Creature in the Well relies on the simple pleasure of hitting a ball with a bat. Instead of having you fight through waves of enemies (as you would in most games of its ilk), it regularly asks you to find the perfect angle to land a precise blow on pinball bumpers. And for much of my time in its lonely, crumbling environments, that’s all I needed; that simple pleasure has the kind of satisfying physicality that can hold me over for hours. But as often as I felt like a one-person baseball team — batting, catching and moving around small fields with a deliberate deftness — I also felt like I was just swinging a bat at things until I was done, turning that simple pleasure mundane.
Creature in the Well tasks you with ridding the small town of Mirage of a years-long sandstorm. The weather prevents the denizens from venturing out into the world. As a BOT-C robot engineer, you need to power the eight major components (conveniently located in eight disparate sections) of a weather machine called the North Star, in order to clear the storm. You’re not the first to try, though; as you enter the mountain that houses the machine, you learn you’re one of many engineers who have mostly failed at the hands of the titular creature in the well. Only the beast’s eyes and hands are visible, but it regularly impedes your progress.
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The bat-swinging setup sounds simple at first, but has more nuance than you might think. Most of the time, you don’t just wait for the ball and bat it away. Hitting various other objects strewn around the mountain’s eight areas nets you energy. Energy, in turn, lets you open doors and venture deeper into the heart of the North Star. You can attract orbs into your orbit, charge them with energy, then fire them off. And batting a ball at a target, catching it on the return trip, powering it up as you hone in on just the right angle, then firing it off again to land the shot feels good, since I was never entirely sure I’d nail a tricky shot.
Rooms also add a few extra obstacles to keep you thinking: time-limited bumpers to activate in sequence, life-threatening explosions and lasers, as well as spaces where you must angle shots perfectly to catch the same orbs multiple times to move them across a room. “Boss” rooms, in which you engage the creature a little more directly, also present you with gantlets of rooms that test your ability to survive long-term as the creature restores bumpers you’ve deactivated. When I was being tested and everything came together, I couldn’t help but fall in love with the simple pleasure Creature in the Well bets its particular farm on.
But just as often as I stared down a puzzle or challenge that pushed me, I sort of just… walked into a room, charged up orbs, whacked them around, and left. The first few times you find a bumper-rich room after a particularly heady challenge are cathartic, sure, but that appeal fades after the umpteenth time. And even after encountering a few challenging rooms, I kept wanting later ones to step up and build on the concepts I’d learned. But those climaxes never manifested; by the time I’d finished the game, after around seven hours, I felt like I had just taken my training wheels off.
It also doesn’t help that, in most cases, your best bet when faced with a tough puzzle is to just come back later and brute force it. Completing certain puzzles unlocks hidden areas that award with you new weapons. These can split your orbs into multiple shots, cause a bolt of electricity to hit other nearby bumpers, or make it easier to attract nearby orbs so you can charge them. All these weapons are fun to use and have their own intricacies. And I swapped among them somewhat regularly — my personal favorites being the magnetized and lighting-ized weapons. But these weapons also tend to make some rooms a breeze once you acquire them.
More than that, you find robotic cores that increase the amount of energy you drain from bumpers on each hit. This means that, if a puzzle requires you bank a shot off four bumpers twice, and you’re just not nailing the timing, you can wait for a few upgrades. Then you only have to hit each bumper once. That might make it easier to backtrack, but several puzzles lost their luster after I realized I could come back and clear them without really thinking them through.
And for as much as the game wants you to think of its eight, disparate areas as unique challenges, they bleed together pretty quickly. The high-contrast art style and fluid animations never got old, but each area is made from the same rock formations, pipes, and rustic architecture as the last — just caked in different color schemes. The machinations and challenges inside them don’t change too much, either; by the time you power up the third or fourth part of the North Star, you have a pretty good idea of what the rest of the game looks like.
Every room is an isolated puzzle or challenge. That makes the way they’re all split into eight sections more of a formality than a meaningful distinction. And while no rooms are exactly the same, you do start seeing the same setups pretty quickly. It wasn’t until the last couple of hours that Creature in the Well really tested me. As such, some of the boss areas towards the very end are actually the best parts of the game.
You also never really get the satisfying narrative payoff the game sets up early on, thanks to storytelling that’s too sparse to be satisfying, but not mystifying enough to make your mind wander. As you power up each component, your conversations with creature between boss encounters hint at a more elaborate tale. It feels like it might unfurl later on, and snippets of text tell you what it’s like to live as resident of Mirage while the enduring sandstorm saps their hope. But none of these threads grow in satisfying ways. Even after beating the game, I had to scour the few text entries I got just to figure out what really happened. The finale does offer some closure, but I felt largely disconnected from what occurred around me.
The promise of finding that perfect angle to bank my shots carried me through much of Creature in the Well. But for a powerful-yet-simple joy like that to hold up over several hours, the other components have to synthesize well enough to keep challenging you in new ways. That’s something Creature in the Well accomplishes haphazardly at best. So, just as often as you indulge in the fun of belting a homer at just the right time, you’re just sort of hitting balls with a stick…. When I put it that way, it just doesn’t sound as cool as it should be.