close up of rabbits done in a pixel style from animal well

Animal Well Drip Feeds Dopamine Through Tough Puzzles and a Unique Atmosphere (Review)

Animal Well is an impossible game to fit into a box. Steam slots it into the Metroidvania and puzzle genres while developer Shared Memory’s official website describes it as a ‘survival horror puzzle game about secrets.’ I found neither truly matches what I experienced in my 25 hours exploring the labyrinthine, puzzle-filled map, yet at the same time there’s echoes of truth in both descriptions. If I was tasked with describing Animal Well to someone, I’d say it’s a lot like 2012’s legendary puzzle game FEZ and 2022’s Game of the Year nominee Tunic with an entirely unique atmosphere.

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Regardless of description, for a game developed by a single person, Animal Well has quickly become my favorite title of 2024.

Animal Well has no cutscenes explaining any sort of story, though there certainly is a narrative thread to find for those who pay enough attention. You begin as a little pink blob that looks a lot like everyone’s favorite glutton Kirby. The artstyle is striking: scanlines give it a retro feel, while neon blues and somber greens highlight the crisp pixel graphics. Setting off to explore a labyrinthine well filled with animals both friendly and hostile, you’ll soon find that puzzles and secrets fill every single square inch of it.

To spoil the sense of discovery would do a disservice to Animal Well and to you; figuring things out for yourself – or with the help of friends – is truly the best way to play the game. Just know this: to reach the credits, you have to reach four different colored flames in four sprawling zones by collecting a handful of items that allow you to progress to new areas and discover more secrets. But nothing is what you expect in Animal Well, so the tools you’re working with aren’t double jumps and air dashes like in a typical Metroidvania, but rather slinkies, frisbees, and bubble wands.

These unique items have unexpected utility to them, and more than once I got that dopamine rush from discovering a new way to use the frisbee or finding a new tool that would allow me to reach that obscured, out-of-way hidden alcove I spotted two hours prior. Most of the time, I’d find an egg – a literal Easter egg – of which there are more than 50 to find. Other times, I’d encounter the ‘survival horror’ aspect of Animal Well, like when a massive ghostly dog chased me after I stole an item from its shrine.

Animal Well can be at times a bit too obscure or difficult, as it explains nothing and some unforgiving checkpoints during platforming sequences can set you back quite a bit. I spent about two hours trying to solve a particular puzzle, scouring every pixel in the area, only to realize that an item I recently obtained worked in a way I didn’t expect. Personally, this didn’t bother me. In fact, this lack of hand holding endeared me to Animal Well even more. However, I can see some people getting stumped, frustrated, and putting down Animal Well permanently, yet each time I couldn’t find a way forward or failed an intense platforming sequence my resolve to push onward only strengthened.

It wasn’t until about 10 hours in when I saw the first set of credits that I realized Animal Well is really two games in one. I could’ve stopped there and been more than content with my time exploring a labyrinth equal parts charming and frightening, yet there were so many questions left unanswered: what would happen if I found all the eggs? What’s with the strange, dice-like symbols on the wall here and the background mural over there? Those questions barely scratch the surface of what’s on offer: past the initial adventure there’s secrets so esoteric and mind-bending that they may never be solved.

In fact, as I sought out the last of the eggs – which took me about 25 hours total to find them all – I joined a pre-release Discord server to compare notes and solve mysteries with my peers. So well-hidden were these secrets that I knew there was no way I could do it alone. We helped each other find the last of the items and all of the eggs before we realized there were even more mysteries. Even as I edit this review a day before launch, the server is active with fellow reviewers examining every background statue, debating every shadowed spot on the map, and discussing the utility of the 9 different items the little Kirby lookalike can use.

While the first part of Animal Well was a clever puzzle adventure with Metroidvania mechanics that just about anyone could work through without too much difficulty, working together with peers to uncover these truly esoteric secrets quickly enshrined Animal Well as one of my favorite gaming experiences in recent memory. That said, as the mysteries grow more complex and the discussions more intense, I’ve decided to bow out lest I melt my brain further.

Perhaps I’ll return one day to solve these mysteries for myself or hop back in with a friend who is simultaneously playing to see if we can’t crack the many codes together. Either way, Animal Well was a wonderfully unique experience full of neat little ideas that drip-fed me dopamine derived from a constantly satiated sense of discovery, made all the more impressive as it was created by a single developer. It deserves to stand among legendary puzzle-oriented indie titles such as Braid, FEZ, and Tunic, and I cannot wait to see what Shared Memory does next.


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Author
Lowell Bell
Lowell is a freelance contributor with The Escapist that began his career reporting on live events such as the Penny Arcade Expo and E3 back in 2012. Over the last couple of years, he carved a niche for himself covering competitive Pokémon as he transitioned into game criticism full time. About a decade ago, Lowell moved to Japan for a year or two but is still there, raising a Shiba Inu named Zelda with his wife while missing access to good burritos. He also has a love/hate relationship with Japanese role-playing games.