Pinball-inspired dungeon crawler/hack-and-slash Creature in the Well is short, sweet, and satisfying, whatever that word means.
As I played Flight School’s Creature in the Well, the word “satisfying” kept popping to mind—but as I find that word to be overused in video game criticism and conjecture, I found myself reckoning with what that word really tells us about games. Was it the sights, the sounds, or perhaps the pace of gameplay that we find satisfying? For this pinball-like hack-and-slash, the answer was all of the above.
Creature in the Well is not a long game, and while the basic controls are easy to pick up, it’s one of the more significant challenges I’ve encountered in quite some time. The gameplay is fun when successful, and maddening when things don’t go your way. Worldbuilding is subtle and a bit minimalist, serving as a double-edged sword. Mix it all together and you have a relatively short experience that I found satisfying, but your mileage may vary depending on how you approach games in general.
Our protagonist is the last BOT-C unit in the city of Mirage, which has been devastated by a massive sandstorm. This robot ventures into an ancient power facility, attempting to restore it to free the city of its pain. Lurking in the shadows of the facility is the titular Creature, a sentient large monster attempting to impede this unit’s progress, taunting them at every turn. Through dialogue bubbles from city folk, all sheltered in their homes, and reports and other texts, the player can gather just how desperate and miserable the Creature’s wrongdoings have made them.
Everything in the environment implies age and desolation. The desert outside of the mountain reminded me a lot of ReCore, another futuristic game where the technological wonderland has been left barren. Inside the power facility is another story; the main room is monolithic, while the dungeons this BOT-C unit explores are a bit confined. Everything in the facility looks rustic and used, with paint peeling off and some routes rendered inaccessible due to structural degradation.
The larger environments look like a gorgeous matte painting; it isn’t a graphically intense game at all, but there’s still something quite epic about the world of this game. That convincing illusion of scale helps to make the smaller and cramped areas more effective, their emptiness all the more shocking. The art style makes use of smooth textures and still manages to incorporate different color schemes (especially to indicate different dungeons) to make a post-apocalyptic game that doesn’t look at all dull.
This power facility temple has eight dungeons, all with a different function in the story and with a different gameplay theme. Players will go through each one by one, finding hidden paths and items to aid them in their quest. To progress, players will have to open doors with energy—this energy is gathered through the pinball-inspired mechanics that serve as the center of the gameplay. The two main actions you’ll be doing at any given time in Creature in the Well are Strike and Charge.
Most rooms in every dungeon have a set-up of multiple bumpers, similar to what you would see in a pinball machine. Little energy orbs, your pinballs, spawn in the room, with one button striking them with a blunt weapon of sorts, and another button charging the orbs up with a sword or sword-like weapon. Hitting the bumpers build up energy, represented by a number on the top-left corner of the HUD, with doors requiring a certain amount of energy. Admittedly though, late in the game, the amount of energy is negligible as those numbers just begin to rack up.
It is through this basic gameplay where the “satisfaction” sets in. I have never fashioned myself as a pinball enthusiast, but there’s something about interacting with a pinball table that feels like dopamine. It’s the feedback from the bumpers, the bouncing, the dinging, all of the related onomatopoeias, that make pinball “satisfying.” In Creature in the Well, the effect has the same oomph—the sounds are different, a bit more industrial, but watching those orbs bounce off of these electric bumpers hits and pleases that same part of the brain.
Dungeons will take you room to room, with all of them having some sort of configuration of bumpers. Small circular ones, long ones, and so on. Generally, extracting as much energy from these bumpers as possible, indicated by a black center that expands to white as you gain more energy from them, will make those bumpers retract into the ground and will provide enough energy to move on. In some cases, getting all of these bumpers will unveil a secret door that leads to a new item.
These items will either be a banner for your robot to wear as a cape, with some lore information attached to them, or a different weapon to aid you in your quest. They can be new Strike weapons, like one that splits energy orbs into three on the first hit, or one that slows time. Other Charge weapons include twin blades that have a laser sight for easier aiming, or a magnetic one that draws in energy orbs. You’ll find that some of the challenges presented in the game are impossible unless you have the proper tools at your disposal.
And man, can this game be challenging. Obstacles include bumpers that produce wide laser beams, guns that shoot energy orbs at a fast and damaging velocity, and poles that let out a shockwave if they’re struck by an energy orb. Some bumpers are time-sensitive and must be hit with a certain amount of energy on a short timer. Some bumpers bounce back energy orbs at damaging and alarming speeds. Many of these obstacles can be defeated by striking them with enough energy to make them disappear, but for others, like those pesky poles, this BOT-C unit doesn’t have any moves to defend itself besides a dash button. Spacial awareness is key, as you balance between dashing to avoid attacks and whacking at energy orbs in the hopes that putting as many on the field as possible will yield you positive results.
While I appreciate some of the minimalism in the game’s presentation, there were points in Creature in the Well where I felt like I was thrown in the deep end of the pool. Some of the weapon and item descriptors are unclear and worded strangely, and while visual cues (i.e. the black center of bumpers) can indicate what exactly these pieces of the environment do, the game could have done more with some instruction and tutorialization. One example that boggled me involved the cores that you find for your robot to upgrade; what upgrading does is totally unknown to me, whether it increases your health or allows it to extract more energy.
There’s no basic way to regain health other than finding pools of energy in healing rooms, usually not coming until the end of the level immediately before the boss room. With that, you have to choose your loadout for each encounter carefully, as every individual hit can be damning. So much happens on the screen at once, and the farther you get in the game, the larger quantity of obstacles in any given room. Sometimes you have to eschew strategy and just keep hitting those orbs as a defensive mechanism, leaving your success up to luck and physics. Penalities aren’t too significant upon death, other than you have to start at the beginning of the dungeon; luckily, reaching near the end will let you activate a teleporter that goes from the start to the end of the dungeon for those peskier boss battles.
Ultimately, this will all go over depending on how you play these types of dungeon crawling games. I’m one who feels the need to comb every inch, taking my time before reaching the end of the dungeon to make sure I’ve explored every avenue. If there’s a puzzle I couldn’t solve, I move on with the rest of the game, only going back to those puzzles once I’ve gotten stuck somewhere else and have better equipment. Usually, the weapons I gain from those previously unsolved puzzles help me get through those tough spots I get stuck on later. If you’re one to brute force games and don’t stop to smell the roses, you may find yourself hopelessly ill-equipped late in the game.
It took me about one to two hours to reach the end of Creature in the Well; it’s one that I found myself a bit addicted to, not knowing when to stop crawling through these dungeons, but also one with a lot of frustration over the number of deaths I’ve accumulated. It’s been too long since I’ve been both compelled and aggravated at once by an experience. All I know that is once all of the bumpers are clear in a room, and the large round bumper emerges, every energy orb in its proximity revolves around it, bumping into it at a high range as the numbers fly out and your energy counter increases. It’s a satisfying feel, a satisfying sound, and a satisfying aesthetic.