Animal Well review: "An endlessly inventive Metroidvania with unfathomable depth"

Animal Well screenshot, captured on PC
(Image: © Bigmode)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

Animal Well is stubbornly traditional in keeping you in the dark as you embark on your adventure, but that's firmly to its credit as you unravel the mysteries sprinkled around its map. Puzzles involving animals, toys and mechanical devices demand creative thinking, while the sense that nothing is quite as it seems never lets up. This is an endlessly inventive Metroidvania with unfathomable depth.


  • +

    Fantastically dark atmosphere

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    Ingenious items and puzzles

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    An incredible array of animals to interact with

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    Endless secrets to discover


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    Lack of direction can have you going in circles

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It seems odd to call Animal Well a Metroidvania, even if the cap fits, because it feels more like a type of game that predates Metroid itself. For those of us of a certain vintage, its faux 8-bit décor conjures images of ancient arcade adventures that dumped you into open-plan worlds with little to no information about what you were supposed to achieve. Harsh, yes. But every screen was a discovery, every puzzle a mystery, every insight a revelation. And that's the case here too.

Fast Facts

Release date: May 9, 2024
Platform(s): PC, PS5, Switch
Developer: Billy Basso
Publisher: Bigmode

Indeed, in keeping with those old school values, Animal Well clamps its cards so close to its chest you'd need a crowbar to take a peak. It's not even clear who or what you are as you emerge from the spreading petals of a plant on the opening screen, no more than a bouncing blob with a pair of pixels marking your eyes. True, you receive a sliver of guidance once your map is stamped with the locations of four flames, but how you reach them, or why you should, isn't about to be explained.

The titular well, more like an underground labyrinth, only deepens the enigma. Its blocky walls and floors are pitted with missing chunks implying hidden crevices. Hanging vines are curtains potentially obscuring alternative pathways. The real star visually, though, is the lighting, which conducts Animal Well's dank mood along with its sparse soundtrack and hyperreal sound effects. Hanging lanterns lack the wattage to illuminate the corners of a room. Shadows cast by scenery refuse to let you glimpse what lies beyond an obstacle until you arrive there yourself. As your eyes adjust in the opening minutes, it can be tricky to separate platforms from backgrounds, but that only adds to the strangeness.

Toy Story

Animal Well screenshot, captured on PC

(Image credit: Bigmode)

You will eventually discover Animal Well's map doesn't stretch as far and wide as those found in many of today's best Metroidvania games, yet instead those dark corners guard endless secrets. Your blob's quest is a journey of layers, where you loop around familiar screens only to find there was something else there all along, often hiding in plain sight, waiting for you to approach with the right tool, or the right mode of thinking.

The tools and abilities that help you peel back these layers are ingenious. Don't expect anything as straightforward as a double jump to boost your reach and air time. Rather, it's telling that most of the objects you acquire are toys – a yo-yo, a frisbee, a bubble wand – things made to be played with using childlike wonder as a guide. While some of the tasks here may be conventional, then – you often have to hit switches to unlock doors – the methods at your disposal are anything but.

Equally, the level design always offers just enough carrot to coax you into inventive solutions. Animal Well is full of 'what if I tried this?' moments that so often lead to rewarding outcomes, and you barely even notice the breadcrumb trails that lure you towards those Eureka moments. At the same time, the openness of the map, which allows you to explore in four main directions almost from the off, provides leeway to shortcut certain solutions depending on which items you find first and how you put them to use.

Animal Attraction

Animal Well screenshot, captured on PC

(Image credit: Bigmode)

One thing you won't be doing with your box of toys, however, is fighting. The only offensive option at your disposal is the handful of firecrackers you can stuff in your pockets – or whatever a blob has for pockets – whose noisy pyrotechnics send lurking spirits and certain beasts bolting off screen. But for the most part that's not a problem. While some members of the great menagerie dwelling down in the dark are aggressive, many mean you no harm at all.

Much of the joy in Animal Well, in fact, comes from figuring out how each species of the dozens you encounter will react to you or your equipment. Dogs have a habit of grabbing your spherical self in their jaws and shaking the life out of you, but they're only playing, and they'll happily chase a frisbee instead. Fat chinchillas amble towards you, which can be a help or a hindrance, although either way some need waking up first. Hummingbirds look all sweet and pretty until they start to interfere with your efforts to reach higher ground.

Friend or foe, though, these critters have an otherworldly quality about them, like ghostly versions of themselves, and with that Animal Well always has the capacity to shift tone in an instant, invoking the stuff of nightmares. Take the ostrich that acts as one of four boss-like creatures, for example. Scurry into the network of burrows beneath its feet and its head comes snaking after you, that long neck twisting at right angles to maintain the pursuit. Elsewhere, a pair of kangaroos emit pained bellows as they bounce towards your position. Congratulations if you resist the instinct to panic.  

Not that Animal Well is a tough game to survive by any means. While there are minor platforming gauntlets to traverse and some savage beasts to avoid, you're more likely to be stumped by working out how to proceed than the execution. And so, after around eight hours in this breathlessly intricate, imaginative, haunted hole you should be viewing the credits, looking back at a job well done.

Eggciting Eggstras

Animal Well screenshot, captured on PC

(Image credit: Bigmode)

Except, as you finish, you've barely started. This is where the real Animal Well begins. Like the heads of the Hydra, for every question your voyage has answered, two more have grown in its place. One of the main post-credits motivators besides uncovering blank spots on the map is a literal Easter egg hunt. You'll doubtless locate some of these shelled treasures as you work through the game the first time, but gathering the lot is a whole different proposition, and in the process you'll reveal further layers still.

On the downside, the pacing of Animal Well can flag a little at this point. In most Metroidvania games, places you can't reach yet are at least marked in some way so you can make a mental note where to return later. In Animal Well, these 'known unknowns' are replaced by 'unknown unknowns', in that you don't even realise a screen contains another route until you return with the right tool to prise it open. The last knockings of the egg hunt can thus enter needle in a haystack territory, as each item added to your inventory sends you scouring areas again to see where it might do some good.

Still, the compact dimensions of the well ease your travails somewhat, as does the detailed map, while each new toy helps zipping from one end to the other that little bit quicker. The bottlenecks are also largely an issue only for solo completionists, and the more you flounder the more it should dawn on you that working alone to unearth all that Animal Well has to offer is a fool's errand. Like Fez before it, this is a single-player game, but no less a community experience, where shared information will win the day.

It's for good reason then that publisher Bigmode set up a Discord group during the review period for journalists to discuss solutions and theories. And as helpful as that was, even with all the back and forth that emerged, plenty was left incomplete or up for debate. Without giving anything away, it suffices to say that this rabbit hole goes a long way down, and if Animal Well is a Metroidvania, it's so much more besides.


Animal Well was reviewed on PC, with code provided by the publisher.

Freelance Games Critic

 Jon Bailes is a freelance games critic, author and social theorist. After completing a PhD in European Studies, he first wrote about games in his book Ideology and the Virtual City, and has since gone on to write features, reviews, and analysis for Edge, Washington Post, Wired, The Guardian, and many other publications. His gaming tastes were forged by old arcade games such as R-Type and classic JRPGs like Phantasy Star. These days he’s especially interested in games that tell stories in interesting ways, from Dark Souls to Celeste, or anything that offers something a little different.