Animal Well Can’t Quite Climb Out of Its Own Puzzles

Animal Alright

Animal Well is the latest metroidvania to do more than just challenge players with jumping and moving. Like Voidstranger and Tunic before it, the game features puzzles, puzzles in puzzles, puzzles in secrets in puzzles in… more secrets. While the platforming and action are as tight as you would come to expect, the game doesn’t quite stick the landing when it comes to making the hunt for puzzles feel as interesting as Tunic, or as layered as Voidstranger.

This review will be spoiler-free regarding any solutions to advanced puzzles or situations.

Down the Rabbit/Kangaroo/Cat/Dog/Frog/Ostrich hole

Our story finds us awakening in a strange world ruled by animals with no humans in sight. As a kind of blob like creature, it’s up to us to explore the world, find 4 mysterious flames and figure out what is going on. If you’re hoping for any in-game explanations about the story and events, you’re not going to see it here. Instead, you’re going to find four biomes full of challenges, secrets, and lots of hazards.

While you are free to go to any of the four areas at the start, provided you can find them, there are layers of exploration to be had in Animal Well. Every new item or treasure chest brings with it more questions about what you should be doing and how you should use your newly acquired treasure. While there are enemies out to get you, more often than not you’re going to be avoiding enemies and using the environment to get past them.

Major upgrades come in the form of various toys that you find and when Animal Well starts to open up.

Toying Around

The toy system of the game is perhaps one of the best examples of creating meaningful upgrades and options I’ve seen in a metroidvania for some time. Animal Well is not a movement tech-focused game like Ori or Hollow Knight– while the platforming can be challenging, it’s more about figuring out how to move around the world using your expanding toybox. Each one of the game’s items provides you with a new means of interacting with the world, the inhabitants, and sequence breaking the heck out of the level design.

Animal Well (2)

Every room can hide multiple secrets and have different ways of getting through them (source, author)

This is a game that is practically begging you to break it in two — optional for the main game and required for *redacted*. Your journey is going to be very different depending on which area you explore first and even if you can find some of the harder-to-locate items. I love the aesthetics of the game, and this is the first time where the CRT filter being on adds a lot to the mysteriousness of the world.

Getting through the base game should be more than a suitable time for anyone who is a fan of metroidvanias, but it’s when the gloves come off that Animal Well starts to sink a bit in my opinion.

Calling a Hint Line

As you go through the base game, you’ll find clues and additional items that don’t necessarily fit the progression. Upon beating the final challenge, you are left with more questions and I’m sure plenty of areas on the map that you didn’t visit. This begins the real challenge of Animal Well and to see through you are going to have to collect EVERYTHING.

At the top, I mentioned Tunic and Voidstranger that also had a massive amount of secrets and challenges, and of the three games in terms of their post-content challenge, I would rank Animal Well at the bottom of the three. I’m not going to go into detail here about what you need or how to get them, but the game requires you to go across every inch of its space (if you don’t use a guide) to find all the different things. The problem, in my opinion, is that the game does a terrible job of inviting the player to this grand riddle. This isn’t like Tunic where the game’s manual acts as the guide/puzzle to decipher. Nor is it like Voidstranger where the secrets legitimately change how someone plays the game and the pacing is built around them.

Here, the secrets just feel excessive for excessive’s sake. While you do unlock the ability to make notes and markers on the map, it would have been far better to the UX for the game to do some of the note-taking for you. This reminds me a lot about La Mulana in terms of solutions and the game’s unwillingness to give the player guidance. Speaking of La Mulana, I took a peak at some of Animal Well’s final, final, challenges, and unless you have a galaxy brain, I don’t see how someone is going to figure it all out on their own.

To add to the frustration, backtracking can become a chore to do. While there are plenty of shortcuts, and a fast travel system to use, it still doesn’t get around the fact that you are going to be replaying a lot of content with no real deviation from what you were doing earlier in your play.

Animal Well‘s base game is an excellent metroidvania, but at the same time, the game feels retroactively worse to me knowing the many hoops I’m going to have to jump through to see where it will all lead. It reminds me a bit of trying to dig into Fez following the credits. There is a lot more “stuff” to do but is this really growing the core gameplay loop or adding in new interactions or is it just there to say that the game is “deep.”

A VOIDING Problems

Animal Well’s ARG is much like that of the games I’ve mentioned, but the problem is that being confusing doesn’t add new gameplay — it doesn’t change how you go through the game or how you jump, use tools, etc., it just feels like busy work without the payoff that I had when I started to figure out the advanced uses of the different toys.

Animal Well

The depth of the secrets and advanced areas are the game’s biggest strengths and weaknesses (source, author)

When I played Voidstranger, the brilliance was that the layers of puzzles were a part of the progression — changing how someone approaches the game and turns it into multiple games to explore. Replaying the game is different based on your knowledge, this just feels like wandering around to try and find one clue to get you to another clue and hopefully you didn’t miss anything behind a fake wall or riddle.

Animal Well is a fantastic metroidvania, but the well you need to go down keeps getting deeper without a meaningful payoff. If you’re looking for the next grand puzzle to get lost in for weeks, you will enjoy this game, but be ready with a guide or two on hand in case you need it.

Animal Well was played with a retail key.

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