Creature in the Well Review
A fresh idea with underwhelming execution
Sometimes, you think you’ve seen it all and this E3, I very much felt like I had. While it’s always good to see the next version of long-running franchises, nothing is more fun than stumbling across something new and exciting. That’s what initially attracted me to Creature in the Well - how different it felt. We’ve seen plenty of isometric action games in the last few years, but adding a pinball dynamic felt refreshing and changed the nature of the gameplay, which in turn changed how I approached the rooms you must clear.
Action games usually use enemies to force reactions from the player - your brain has to analyze the layout of the room and respond accordingly. The interesting thing about Creature in the Well is that almost every room in every level is completely static when you enter - nothing happens until you make the first move. You begin each room by striking a white pinball that will bounce around, interacting with different objects, and then all hell breaks loose as enemies spawn, the pinball's behavior changes, and you are forced to quickly strike the pinball again.
You play as the last BOT-C, a robot designed to work on a giant machine operating within a mountain. However, as you enter the mountain, you find that it’s inhabited by the titular creature who has taken over the machine and vanquished all the previous BOT-Cs who challenged it. Creature in the Well’s story is sparsely told and difficult to follow. It feels like developer, Flight School Games, wanted players to pick up on the story from the environmental cues, but instead had to dump large chunks of it after each boss fight - which feels clumsy and might contribute to the uneven nature of the game. The developers don’t even seem that interested in telling the tale; the text dumps being dry and uninspired.
It’s safe to say that Creature in the Well is relying on its gameplay to keep you invested and continues changing up how the levels play. The core of that gameplay is quite good. The controls feel a little clumsy; just not quite responsive enough to provide the right amount of adrenaline. That said, hitting the pinballs, aiming them, and striking them again mid-air is some good fun.
After some introductory rooms where you can master this ability, you’ll reach the main hub where you unlock the different levels, each with a different concept. One level features moving targets that you’ll have to hit with the pinballs, another is built around switches that have to flipped to get the right bumpers to show up. It’s clear that Flight School is hoping this variety will keep the players focused, but again it’s still hit and miss. Some concepts are a lot of fun, but others are dull and frustrating. Furthermore, the difficulty is unbalanced. The first few levels do a good job of introducing the mechanics and how the game will change them up, but the latter ones go from being furiously difficult to quite easy.
Each room has a series of bumpers that need to be hit with a pinball a few times to deactivate. When all bumpers are deactivated, a final bumper appears which you can hit for energy points; these energy points can be used to unlock doors. So you can skip rooms as you get to the later levels of the game, but the incentive to complete every room is that secret rooms will reveal special weapons that allow you to control the pinballs in unique ways.
There are two weapons you’ll always need, one that hits the pinball and another that charges it up. One special weapon would electrify the pinball so when it hit one bumper, all those around it would be affected as well. One of the charging weapons would give you a red line that helped you more accurately aim the pinballs. Exploring levels also allow you to find energy cores that help BOT-C do more damage to bumpers, knocking them down faster. It gives you a reason to go back to levels and try to clear them, as they will now be easier and you’ll likely find some extra tools.
As such, Creature in the Well succeeds and fails at the same time. With well-designed levels, the game feels positively inspired. You’ll always want to revisit them and fully clear them out, loving the smart design and incentive to explore. But the bad levels become a chore that you constantly have to force yourself to come back to because you know there’s a weapon somewhere that you’ll need to help you progress. The game becomes a contradiction of design as you constantly go back and forth, sometimes excited and sometimes annoyed.
This might be forgivable if the campaign progress was a bit quicker. The real issue here is when you die and the creature picks you up and throws you in a little town outside of the mountain, forcing you to walk back to where you were in the level and also stop to recharge your health, which is a frustrating minute of downtime when all you want to do is just hop back into the challenge. It’s puzzling that there isn’t an autosave feature to just bring you right back to the room you died in, or the room before it. No progress is lost, so the game isn’t trying to be punishing, it’s just making you retrace your steps. The good news is that when you reach a boss level you can just warp to the fight after recharging your health. Also, changing the level you can access requires you going to the main hub and powering up a pinball, then striking it at the pillar which corresponds to the level you want. It’s a lot of busywork that keeps the game from getting off the ground.
While the overall look of Creature in the Wall is forgettable, Flight School does a good job of adding little details to the world to help the ambiance. The animation is reminiscent of other dungeon crawlers like Hyper Light Drifter or Below - oppressive and moody. There’s a synth-y soundtrack that’s used to manufacture a sense of dread throughout the game when matched with the dark color palette. The look just doesn’t quite match how unique the game plays, feeling derivative. The saving grace is the implementation of the creature. As you traverse the levels you are occasionally watched by a pair of menacing eyes from the black, or a pair of hands emerge as you wander room-to-room. It doesn’t happen often enough to break up the monotony of the design, but it’s certainly appreciated when you see it.
The game plays exceptionally smoothly, which is so important for action games of this nature. I had no crashes or framerate issues, with a steady framerate. The loading is quick and gets you right into the game, which helps because you know you’ve got a slow walk back to the action.
Creature in the Well feels like it’s missing some quality of life updates that keep you engaged with the action, and some tweaks to the design to make it an easier experience to consume. The core idea of pinball-meets-dungeon-crawler is a great one and while controls could be tighter, it’s certainly the highlight. What is missing is the design and narrative to keep that central mechanic interesting throughout. It’s just missing that hook to keep you coming back time and again.