Creature in the Well is art as much as it’s a game. From the moment you pick it up, you know that this is a title where the aesthetic is as big a part of the experience as pressing a few controller buttons. It’s hack and slash pinball, but you might as well be playing golf in a Mike Mignola comic book as anything else. Sure, it doesn’t always explain itself incredibly well, the evocative nature of its art, setting and music contribute to create an atmosphere that’s unforgettable.
From the opening’s sincere Journey vibe, it’s hard not to fall for Creature in the Well. You’re an engineer; a robotic creation whose role, and that of your kind, was to keep a machine within a mountain functioning. It seems as though you’ve been missing for a long time, with the machine now silent, the Engineers all gone, and an immense creature living in the darkness below. The creature seems amused – or bemused perhaps – by your arrival, and once you set about trying to reactivate the mountain machine it soon becomes clear that the creature is merely tolerating your presence, chiding you for your failures, and whispering in your ear of your inadequacies.
There will be failures. Creature in the Well is a harsh foe that will punish you for, well, it’s hard to tell at times. The main crux of the game is returning power to the ancient machine, and to do that you have to work your way through a series of rooms, collecting power and avoiding the many dangers. You gather power by knocking energy balls around each area, bouncing them off available surfaces to remove obstacles or charge generators.
With two weapons at your disposal, one a simple bat-style weapon that knocks energy balls about on contact, and the other a charge blade that lets you ‘catch’ the energy and direct it in a more definite way, there’s a host of different play styles you can adopt here. From the bat and ball stylings of Breakout by way of pinball through to bullet hell, it’s an odd mix and one that at first feels imprecise and even overwhelming. However, once you’re quite literally into the swing of things, it becomes a taut and brilliantly thought out play scheme that’ll have you gnashing your teeth in frustration at times and breathing a sigh of relief when you make it to the next section.
Creature in the Well is loosely styled as a dungeon crawler, and when your character is knocked out the creature chucks you back out of the mountain, expecting you to give up and find something else to do. Of course, that’s not what happens, as you repeatedly traipse back into the foundtain, sound-tracked by a beautifully melancholic piano piece. In fact, defeat becomes a welcome tonic to the stress of returning the machine to order, and the music, both here and throughout the rest of the game, contributes immensely to the overwhelmingly lonely atmosphere.
It certainly helps to shape the narrative. Futuristic, synth-led tones evoke the best of high-concept sci-fi cinema, and each piece tells you of loss, loneliness and what might have been, all without a single word being sung. There are words, mind you. From the janitorial Roger T. Frog whose family seemingly created the machine to snippets of written logs left by long-gone engineers, you build up a picture of what has happened within the mountain. I found it absolutely enthralling.
Mystery can give way to murkiness at times. Creature in the Well holds all of its cards close to its chest, including how to play the game. It’s only through early efforts of trial and error that you begin to understand how the game works, the telltale signs of elements you need to hit or remove, and even how you collect energy balls and projectiles with your charge blade and redirect them is all left to the player to discover. One or two extra moments of hand holding wouldn’t have weakened the narrative effect, but I can see it as an artistic choice rather than a deliberately obtuse one.
The game’s relatively short runtime means that it remains fresh throughout, despite a certain amount of repetition from some of the rooms and their layouts. It’s a mild shame that more gameplay mechanics aren’t introduced later on, but the game’s beautifully handled art, narrative and simplistic purity will help to keep players tuned in from the evocative opening to the last wonderful moments.