By Josh Speer / September 23rd, 2019
|Title||Creature in the Well|
|Developer||Flight School Studio|
|Publisher||Flight School Studio|
|Release Date||September 6th, 2019|
|Genre||Action, Pinball, Puzzle|
|Platform||PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One|
|Age Rating||E for Everyone – Mild Language, Mild Fantasy Violence|
It’s no exaggeration that Creature in the Well was on my radar from the first time I saw it in a Nintendo Direct. I’m easily drawn to unique art, and Creature in the Well had a quasi cel-shaded style that really got my attention. Since then, I’ve demoed it at two separate events, and my interest only grew. So of course I decided to review the game on the site. The question was, could my initial hype live up to the actual experience? Or was I dragged kicking and screaming into a pit of despair?
Creature in the Well starts in the desert, with blinding sands blanketing a barren land. Suddenly a Bot-C engineer awakens from the sands, the last of his robotic kin. Driven by a hardwired need to fulfill an objective, but lacking recent memories, he heads through the tempest of sand and finds his way to mysterious ruins. You’re pretty much left to discover where to go, and eventually come upon some structures all centered about a gaping hole into a mountain. Years of gaming taught me to keep progressing the narrative, so I went into the hole.
Though the Bot-C you control never really vocalizes anything, it becomes clear what your goal is. Your goal is to re-power the machine that was supposed to keep the weather in check, which mysteriously stopped working properly. As you navigate your first of several dungeons, you find the cause: the titular Creature. For some reason, the Creature is dead set against the machine working again, and will do whatever it can to stop you. This usually means laying traps to stop you, as well as trying to fight you at certain points. What’s interesting is that your Bot-C is essentially unkillable, so long as you have enough energy. But if that energy is drained by sufficient damage, the Creature will literally drag your lifeless body out of the pit and toss you aside like unwanted garbage. Sure you will survive with a fraction of a spark, but you’ll have to make your way back and try again.
This is the essential loop to Creature in the Well. Open up a dungeon, investigate it while puzzling your way through rooms, charging your energy meter as you go, then getting defeated and returning. All of the dungeons in the game are accessed from a main HUB room, and once you’ve powered the right node, you can travel wherever you’d like. Just keep in mind that every essential system is protected by the Creature, and each time you face him you will have to survive multiple rounds of combat to progress. Which is both easier and harder than it sounds.
In a weird way, there’s no actual combat in the game. Instead, you control the Bot-C and use his striking and charging tools to collect and launch energy balls. Striking tools can range from metal pipes to frying pans, while charging tools are a bit more esoteric, such as a magnet or dual blades. This is where the pinball mechanic comes into play, and you’d better get accustomed to it fast, cause it’s everywhere. Each room in every dungeon is a puzzle of sorts, where your goal is to charge all the bumpers sufficiently to unlock a node that will reward you with a huge amount of energy. I should clarify; the energy you gain here is separate from your health meter. You use accumulated energy to unlock gates that bar your way forward. The good thing is, not every room’s puzzle has to be solved to progress. The bad news is, not doing so properly means you get less energy and wind up a bit frustrated. At least if you’re a completionist like I usually am.
So if you only solve puzzles by hitting balls against bumpers in the game, how do you get hurt? Easy. There are more than just bumpers, and tons of traps. Some examples are laser beams that you have to hit right before they unleash a full blast, or guns that pop up and fire at you if you hit the wrong device. My least favorite are tall pylons that, when hit, explode in a large radius, forcing you to run quick or you’ll lose a huge chunk of your health. While I’m glad these many devices are all in the game, since it would be too simple without them, they can also be frustrating. The primary reason for this is something I hate talking about: math.
Since Creature in the Well is all about pinball, it stands to reason geometry is a big factor. Depending on how you aim before you strike the balls, they may fly at wild angles. In my experience, sometimes they bounced in a way that made sense, and other times they didn’t. A good example is one of the boss fights against the Creature. When I hit one vertical bumper, my energy balls would ricochet at 45 degree angles, yet when I hit another, they would bounce back and forth horizontally. I don’t know if this was my own fault, but it made things very frustrating, especially when it happened while fighting against the Creature.
