Don’t spoil Animal Well for yourself

Don’t spoil Animal Well for yourself

You are an egg person. You wake up in a large turnip.

The world around you is alien, with an eerie, neon glow. But there’s a familiarity to it. A nearby squirrel beckons you to chase it, and lazy reeds sway in an unseen breeze. You start to find comfort in this strange world, gobbling up smaller turnips and discovering plants that act as mini firecrackers to scare away the few creatures that wish to do you harm. It’s a simple life you’ve found, living among the ducks and kangaroos and monkeys of this bizarre realm. But beneath the surface of Animal Well, something lurks. Something that will transform you from a simple egg person into a paranoid, note-keeping conspiracy theorist.

You have been warned.

Animal Well is devious in the way it presents itself. At first glance, it’s a simple 2D exploration game with no combat whatsoever. Your goal? Hard to say, beyond some vague markings on a large map. It appears to be a very lo-fi take on the Metroidvania genre, with basic, switch-based puzzles blocking your way.

But as you explore this world, its secrets unravel before you in fascinating ways. Ways that I desperately don’t want to explain, but I realize I have to in order to convey why this is one of the most inventive games of the last decade.

We’ll start with the basics. As with any Metroidvania, there’s gear in Animal Well that’ll allow you to traverse more of the map. One of the earliest pieces of gear you get? A bubble wand that allows you to blow a single bubble, which you can then jump on as a height boost. In other words, it’s this game’s take on a double jump. And yet, the simple bubble wand hides within it other techniques that are not immediately obvious. For example: You can stand on a bubble and ride it down like an elevator. Push down on the analog stick, and you’ll speed your descent. But jump once, and the bubble pops. Perhaps, you might wonder, are there more ways to utilize this tool within the world of Animal Well? Maybe these weird mouths at the end of sewer pipes might take a liking to your bubbles?

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So much of Animal Well is “what if I try this?” It’s a quiet, peculiar game that doesn’t offer a lot of obvious help, but through clues in the environmental design, you begin to divine the language of this world. Animal Well is a Swiss watch in video game form — on the surface, it can tell time, but if you delve a bit deeper, there’s an astounding amount of complexity hidden within. There actually aren’t many games that follow this model, but fans of Fez, Tunic, and Outer Wilds will feel right at home here.

Like those games, Animal Well has a lush presentation style all its own. The densely drawn pixel art has few analogues in the way that it breathes life into the world and its denizens, with rustling bushes and gaseous ghosts swirling throughout its strange and sometimes unsettling landscapes. All of this is backed by an ethereal score that is both inviting and haunting. The artwork, score, and game design all come from a single, very dedicated developer, Billy Basso, which makes this feel like a true passion project fully realized. And a large part of that passion went into creating puzzles that might take a single normal human (read: me) weeks, months, or an eternity to solve.

a small egg person sends of stream of water off an angled panel to solve a puzzle in animal well Image: Billy Basso/Bigmode

But the smartest thing about Animal Well is that it is relatively easy to finish for most players without much help at all. The challenge of getting the credits to roll took me about six hours. The game actually offers you a stopwatch upon beating it the first time. Which is useful, because I can tell you that my stopwatch now reads 30 hours, and I still have many mysteries left to uncover.

It’s hard to describe the beguiling appeal of Animal Well’s first few hours, but it’s even harder to talk about this game without talking about the postgame. That’s where Animal Well really starts to show its true colors as a puzzle-solver’s and scavenger-hunter’s dream come true. But it is good to know that at least some people will walk away satisfied upon reaching the credits, not realizing the further depths that await them if they really start filling in the dark spaces of their map.

A peacock stands atop a multi-tier platform featuring a large array of eggs in Animal Well Image: Billy Basso/Bigmode

I have no doubt that within a week of Animal Well’s release, the game will be mostly solved by internet obsessives who are trained on cracking precisely the sorts of mysteries that lie within. And yes, those playing in their wake can have the experience spoon-fed to them on wikis and guide pages far and wide.

But let me suggest another path.

Find a friend or two, and make a blood oath to solve as much of Animal Well as possible among only yourselves, without getting help online. The true magic of this game is sharing discoveries and theories with friends; having a faceless internet person tell you the mystery of the eggs without working it out on your own is to deny yourself a feeling of satisfaction that few games can offer. It harks back to the early days of Zelda, when the oldest among us tried to figure out what the hell “Dodongo dislikes smoke” meant. Consider it a trial, a badge of honor that you can wear when you’re 30 hours in and you’re smashing your head against this random mural of a rabbit. When that happens, know that you are truly one of us.

Animal Well was released May 9 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Bigmode. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.