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Animal Well could do for Metroidvanias what Undertale did for RPGs

Billy Basso and Bigmode's Animal Well was one of the standout games at PAX East 2024, as our hands-on preview with the new demo attests to.

Animal Well preview: close up shot of a pixel art cat with glowing yellow eyes and sharp teeth.

If you weren’t at PAX East this year or simply didn’t brave the long line to play Animal Well, you really missed out. After going hands-on with the upcoming Metroidvania for a second time, I can confidently say that Animal Well remains one of my most anticipated games of the year. Boasting a strong vision and eclectic inspirations, this incoming Metroidvania needs to be on your radar.

If you’ve heard of Animal Well, the latest game from developer Billy Basso, chances are it’s thanks to YouTuber Videogamedunkey, who snapped it up for his publishing label Bigmode. What started as a small passion project drawing from inspirations as varied as Fez, museums, Chicago architecture, and classic Nintendo tutorials has since ballooned into a delightful and adorable Metroidvania game unlike any other.

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Exploration, platforming, backtracking, cool save animations, vibey music, and combat are all genre hallmarks. While the latter is rarely what defines a Metroidvania, combat is arguably endemic to the genre and, aside from traversal, is the driving force behind what makes progression feel so good.

Sure, unlocking the missile in Super Metroid is exciting because it opens new paths for you, but it also gives you a more powerful way to blitz through the denizens of Zebes. Looking at more recent examples like Hollow Knight, progression-based abilities aren’t always directly tied to combat (though plenty still are), but they still change your approach and open up new ways to dodge and weave around attacks.

Animal Well preview: screenshot of a colorful 2D stage in Animal Well featuring several capybaras.

Animal Well, however, has no combat. Not in the traditional sense, at least. Instead, Animal Well focuses on puzzle-solving and environmental exploration. You won’t run into enemies as much as you might encounter other animals just vibing in the well. Some animals and entities might be territorial and attack you for setting foot in their domain, but they’re not there not there for the express purpose of giving you something to crush. At the same time, the game has no difficulties making you feel powerful via bespoke items designed to overcome the specific task at hand.

For example, early on in the demo, you can’t progress through a room because a spirit attacks you whenever you try to pass by it. If it touches you, you’ll die or take damage. This roadblock sends you in another direction looking for a hidden way around. Then you find firecrackers growing on plants a few rooms over – surely this has to be a weapon, right? You platform your way back to the room with the floating blue spirit, use the firecracker, and it runs away. Not quite the showdown I expected, but the problem was solved regardless.

Animal Well preview: screenshot of a colorful 2D stage in Animal Well featuring a peacock.

During my preview, Basso tells me that instead of designing combat tools, he focused on devising problems and obstacles that could be solved using items found in the environment, lending a naturalistic sensibility to its puzzle-solving. When asked about how this concept would play out through the rest of the game, Basso tells me “I’m always trying to surprise and delight the player,” teasing that “there are plenty of things I won’t – I can’t spoil… things that might not even fit into a genre.”

In the way Undertale brought how and why we play RPGs into question, I have a feeling Animal Well could do the same for Metroidvanias. Even if it doesn’t spawn a cultish fanbase whose passion seeps into broader internet culture, Animal Well is sure to play with the genre in novel ways when it launches on PC, PS5, and Nintendo Switch May 9.