Creature in the Well Review
Creature in the Well is a game that should not work.
An isometric, dungeon crawling rogue-lite, with pinball-style hack and slash combat: On paper, it sounds like a box-ticking exercise and the ultimate case of ‘too many cooks’. In practice, it’s a recipe for success that is only mildly mired by inconsistencies and a frustrating endgame.
The initial impression it makes, however, is incredibly positive. The way Flight School Studio has blended this spectrum of gameplay mechanics is pretty astounding. Every element works in tandem wonderfully. The simple yet cavernous dungeons complement the replayability and run-based gameplay loop. Uncomplicated block colour schemes help define strong themes and distinguish different areas. The minimalist synth soundtrack adds to the classic videogame feel and robotic, industrial motif. However, everything this game does right stems from the timeless action of an object striking a ball.
Getting that central action right was so important. Hitting an orb and having it ricochet around an arena, bounce off pinball-style bumpers (which are actually enemy traps) and watching points rack up was, from the beginning of this game to the very end, so gratifying. Everything Creature in the Well does right stems from a solid foundation of fun, satisfying gameplay. From here Flight School could build, and that’s exactly what it’s done.
Setting this batting-cage-like joy inside eight expansive, simply constructed Temples, each of them with their own unique design, deadly traps, and a myriad of secrets and upgrades to find, and then finishing with an addictive, “just one more run”, rogue-lite twist ties this one-of-a-kind game together exceptionally well.
The game also tells a solid story. Playing as the last remaining BOT C engineer, once part of a collective of robots tasked with maintaining a powerful weather machine, you must save the town of Mirage from its now sandy fate. How? By removing the titular Creature whose purpose is to stop anyone who dares to enter the mountain in which the machine is built. It’s a simple story of fate and not dissimilar to anything we’ve heard before, but it’s well executed. The small cast of characters and smattering of lore give a window into what happened and build the legend of the Creature that dwells in the dark.
With its piercing white eyes occasionally looming from the inky void, the sense of being watched as I dispatched each trap and gathered enough power to progress was eerie. Interactions were sparse, but charmingly villainous to add enough character to this omnipresent yet aloof threat. Inevitably I would lose and it would dump me out of its Well, becoming enraged as I ventured back in determined to succeed — as is the nature of the game.
I was rarely disheartened as the Creature unceremoniously chucked me back out into the sandstorm-consumed town. That loop of being thwarted before beginning my quest anew only added to the sense of adventure and intrigue. However, as the difficulty of the Temples began to rise it did so sharply and unfairly. The final set succumbed to the trudge of trial and error, occasionally feeling cheap where the game had otherwise been consistently fair.
Most of the time my failures felt justified; I knew where I’d gone wrong. Here though, I was bombarded from all sides, adding hours to what had otherwise been a swift, but well-paced adventure. The game — or perhaps the Creature? — now seemed determined to put me off reaching the end of the game. It put a dampener on my enthusiasm, but still, I couldn’t tear myself away. After all, this reluctant hero — and I — had come too far to stop now.
The Creature had taunted me for too long, the people of Mirage depended on me, the legacy of the people who had built this machine needed to be upheld. Creature in the Well had hooked me in a way that I had never expected it to when I started my journey just a few hours earlier. Where the gameplay was the initial draw, the story had now captured me too.
I doubled back; fully exploring the previous Temples with my new skills on show, excavating any hidden treasures. Each Temple was well represented, almost in spite of their simple designs and reserved colour palette. North Star Conduit — the second-to-last Temple — with its monochromatic patterning, only broken by foreboding bursts of red, stands out in particular. Only the consistent flickering that plagued some of the flat surfaces took away from the game’s otherwise clean visual style.
New weapons, a few cosmetic items and some upgrades later I felt even more ready to best the Creature and his trials, although it was more a feeling than anything else. Whilst the additional weapons made their abilities and influence obvious — allowing for new and helpful defensive measures or providing more power on offense — the additional Bot Core upgrades were more ambiguous in their effect. Even after finishing the game I’ve only got a vague (and unconfirmed) sense of just how they were helping.
Whatever they did, they worked. And whilst the final moments of Creature in the Well were not without gratification and and a sense of achievement, because they totally were, the destination didn’t quite match up with the journey I’d just undertaken for the previous six hours. But that’s ok, because Creature in the Well will last long in my memory.
Creature in the Well’s achievements outshine its failures. The fact that the concept, expertly constructed by Flight School Studio, translates at all is a miracle. Easy to learn, but difficult to master, Creature in the Well infuses that old school spirit into a distinctly modern, unique and excellent game.
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