Describing Creature in the Well might make it seem a little complex: it mixes hack & slash action, classic Zelda, puzzle-filled dungeons, pinball, baseball, graphic novels, robots, lasers and luck together as the backbone of its design. The end result, however, is actually quite simple and easy to understand when we get our hands on a controller: you just hit a ball until shit explodes.
But there’s also a giant fucking monster that tries to stop us.
Creature in the Well is as much an exercise in managing limitations as it is creativity. The dev team is small, just two people, so when they found a great gameplay hook the Unreal software toolsets allowed them to fill in the blanks with everything else — in just one year of development. Set in a traditional dungeon-crawling viewpoint, the game has us swinging weapons (usually some type of laser sword) at glowing orbs, getting them to bounce around the screen to solve puzzles or take out enemies. The physics of the ball movements are predictable, which is essential to helping us actually do things consistently in the game. I know where the ball is going to go, not just when I swat it but also when it bounces off of one “bumper” into another direction. It’s solid, very solid, and is highly enjoyable, especially when we hop into a treasure room full of bumpers, and swatting the energy orbs leads to chaos and special effects exploding everywhere.
The game puts us in the shoes (armor? legs?) of the last remaining robot engineer in the world trying to restore an ancient weather facility to save the world. To do so, we first have to gather stray power from each of the rooms we come across — the power has manifested into energy balls — and avoid a monstrous creature that has inhabited the space. Power is currency in this place, and so whatever we gather is used to not only reignite the facility but also purchase and upgrade our gear. The power seems to be everywhere, but how we upgrade and what door we choose to open affects our progression. During the demo, for example, we can only advance past one section if we’ve upgraded our weapon to open a specific type of door. This sometimes means we have to go back and grab more power by exploring rooms we undoubtedly missed or enemies we didn’t defeat. There are twenty unique weapons and 8 hand-crafted dungeons, allowing the developers to really tune the balance of power gathering-vs-progression.
All the while we’re swatting at energy balls, the beast is watching us, ready to attack. While the demo doesn’t put us face-to-face with it, its effects are experienced early on; crossing into one room, the beast picks up a platform that we are on and throws it high into the air, requiring us to break the bumpers and defense systems that pop up.
The development limitations also include stretching art assets into high contrast colors and inky blacks, creating an almost graphic novel aesthetic. This works extremely well with the storytelling around a giant monster and laser robots. It has a certain Mike Mignola/Hellboy feel to it (the devs are unabashed in letting us know the influence is there).
In reality, to call these “limitations” isn’t actually just. The team at Flight School Studio has a very strong vision for the game, and is able to use only the aspects they need and are comfortable with to get their idea into realization. Because of this, Creature in the Well comes across as exactly what I’d feel like a laser robot pinball baseball Zelda game could be like. It’s a mouthful to say, but in execution it’s easy to swallow.
Creature in the Well arrives on PC and Switch later this year.