Pinball has never quite been my thing. I say this fully disclosing where I come from as I journey into Creature in the Well. Flight School, an independent developer from a combination of Hollywood, Dallas, and Montreal, sets out to combine the core concepts of pinball (see: ball and points) with top-down adventuring. The result doesn’t meet its full potential, though. Creature executes a brain-twisting meld of mechanics, and is ultimately engaging at the cost of feeling shallow.
To set the scene, we take the controls of an old “engineer,” simple robots built to maintain something., With no real lead on who woke you up or why, you do what any doomed-to-be-protagonist would do: venture into a dark and spooky cave. Turns out, this cave is in the center of an endless sandstorm that has essentially ended the world. There was an enormous weather-controlling machine built into the cave’s mountain to one day stop the storm and save the world, with a last vestige of life gathering in a small town around the mountain and machine. Only it was never finished. Now you set out to do exactly what you would think you should: fix the machine, save the world.
You’ll explore several sections of this broken machine, and are tasked with charging and bringing power back to every room throughout each section of the massive device. Charging up the machine is done by knocking energy orbs into conduits that will appear throughout any given room in different patterns. It just so happens that all of these energy orbs happen to look like pinballs, and the conduits like bars, flippers, and bumpers.
The way you make the pinballs fly is switching between your two given weapon types, in this metaphor, your flippers. Between a charging weapon that will let you power up energy orbs and a knocking weapon that will send them off in your chosen direction, you find the two states you are in at any given moment in Creature. You’re alternating charging orbs in front of you, knocking them back at your targets, ricocheting them around the room to charge up every object in sight, all while trying to stay alive. It’s supposed to feel like pinball, with some amount of controlled chaos happening all around you, but it never quite reaches that.
While the aspects of pinball that fit into Creature in the Well feel great; charging up balls, sending them soaring around, and the constant multi-ball aspect to the action, the adventure part of Creature in the Well is what suffers.
Exploring any Dungeon in Creature feels very repetitive. Many rooms or layouts of rooms you need to power up are either completely the same, or feel too similar to one another. Each floor of the mountain has a different mechanic, but some feel so lightly implemented that it only feels like a half-step in the direction of exploring what you can do with it. One such floor focuses on bumpers that need to be hit in a certain order, and while three rooms on the floor may use that challenge, the other ten may not, and there is no consistency or escalation to the challenges.
Instead, to keep the player moving, hazards are slowly implemented more and more into each floor. These red bumpers send back a dangerous radius of damage when charged, and should be avoided entirely; only, when three to six balls are constantly in play, and you have obstacles and obstructions, your limited to where you can stand in these rooms. As you get to the very end game where these danger-bumpers are littered everywhere, you feel like you have no range of movement that’s safe.That claustrophobic feeling is at odds with every aspect of the pinball mechanics. The multi-ball nature of the action means many times those more dangerous bumpers will go off without you noticing or wanting them too. With minimal time to respond and no options as far as movement or escape, it disconnects you from the action and just left me frustrated after a dozen deaths through a chamber that had a red bumper in every corner of the room.
To add more depth here, you unlock more weapons for each slot as you progress. Some charging weapons may have wider reach, or give you a laser target that will show you exactly where you’re aiming, while some knocking weapons will slow down time just as you swing, or create extra orbs when you attack. None dramatically change the flow of action, but will give you an edge that you need in certain fights. I only wish there were more weapons. Many of them are rewards for finding secrets, giving you that extra reach or precision you need in the biggest encounters with the most hazardous rooms. Each weapon was the most excited I got in Creature, and each are different enough to matter, but there aren’t enough of them to keep that thrill of finding them going.
The mix of weapons, rooms, and unique bumpers don’t mesh, ultimately. The only way you ever interact with this world is through pinball, and that seems at odds with how you engage with the action in any moment, feeling both chaotic and claustrophobic. There isn’t enough explored here in the mountain, and at the end of every level I always felt expectant that something was coming. The escalation of difficulty was present enough, only for it to seemingly end abruptly.
To get out of this rut, and out of the mountain, you can explore the small town just outside of the central hub where you select and challenge levels from, but again you’ll run into less than I think you would hope.
The town is mostly full of folks who are afraid of you and what your coming represents. The central locale is a shop run by Danielle, a cool purple alligator who is one of the few characters you can actually have encounters with. Only the result is essentially nothing. In Danielle’s shop, you can upgrade your robot’s core—an option in a menu to the left of talking to Danielle, who, even though you can talk to her, doesn’t say or add anything meaningful here. This place feels more like somewhere you can go to upgrade your power, and another NPC just happens to also be there. It feels awkward, and the more I played the less incentivised I felt to interact with any of the few characters, not because they didn’t have things to say, but it felt none of it mattered.
This whole interaction is indicative of the disconnect between you and the world. Danielle and the citizens are just more things you can’t really interact with, and there was no point in visiting the town or talking to folks at all outside of some small dialogue. If the isolation from the other townsfolk served a greater purpose, like creating tension between the player and the Creature as the town slowly came to respect you, it’d be one thing. Instead, it furthers the feeling that the only way I can interact with this world is with slashing pinballs around, and it feels all the more empty because of that.
I will certainly admit, I get an intentional ambiguity from much of the themes throughout Creature in the Well, and while that subtlety doesn’t work in regards to mechanics, I think the narrative does succeed and tells you just enough to be dangerous.
The main character you actually interact with throughout the whole story is the Creature itself. As you stumble into the machine buried beneath the well, the Creature approaches you first, introducing itself and its authority over the town and it’s people. The Creature sees itself as ite only authority, and you’re objective undermines it directly. What I like most is the Creature is not all it appears, and unraveling how it has taken over this quaint town only gets darker. The narrative echoes some of the best parts about apocalypse stories. While it doesn’t answer them, it does ask questions about what kind of authority is the best for a sustainable society. Every interaction with the Creature is tense, and they carry the narrative and the world.
Creature in the Well seems at odds with itself both narratively and mechanically. Pinball mania and claustrophobia are both here, but they don’t work in tandem. Ambiguity and isolation dominate the narrative, but only work to make me care less about the world, not more.
Where everything else is concerned, Creature in the Well is gorgeous and stylish, with an interesting if not well-explored concept at its core. If the core gameplay is enough to carry you through to the end, I think it’s worth it. But everything left just seems too unexplored to feel fulfilling enough.
This game was reviewed on a Nintendo Switch system with a review code provided by the developer and their PR partner.
Full Disclosure: the reviewer is personal friends with members of the PR company that assisted with providing access for this review.