Creature in the Well is the distillation of a dungeon crawler, and pinball. As if there were more disparate things in the gaming world. Despite having the urge to say something like, “you can count the number of games like this on one hand,” I am fully aware there aren’t any games like this title by Flight School Studio. The developers of in depth VR experiences like War Remains and Manifest 99.
Flight School’s repertoire is full of quirky, eerie, spunky little titles that think and interact with more than just a controller. Creature in the Well seems to set out on a different path, but not without strong influences from its studio’s experience.
Enter Mirage, a desolate, dusty, derelict of a town located in the center of what seems to be a perpetual haboob. The residents are reclusive or vanished, the fate of any foolish enough to try and brave the storm to find what’s on the other side. Those remaining hide from you, save a couple friendly faces who provide lore bits and limited hints.
The player, a reawakened BOT-C robot, stumbles to their feet and makes their way through the sandy wastes until you make it to the entrance of a mountain. As you approach it is clear there is more to this megalith than simply stone. Large gray pipes and conduits trace up the walls and burrow into the black entrance.
Once inside, you find out that the machinery and metal around you are the workings of an ancient, weather-controlling machine and your task is to power it on. There’s just one catch, there is a pugnacious and powerful creature in the bowels of this mountain. The very same creature that prevented the machine from powering on all those years ago.
Creature in the Well takes this simple imperative and puts players through a gauntlet of increasingly tricky and finesse reliant puzzles and challenges. You have to turn all of the mountains subsystems back on again. So as you travel through Power Reserves, Archives, Lockdown Systems, Power Grid, Atmospheric Analysis, Synchronous Field, and the North Star Conduit, the eponymous Creature becomes more and more irate. A fun explanation for the increasing difficulty and complexity of the puzzles.
These puzzles prompt the player to charge and propel orbs of light into posts and bumpers, charging them to a point, causing them to collapse into the floor. Its a suspiciously entertaining loop I found myself enjoying from start to finish, despite being unsure how to explain why I liked it. Now, having beaten it, I know what it was: Flight School does a great job of balancing pain and prize.
Each branch of the machine has hidden rooms to unlock. Sometimes the conditions for these “secret paths” are difficult to suss out, but in my playthrough I had no issue finding each hidden item. Finding these as you progress inevitably evolves your play style. Swapping out Charge and Strike weapons in crucial moments of the game is paramount to your success. Combine the unlockables with the easy to follow level progression and solid feeling of accomplishment when flipping the power switch at the end of each branch, and Creature in the Well makes a point of encouraging its players forward.
Initially I struggled with the control scheme. There are moments that require high levels of precision to move forward, and without a few new pieces of equipment these tests can be extremely aggravating. In fact, some are aggravating despite having the right gear. While I didn’t have many stages stump me for longer than 10 or 15 minutes, I could see where frustration could settle in pretty quickly. Sometimes it hard to tell if you miss a shot because you misaimed or because the game misfired your shots.
Death, in Creature in the Well, is punitive/corrective. You’re picked up by the Creature and thrown out of a well on the outskirts of town. As this happened more frequently and as soon as I began to get annoyed by the long walk back inside, I powered a branch up that opened a shortcut. Just like that, the process of Die / Grabbed by Creature / Thrown from Well is made less painful. And trust me, there will be times where you feel like all you do is die, get scooped up, and get tossed out the well over and over again.
There are also shortcuts like this in each branch, allowing you to die while taking on the boss challenges and get right back to them when you decide to try again.
This title’s story is sparse. Often given to players in pop ups and lore drops you find along the way. You start to uncover the story of the engineers in the mountain trying to turn this weather machine on before you. Their discovery of the Creature. Their failure to get the machine working. As you progress through Creature in the Well that story begins to become your own. But this time you won’t fail.
Creature in the Well is smartly designed, beautifully created, and is just downright charming. The eerie creature juxtaposed by Roger T. Frog, the deep blackness of the mountain cut by the colorful and bright palettes of each branch, the low and subtle score punctuated by the twangs of the frying pan I am swinging. All of it combines to make an incredibly refreshing mixture of two genres that I never would have guessed I needed. A Dunge-Pinballer. I’m coining that.