor

TJ Denzer is a player and writer with a passion for games that has dominated a lifetime. He found his way to the Shacknews roster in late 2019 and has worked his way to Senior News Editor since. Between news coverage, he also aides notably in livestream projects like the indie game-focused Indie-licious, the Shacknews Stimulus Games, and the Shacknews Dump. You can reach him at tj.denzer@shacknews.com and also find him on Twitter @JohnnyChugs.

Review for
Animal Well
8
Pros
  • A vibrant and robust world to explore
  • Platforming feels solid and satsifying
  • Wide variety of discoverable gadgets with multiple uses
  • Scenery and audio is atmospheric, pretty, and sometimes unsettling
  • An absolutely massive collection of secrets to discover
  • Post-game after you finish the main adventure
Cons
  • Very little context and, by extension, direction
  • Some map tools come far too late
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