From the moment I saw Creature in the Well revealed this past March during Nintendo’s Nindies Spring 2019 Showcase, I knew I had to check it out. The unique blend of a top-down action-adventure game mixed with pinball elements was something I had never seen before. After spending more than five hours in the world, I’m happy to report that it lives up to the hype. That being said, this game is definitely not for everybody.
The opening moments of Creature in the Well are very indicative of the type of game that it is – one that is heavily rooted in its creativity, while giving little direction as to what to do, or where to go. It’s an experience that doesn’t hold your hand in the beginning, the middle, or the end. It harkens back to a time when games were brutally difficult because they had to be. Whether that meant pumping quarters into an arcade machine to continue playing after failing, or punishing your imperfect input by sending you back to the beginning of a level, Creature in the Well feels like a game from yesteryear. Some of that is a testament to its design decisions, while the other aspect feels like it’s missing some quality of life features we’ve come to expect from modern games.
You play as the last remaining BOT-C unit, a robot tasked with restoring power to an ancient facility and purifying the town of Mirage from a persistent dust storm. Upon entering the facility, you’ll venture through eight handcrafted dungeons, each one layering on new challenges that you must complete before taking on the titular Creature – a mysterious monster that lurks in the shadows, following your every move as you move through each labyrinthian maze.
At the core of Creature in the Well is the unique pinball-inspired gameplay. Most rooms you enter present you with a small puzzle in the form of bumpers that you must hit an energized orb at to power up. As you progress, certain rooms feature enemies that fire back at you with shots that can be deflected. The energy generated from powering up the bumpers can be used to open doors throughout each dungeon, and are the primary currency in the game. Because rooms can be replayed, and thus energy can essentially be “farmed,” if you ever get stuck in a specific room, you can always play rooms over until you get the required energy to move forward. But, do this sparingly, as individual rooms begin layering on new techniques that you’ll need to understand, such as moving bumpers, timed bumpers, and the like, that will make later stages extremely difficult if you don’t practice.
If you take too much damage and your health bar depletes, you’re dropped back outside the facility in the town of Mirage, a barren town that’s relatively lifeless – save for a couple NPC characters. Here you can upgrade your BOT-core with enough energy and old cores collected, although there’s no indication of what this actually does, as it didn’t seem to affect my character’s overall abilities in any meaningful way. You’ll also need to heal up after you die, as you don’t automatically start with a full bar of health. For the first portion of the game, I thought you had to run back through the dungeon, avoiding enemy fire perfectly, before returning to the extremely sparse energy pools. I later realized there was an energy pool in the main hub area, which would have saved me a lot of time retreading the same steps and early-game frustration. Once again, the game does not give you any hints at all as to what you should be doing, and a lot of these things have to be discovered on your own. At times it reminded me of a game like Dark Souls, where you are continually throwing yourself at the same boss – or in this case, puzzle – until you either got lucky or figured out some new technique you didn’t know existed.
Throughout the game, you’re equipped with two different weapons – a Strike tool and a Charge tool. The Strike tool, often times a sword or bat of some sort, is your main weapon to deflect orbs back at bumpers or enemies. This effectively acts as the “bumper” would on a pinball table, except you generally aren’t remaining stationary. Your Charge tool is the one you’ll end up using more often, however. This allows you to gather a multitude of orbs as they come near you and, as the weapon’s name implies, charge them up to then fire back at once with increased power. You also have the ability to quickly dodge incoming projectiles with the press of a button, a tool that will prove invaluable at later stages of the game. Different weapons can be found and equipped during your journey, with some offering more precise targeting, a slow down effect, dual blades for increased speed, a lightning rod that chains damage to objects around it, as well as many others. This offers a different challenge for those looking to collect all the weapons, as it can vary the gameplay significantly from dungeon to dungeon.
One of the game’s standout features is its art style. It employs a flat art style, with a minimal color palette against a solid black background. There is little to no shadows in the game, which gives the game a very unique look. The colors chosen for each dungeon are vibrant, almost leaping off the screen, as they contrast with the dark background. There is very little detail in the environment, save for some pipes and rocks scattered about, that creates a heavy sense of isolation as you explore.
The music is equally simple, with a single, serene music track that accompanies you throughout the majority of your journey. The only times the music ever changes are when you are outside in the desert, or when you enter into a boss stage against the Creature at the end of each dungeon. The game has a satisfying sound when the energy orbs hit each bumper, which further emphasizes its pinball-like nature. For the most part, though, it’s relatively minimal sound design fits right in with its unembellished aesthetic.
During my playthrough, I did encounter some issues, some I expect will be patched, others are unlikely to be changed. Firstly, the game hard crashed on me once during gameplay, something that can be attributed to a pre-release build of the game. I don’t anticipate the majority of players will experience this bug, but it’s worth noting. Additionally, I found myself clipping through many of the environments, including many walls, floor decor, and general textures. Certain instances I completely lost my character on screen, which was a bit frustrating to navigate. There are also very abrupt camera angle changes that you’ll encounter as the game moves from room-to-room. It would have been nice to have a bit more control over the camera, but I understand that may create issues with presenting some of the puzzles. That being said, it was a bit jarring at times, especially if you’re moving through each area quickly.
My biggest piece of criticism, though, is the repetitive nature of the game. At first, you’re in the honeymoon phase, where everything is new and exciting. But, as the game becomes more difficult, I began to see its faults. Some rooms were damn near impossible at the end, requiring nothing more than luck in the way the energy orbs bounced around. The later dungeons feature small reddish-orange urchin-like enemies that home in on your character, and often cannot be avoided in some scenarios. Even though some of the dungeons add new elements, much of the game felt recycled. From certain puzzle layouts to the overall appearance, many sections felt almost like a palette swap of another area, and came off as uninspired. It almost felt like a roguelike design, with just enough to seem different, but generally much of the same. The pinball-esque nature of the game also felt like it never really found its identity. It felt too slow to actually be a pinball game, but lacked the combat that you’d expect from a dungeon crawler. It fell somewhere in the middle of the two, which is a bit discouraging because I truly feel that the team at Flight School are clearly very talented and have come up with a brilliant mashup of two unrelated genres.
Despite its flaws, I did enjoy my time with Creature in the Well. The game’s final few dungeons will really test your patience, requiring many, many playthroughs before you’re successful. I encourage you to try different weapons, as some seem to fare better than others. That being said, the game’s simplistic art style is fantastic, sound design is great, and gameplay is generally entertaining. There are a variety of different weapons to collect, secret rooms to be found, cosmetic capes to be equipped, and even some lore to uncover. This new genre of “pinbrawler” is extremely promising, and I would love to see Flight School explore it more in the future, as long as they are open to taking more risks with the gameplay.
Creature in the Well is available now on Nintendo Switch, PC, and Xbox One. A review copy of the game was provided by the developers, and did not influence the review score in any way.