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Animal Well: The Kotaku Review

I can’t tell you about Animal Well’s best moments. That’s because doing so would spoil the magic of discovering them for yourself, and because I still haven’t uncovered all of them yet either. I went into Animal Well hoping for a fun, evocative trip through a beautiful, lo-fi underground labyrinth. What I got was so much more. It’ll blow your mind. You’ll obsess over it. And then it’ll blow your mind all over again.

Out May 9 on PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, and PC, Animal Well is a 2D side-scrolling puzzle platformer in which you hatch into a dark and strange underground maze as a small and vulnerable creature whose only mission is to make sense of the world around them and find their place in it. Metroidvanias these days are a dime a dozen. Not this one. While many don’t live up to the genre’s namesakes, Animal Well pushes beyond them in ways that are rich, rewarding, and will frequently make you say things like, “Holy shit.”

On your journey across the map, unlocking new sections as you earn new abilities and figure out new tricks, you encounter everything from tiny glow worms to towering ostriches. Penguins slam through stalagmites to reveal new passages. Chinchillas can be mesmerized to walk onto pressure plates that open the gates blocking your path. Each interaction builds out the possibilities until your mind is racing and you’re experimenting with what you can do in ways that feel absurd until they somehow work. There are also more than a few encounters that are absolutely terrifying. Survival horror this is not. And yet…

There are several phases to playing Animal Well. The first is trying to get a basic understanding of its rules. Can you die? Yes. Are you supposed to kill things? Not exactly. There are treasure chests everywhere. What are you collecting? Eggs, it seems, though it’s not obvious why or what they’re for. Eventually there’s the growing sense that the map is roughly separated into four main sections with a special flame trapped in each one. Maybe grabbing them will unlock something?

These are often the types of questions that get answered very early on in a game, usually by a character telling you what exactly is going on. That is not the Animal Well way. In addition to not giving any clear answers, it’s a game that’s always forcing you to ask new and weirder questions. Just when I thought I’d climbed Everest, I soon realized I’d barely reached the summit.

Every screen is bursting with lively pixel art. Plants rustle as you walk by, waterfalls flow in the background, lamps swing from side to side when you bump into them, and a thin mist suffuses every zone, warping the surroundings as it floats by. Combined with the eerie, minimalist soundtrack and occasional ghostly howls of animals, it has the effect of a bustling, picturesque ecosystem that looks like an 8-bit terrarium housed in the sewer. It would be impressive if it were just for show, but like everything else in Animal Well, each part of it obliquely suggests its own little history, and offers a potential clue to unraveling it.

You don’t have weapons and there’s no conventional combat, but you do accrue a quirky toolbox of items that help you traverse the titular well and its hazards in new and uncanny ways. Some rooms are dark and home to ghosts you can exorcize with the help of firecrackers. A wand lets you blow bubbles that float into the air and provide a platform to jump off of. Think of it as Animal Well’s unique flavor of double-jump. A disc can fly back and forth across chasms to hit switches. A slinky can walk down steps to activate buttons that move platforms on a delay. It all works together for excellent puzzle platforming wrapped in vibrant retro vibes. But that’s only the start.

While some obstacles require clever ingenuity to overcome, their end goals are never in doubt. Other barriers to exploration are more imperceptibly impenetrable. In these parts of the game the buttons, switches, and gates that traditionally telegraph which old-school game logic is at work are nowhere to be found, or at least they’re very well-hidden. Rather than hit you with a series of thinly disguised puzzle boxes one after another, it’s in these moments that Animal Well sheds its obvious influences and becomes something much more ambitious.

Even when other animals try to kill you, gnawing away at your pitifully small heart-shaped health meter, these violent acts, and how they vary from creature to creature, end up revealing something else about the environment and how to navigate it that you never expected to find. Nothing in Animal Well was put there by accident, though the game is masterfully designed to make you feel like it was, as if you’re rummaging beneath the dirt of a magical rain garden rather than being painstakingly nudged through lone designer Bill Basso’s mind cathedral seven years in the making.

Indie developer Shared Memory and publisher Bigmode, the newly formed label from Jason “videogamedunkey” Gastrow and Leah Gastrow, invited reviewers, content creators, and other early players to secret Discord ahead of launch. There dozens of people shared hints, collaborated on puzzles, and poked at some of the furthest edges of Animal Well’s mysteries. It was one of the best ways to experience the game, harkening back to the days of swapping cheat codes and talking about which bushes to burn in the original The Legend of Zelda at the playground during recess. And uncovering all of the game’s secrets will no doubt require a herculean community effort from more than just a single Discord.

Animal Well is dense and esoteric without ever feeling cold or inaccessible. There are plenty of footholds in its serpentine map to keep you feeling optimistic and engaged, even when you also feel completely lost. Any time I was beginning to get frustrated and it felt like I’d exhausted every remaining avenue, I’d return to an earlier part of the map, deploy every new trick in my arsenal, and stumble into something new and surprising. I usually grow impatient with Metroidvania-style games that aren’t afraid to make you hug the wall, backtracking until you find that one little thing you missed that opens up a whole new path forward.

That wasn’t the case with Animal Well. It helps that the game isn’t constantly trying to kill you. The platforming is also pretty forgiving. Falling into water is a no-no but you’re simply returned to the last ledge you were on without losing any health when it happens. The sections of the game where you need to really think fast and execute with precision are few and far between and totally thrilling. “Aha!” I gasped late one night when narrowly surviving a particularly harrowing ordeal after way more do-overs than I care to remember. But I will remember them. I will remember them all. There’s no doubt in my mind that Animal Well is one of the best games of the year. It’s also one I’ll never forget.

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