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Animal Well scratches the Metroidvania itch

Bigmode, the video game publisher started by YouTuber Videogamedunkey, recently published its first game. Called Animal Well and developed by Billy Basso, it’s about as strong of a first game as you could hope for. Indie Metroidvanias aren’t exactly a rarity in today’s landscape, but one that feels as wholly unique and evocative of the legendary games behind the portmanteau is rare. And Animal Well is exactly that.



Animal Well

Recommended

Explore a dense interconnected labyrinth, and unravel its many secrets. Collect items to manipulate your environment in surprising and meaningful ways. Encounter creatures both beautiful and unsettling, and try to survive what lurks in the dark. In Animal Well there is more than what you see.

Release Date
May 9, 2024

Genre
Metroidvania

Developer
Billy Basso

Pros

  • Incredible Metroidvania gameplay
  • Enthralling environment
  • Engaging mechanics
  • Superb post-game content
Cons

  • Sometimes a tad on the easy side

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An enthralling atmosphere

Eerie and lonely, yet full of life

A dark scene from Animal Well

Animal Well

Animal Well is absolutely overflowing with life from top to bottom, which is ironic for a game that also feels overwhelmingly lonely. The world of Animal Well is a simple enough map with four primary areas with distinct looks. Each area also has multiple flavors of itself, which keeps any of the map’s quadrants from ever feeling stale. The distinct looks are brought to life via the game’s stunning pixel visuals. Although the game has an option to play with or without a scan line filter, the scan lines bring the best out of the game’s graphical style.


What exactly you’ll see on any given screen varies wildly, and the game’s imagery leaves a lasting impression. While that in itself is fantastic, it also makes navigating the map all the easier. With many rooms — especially hub-type areas — being as visually striking as they are, it becomes much easier to remember the directions you took away from them.

Alongside the outstanding visuals that make up the game’s atmosphere are the sounds of Animal Well. Despite being teeming with animals, the game’s world feels abandoned and almost haunted. The shrill sound effects and ambiance make for an uneasy experience all around in the best way possible. That same ambiance is also complimented by the sounds of items and movement throughout the world. On the PlayStation 5, the game takes great advantage of the haptics of the DualSense. The Bubble Wand makes a noise in game, while the DualSense’s haptics approximate the sound from your controller as well.

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Non-linearity done right

Going from A to Z in your preferred order

A dark scene from Animal Well

Animal Well

Non-linearity in games has experienced a near undeniable boost in popularity in recent years, almost certainly due to the smash success of games like The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. But, non-linearity has almost always worked best in two dimensions, and that sort of success is widely on display in Animal Well.

The game gives you almost nothing to go on up front. You come into the world, and you set off. Even when the game needs to teach you something, it feels fun and unique. The design prowess on display in Animal Well is impeccable. Any new tool acquired almost immediately comes with two rooms designed to let you play around with your new-found ability. What’s even better is that while you will learn what’s needed to progress, more thorough experimenting will reveal extra options and movements that almost every tool offers.


Being divided into quadrants, the map has four primary tools for discovery in every area. They each feel perfectly unique and offer engaging mechanics to add to your arsenal. None of these tools have to be unlocked in any particular order, but each one makes every other area just a little bit easier to explore. No matter which area you choose to explore first, it will probably give you the purest platforming challenge.

The game’s primary objective, collecting four flames, can be completed in any order you wish. I was surprised to find after the six hours it took me to finish the game, the first flame I captured seemed to be one that others saved for last. The beauty in these kinds of games is being able to read other’s experiences and see just how different the game can be from person to person.


The game also has sixty-four eggs littered throughout the map that make up the post-game content. These eggs unlock four doors that each open for an exponentially increasing number of eggs. It’s hard to reach the game’s end without having opened the first two egg doors, which only requires sixteen to have been collected.

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Scratching the Metroidvania itch

A beyond stellar entry into the genre

A dark scene from Animal Well

Animal Well

Perhaps the best part of Animal Well is how thoroughly it scratches the Metroidvania itch. In nearly every meaningful way, the game lives up to the genre’s conventions. Animal Well brims with satisfying puzzles and steadily increasing challenges. The satisfactory a-ha moments that serve as one of the driving engines of any good Metroidvania are littered throughout the game. Perhaps even better are the moments throughout where there’s a brief question of “is this what the game wants me to do?” that are swiftly followed up by confirmation that yes, this is what the game wants you to do.


However, it is worth noting that some points in the game do feel a little too simple. But, that ultimately doesn’t feel like too big of an issue, as the challenge provided throughout the rest of the game more than makes up for any simpler puzzles. For anyone that’s been looking for a game that will scratch their Metroidvania itch in just the right way, Animal Well is almost certainly it.

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Verdict

Animal Well deserves your attention

A dark scene from Animal Well

Animal Well

Animal Well is a must-play if there has ever been one. The game should offer a great experience for fans of the Metroidvania genre and total newcomers to the genre alike. While it has many of the familiar trappings that have made the genre stick around for so long, it also adds something interesting and new with its setting and game mechanics.


Between tight gameplay, fantastic design, and engaging to the point of being addictive mechanics, Animal Well is a worthy contender for indie game of the year, if not just plain game of the year. If it wasn’t previously on your radar, it is absolutely worth going out of your way to play.

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