Speaking of frustration, here’s another. You can only heal at set areas in the game, usually spaced pretty far apart. You heal by walking into a pool and letting your health meter fill up slowly. That’s fine, but why can’t I heal anywhere else? I wish there was some incremental healing that could occur, especially during boss fights, which started to wear me down about halfway through the game. It wouldn’t be an issue if the fights against the Creature weren’t multi phase, but they all are. And suffice to say, the arenas you face him in are all pretty cramped. Also, like any monster, he’s a jerk, and will do his darndest to use his many traps to wipe you out ruthlessly and quickly.
Now to be fair, you do have a few things at your disposal to even the odds. First, you’ll come across the discarded corpses of your Bot-C brethren as you wander, and you can pillage their Cores. You can trade these in (a fact that took me several hours to discover) to get improved capability to gather more balls at once. That helps, though I personally would have preferred if my energy balls just charged things faster when upgraded. You’ll also come across a wide variety of tools to aid you, many with different characteristics. Take the dual blades I mentioned earlier. While using them to charge, you can actually see a line which indicates approximately where your balls will travel when you strike them. That’s helpful, but you still need to figure out the right time to use each tool. I loved my magnet, for example, until I realized its ability to gather balls towards me sometimes would trigger traps nearby, as well as warping the path of their movement. It’s also annoying that most of the striking tools don’t indicate what they do differently, so I had to figure it out as I went.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot I liked about Creature in the Well. The atmosphere is unique, as is the combat. Not many games grab me this quickly. The puzzles are also very clever, when I could figure them out. But for every smart decision made in the game, there seemed to be another to counter it. While I’m all for smart puzzles, I’m not a fan of time limits. Many puzzles need to be solved in a certain amount of time, and if you don’t, they reset. And I’m talking about a few seconds here. Also, while I love the whole charging balls to draw them in then striking them aspect, it was hurt by the random angles. This mechanic was also affected by something very simple: the color of the energy balls. In tense situations, I would completely lose track of some of my white energy balls, and usually that would result in them hitting the wrong thing and punishing me. Or take your dash move. It’s technically there to help you avoid damage, but I found it rarely did its job. That’s in part probably cause it has no invincibility frame, and also because your boost of speed is minor. More than once I would try to dash out of harm’s way only to get hit. But perhaps my biggest complaint is how grindy the game gets. The pattern of the game is fine, but it needs more variety. Things got very samey the longer I played, just finding ways to be harder without necessarily being more creative.
On the visual and sound side of things, I really have no complaints. The aesthetic style of Creature in the Well is stunning and attention grabbing. It made me want to learn all the secrets of this world, often found in terminals throughout the dungeons. The Creature was equal parts mysterious and menacing, never completely showing its face, appearing like some sort of mechanical, skeletal cat with fierce intelligence. Even though many of the dungeons looked very similar, clever use of shade and color kept things different. Though the music isn’t some compelling ballad, it does a good job of grounding the unique flavor of the game, and the sound effects were punchy and dynamic. This is a world where each secret is just waiting to be unearthed, and tragedy and heartbreak are constant companions.
Sadly, I wasn’t able to completely beat Creature in the Well. I gave it an old college try, clocking in 5+ hours, but when I got stuck in two separate dungeons due to incredibly difficult Creature fights, I eventually gave up. Which is unfortunate, because there’s a lot of things I really admire about Creature in the Well, especially considering it only costs $14.99. I’d say as a first effort from Flight School, this is a great success. If they can just improve on the flow of their next game while tweaking the difficulty to better accommodate players, then I’ll be very happy. As it is, I hope I can eventually beat the Creature and discover the secrets of this fascinating world.
Review Copy Provided by Publisher
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