The titular Creature In The Well‘s eyes are always watching you work, but as you play, you learn that it also likes to talk. Before you reach the end of a level, it will taunt you and talk about all the ways it will make sure you fail. And when you do, its arms pick you up and throw you to the outside of the well it peeks out of, ready to taunt you once more.
You’ll later read that it’s spoken to hundreds of now-destroyed robots that kept the Machine In The Mountain working before it stopped altogether. And one of the most interesting things it says is a question: Why after all these years did you, a single robot, peek your head out of the sand and make your way back to the mountain to singlehandedly turn the machine back on?
It’s actually, well, a really good question. And as the game goes on and the frustrations mount, you’ll wonder a lot more about the why than anything else about what’s a beautiful and oftentimes exciting title from Flight School. The company describes Creature In The Well as pinball with swords, but it starts as pinball with a stick and frying pan. One tool charges the energy orbs up, the other strikes it to move said ball in a certain direction. You work your way up from there with new tools and, as a result, abilities.
It is, essentially, pinball in a dungeon crawler. Each level ends in a boss battle as certain portions of the machine are reactivated and the story unfolds. There’s a lot to like about the game at first blush. It’s a visually satisfying puzzle game that’s often far more dungeon crawler than shooter. The combination works: It’s refreshing that a game that often feels so chaotic rewards precision and timing in certain circumstances. The puzzles are unique and the visuals are stunning, with each level getting its own unique color palate and features. But as the levels go on, the chromatic satisfaction wears off and the basic set pieces all look the same, because they are.
It’s tough to criticize because it should be the same. It all takes part in the same factory, after all. Some of the features and set pieces build upon themselves over time, with new bumpers and electrical gizmos to make things a bit more complicated. But as the game gets harder, the frustrations with the mechanics themselves grow and not everything is nearly as intuitive as the minimalist design should be.
For a game so beautifully stylized, it’s surprisingly unintuitive in a number of ways. Controller vibrations, for example, are both good and bad. For the longest time I couldn’t tell if energy orbs were hurting my robot or not — until enemy-fired orbs absolutely were hurting my robot. And many players were unaware that the white pools were actually good for you because they recharge your health bar, despite the deceptive vibrations from your controller. They’re little things, but it’s enough to make you wonder exactly what’s going on pretty much all the time, especially as the puzzles get harder and the game gets more frustrating.