Review: ANIMAL WELL (Switch)

A weird, beautiful, somewhat unsettling journey into the unknown.

By Angela Marrujo Fornaca. Posted 05/31/2024 09:01 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
Editor's Choice
grade/score info
1-Up Mushroom for...
Gorgeous graphics; weird, odd, sometimes eerie imagery; unique set of items and tools; puzzles that can be solved in more than one way; great soundtrack and sound design
Poison Mushroom for...
Some mechanics could be downright annoying to engage with; the game's deliberate ambiguity on how to move forward could be a little exaggerated at times

Nintendojo was invited to this year’s Nintendo Partner Event at GDC 2024, where a handful of games (mostly but not entirely indie titles) selected by Nintendo were in the spotlight and available for the press to demo. Each game’s development team or select members of the team were onsite to speak with and give players insight into their work. As I wandered the small room, I came across a game I’d never heard of before: ANIMAL WELL. I was immediately taken in by the rich, glowing pixel art and somewhat mysterious-looking title screen.

A man and woman were sitting on the couch in front of the TV and welcomed me warmly as I approached to try the game. The man was Billy Basso himself, the lone developer of ANIMAL WELL who spent his weekends and weeknights after work for the last seven years bringing his idea to life. When I asked if there was anything I should know before jumping into the game, he told me he actually wanted to say as little as possible about it and encouraged me to just jump in and begin exploring. It became immediately apparent that the game would not be holding my hand and the way forward wouldn’t be spelled out — heck, it wouldn’t really even be hinted at. But the few minutes I had with the game were enough to intrigue me; I knew I wanted to learn more about the secrets hiding within the depths of the well. As someone who’s really picky about games, I had a feeling ANIMAL WELL was something I should be jumping back into at launch given how quickly the demo sucked me in.

And I’m glad that I did. ANIMAL WELL quickly went from a title I knew nothing about to what will likely be one of my favorite games of the year.

The complexity of the well’s layout is contrasted by the simplicity of many of the game’s elements. The protagonist, a nameless ball with only two eyes and no other features, begins its journey by emerging from a large flower. No pomp and circumstance — the ball just exits the flower and the player immediately takes control, with the freedom to take either path available to them. The HUD is extremely minimal; your health bar is in the lower-right corner, while your currently equipped weapon/item is in a small box in the bottom-left. You can pull up the map at any time with the minus button (though you can’t read it if you’re in a dark area), and it will not be visible when you close it out.


ANIMAL WELL is a Metroidvania that can be completed however the player chooses to complete it. There is no set order in which the player must tackle certain puzzles or collect certain weapons/tools, and many puzzles have more than one possible solution. And while there are some very subtle environmental hints from time to time showing you the way forward, the game is unapologetic in its lack of hand-holding. It’s all about exploration, backtracking, and experimentation, and it’s up to you to determine how to move forward.

Very soon into the start of the game, the player encounters a telephone; this is the game’s save mechanic, and phones are scattered throughout the well. If you die, you’ll respawn at the last phone you saved at, so save often (though I felt there were just enough phones available throughout the well). When I saved for the first time while playing the demo at the Partner Event, I mentioned to Billy Basso that the instantaneous save reminded me of how quickly the player can save in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and how much I love that speedy mechanic.


The strange, unique array of items and weapons enables the player to solve puzzles in different ways. Should I hit that switch with my “disc” (aka Frisbee) or should I use my yo-yo? Maybe I should drop my Slinky on it instead? Can I reach it if I use my bubble wand to create a bubble to jump on? These are the kinds of questions you’ll find yourself asking as you contemplate how to unlock doors and open the way forward.

While the various environments within the well are all incredibly beautiful, almost ethereal at times, the well harbors its fair share of eerie and disturbing imagery. Spirits of some kind will chase you relentlessly until you throw a firework their way, while animals with deep-set, blackened eye sockets lurk in the background of some areas. Many of the animals pose a major threat to the player as well, such as cranes that can stab you with their beaks, dogs that think you’re a ball and will grab you with their jaws, or a giant chameleon that can and will eat you in an instant if you let its tongue get to you. But other animals are friendly and will aid you in your exploration, like birds that let you hitch a ride on their heads to traverse chasms. It’s up to the player to determine which animals are friendly and which are deadly.


I had a number of moments where I quietly exclaimed to myself, pleasantly surprised by a creative puzzle or a cool mechanic. The game’s use of sound is fantastic. In one puzzle, you have to tilt platforms at just the right angle to get a jet of water to bounce off of one to the other to solve a puzzle. But as the water bounces off the platforms, you can hear different notes being played. In another room, floating columns of pink and blue glowing, spinning mice heads move back and forth, which will cause damage if you touch them. But every time they hit a hard surface, they give off different tones. The result is a somewhat strange, somewhat off-putting tune that perfectly encapsulates the bizarre, weird environment of the well.

ANIMAL WELL offers a lot of great challenges, but there were times where I felt the way forward was a little too ambiguous and unclear and I started to get frustrated, feeling like I was genuinely lost. There were also some mechanics that needed some fine-tuning, like the room with the fish that shoots water at you to knock you off a platform, but also creates four bubbles that you need to hop onto in quick succession to climb just high enough to get out of the room. That was an incredibly frustrating mechanic that required such pinpoint precision that it no longer felt fun, but tedious and annoying. There was another area where the player has to climb columns of floating bubbles to get to a higher level. But as you climb, the game shifts to a new screen. However, if you don’t stick your landing and miss one of the bubbles, you’ll fall, but the shift from one screen to the next was very abrupt and made tracking my landing, as well as making the climb, really frustrating. Luckily, there were few moments like that for me throughout the game, but they were memorable enough to slightly impact my overall experience.

My journey through the depths, and the game’s ultimate conclusion, creates many questions and provides no answers. What is the animal well? Why are some animals friendly while others are antagonistic? What is the meaning of some of the symbolism found in the well? What is the meaning of this journey I’m on? What is this journey I’m on? In an era of entertainment that obsesses over origin stories and feels the need to eliminate all mysteries and unanswered questions, ANIMAL WELL’s willingness to leave you uncertain and questioning is refreshing.

If you like your games challenging, weird, beautiful, and a little unsettling, ANIMAL WELL should be on your must-play list.

Nintendojo was provided a copy of this game for review by a third party, though that does not affect our recommendation. For every review, Nintendojo uses a standard criteria.

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