Let’s get the obvious out of the way: yep the only reason I played Animal Well was because Dunkey is backing it. Whilst I don’t fully align with him in terms of taste we do share a similar passion for innovation and the indie scene. So his recommendation, and by extension investment in this game through his publishing house BIG MODE, means enough to me to give it a go. Dunkey’s backing is not misplaced either as ANIMAL WELL being extremely well crafted game with a dedication to simplicity I haven’t seen in some time. There are a few stumbles along the way, when the game seems to lose sight of itself, but those are the exception and not the rule. This does bode well for BIG MODE going forward as we’ll see if this kind of game is the one they’ll seek to build their brand on.

The first thing that shocked me about ANIMAL WELL was it’s install size. Yeah I know, not something most people will get really excited, but for a game to pack it’s entire existence into 38MB means there’s nowhere to hide extraneous cruft. The dev has stated they weren’t trying to say anything with that, nor did they exactly try for a small file size, but when something like say INDIKA comes in at a weighty 48GB with about half the playtime you do start to question how much of that size is absolutely necessary for the game. This small fact though sets the tone for the game itself: a dedication to radical simplicity in most things, allowing the more interesting elements to shine out.

ANIMAL WELL is a modern pixel art game through and through, staying mostly true to the art styles of yesteryear whilst making good use of modern effects. All of the various game elements have been lovingly crafted in true pixel art fashion, using every single dot to its fullest potential to convey information rather than just being pixelated and scaled down images of higher res assets. Modern lighting effects abound too, something which is no small feat given that this is running on the dev’s own proprietary engine. Couple this with amazing sound design, again something that’s incredible given that all of it is in 38MB and I was honestly blown away with how the dev did so much with so little.

ANIMAL WELL is a metroidvania based game, focused on exploration and exploitation of new mechanics as you earn them. There’s a relatively short opening section to get you familiar with the base mechanics before you’re set upon a much more open world to explore as you see fit. As you look around you’ll come to obstacles which you can’t traverse, sending you searching elsewhere for the next mechanic you need to unlock them. Like all good metroidvanias the mechanics are simple, a yo-yo to hit switches you can’t reach or a slinky that can fall down steps, but combined together they can make for some rather complex puzzles. Depending on your playthrough you may also find yourself in possession of mechanics that will allow you to shortcut through particular sections, something that you’ll end up depending on as you get further into the game. I’ve already said it twice but it bears mentioning again: this game packs a lot into not much space.

The platforming elements are done well and feel somewhat forgiving for some of the game’s more finnicky elements. To be sure you’re likely still going to die a lot to jumps you missed by a hair or overshooting a platform because you held the jump button just a fraction too long, but that’s a core part of the challenge in this genre. Most platforming related deaths also don’t incur HP damage, meaning you’re free to keep attempting them without needing much more downtime. Most of the puzzles are also pretty straightforward too, meaning if you find yourself trying to do a near impossible feat of platforming to solve it you’re likely doing it wrong.

Increased challenge comes from 2 things: timed puzzles and longer platforming sections. Now I’m not a big fan of either of these things as the former feels like an artificial limitation and the latter just punishes you for not getting everything right in the sequence, even if you beat 90% of it each time only to fail at the last section. This is where I feel the game forgets itself a bit as the self-contained puzzles, leveraging the mechanics you have at your disposal, is fantastically well done. Getting chased halfway across the map, having to solve those same puzzles in a fraction of the time though? Much less fun and whilst these encounters are few they do ramp up significantly towards the end, making the pushing towards the end a little less enjoyable than it can be.

Which is where I almost gave up on the game completely as whilst I’d unlocked all the abilities and the last section of the game I wasn’t feeling the drive to close everything out. To be sure I was also not leveraging some of the games more…esoteric features (there is fast travel for instance) which might’ve endeared me more to the game but given they’re not exactly easy to uncover I feel somewhat justified in docking a point for how the game deals with increasing the overall challenge. Once I knew how long I had left though it was easy enough to push through and complete it, but I was pretty close to just leaving it unfinished forever.

ANIMAL WELL then is an exceptionally executed title, showcasing the developer’s talent for creating a refined experience that focuses directly on what makes it good. The visuals, sound, platforming mechanics and exploration are all very well done, making for a great metroidvania experience that fits the genre perfectly. Whilst I didn’t appreciate the game’s latter parts due to the way the difficulty was increasing I do vividly remember enjoying the overall calm of the rest of the game, a kind of zen like experience that didn’t include any frivolities that we see so much in other games these days. ANIMAL WELL will go down as a big hit for both the dev and BIG MODE and I’m sure we’ll all be very keen to see what they both do next.

Rating: 8.5/10

ANIMAL WELL is available on PC, PlayStation 5 and Nintendo Switch right now for $36.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 6.2 hours playtime and 55% of the achievements unlocked.

About the Author

David Klemke

David is an avid gamer and technology enthusiast in Australia. He got his first taste for both of those passions when his father, a radio engineer from the University of Melbourne, gave him an old DOS box to play games on.

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