From the moment we got a glimpse of Animal Well during an Indie World Showcase last April, it sent tongues wagging with its unique premise and visual identity, becoming an easy add to plenty of ‘Most Anticipated’ lists. Its association with indie publishing label Bigmode, run by popular YouTuber Jason 'Dunkey' Gastrow, added to the excitement.

Fortunately for Gastrow and solo developer Billy Basso of Shared Memory, they have a true indie darling on their hands that not only lives up to the hype but relishes in the fact that its labyrinth of secrets aims to challenge players for years to come. Animal Well is the product of seven years of development by a single person, and we are delighted to report that the wait was worth it.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Basso’s first independent release absolutely shines on the Switch as a wholly original Metroidvania that eschews combat in favour of exploration and cryptic puzzle platforming. Its bioluminescent-like pixel graphics, haunting sound design, and simple controls that are polished to perfection had us continually excited to discover what was around the bend.

Animal Well pulls you into its dark, luscious, and alive world without telling you a thing. It’s left up to you to intuit, infer, and explore the world around you using certain tools at your disposal. That lack of instruction led to moments where we discovered, by happy accident, a new use or mechanic involving items we already had and were left with our jaws dropped.

In keeping with genre staples that see you rewarded with power-ups that expand your skill set as you explore and vanquish, Animal Well puts a fresh spin on this formula with discoverable items that all have multiple, highly clever uses which we won’t spoil because the fun is clearly in uncovering these on your own through trial and error.

The world is a dense puzzle box of temple-like edifices to the animal kingdom that can be approached nonlinearly. Its map includes a stamp to mark locations of interest and intrigue, such as where you can light candles to ward off enemies and find multicoloured collectible eggs hidden in chests, as well as a pencil for route planning.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

It may be the perfect game for those who savour finding secrets throughout vast Metroidvania anthills without being stymied from progression by hyper-demanding combat encounters. That said, Animal Well does have several brilliant bosses that test your vigour, though they essentially function as environmental puzzles to be solved rather than foes to be conquered.

The protagonist, a nondescript round boy born from within a flower, is unable to deal combat damage. That left us tunnelling into burrows to avoid the advancing neck of a rabid ostrich, dodging the darting tongue of a giant chameleon, or platforming up bubbles emitted by a raging seahorse, to describe just a few of the lively encounters we had with well-dwellers.

The game's many puzzles usually consist of cranks and switches that need to be activated or solved by influencing the behaviour of animals you encounter. There are also not-so-obvious puzzles that sometimes involve using multiple items in novel ways with precision timing, as well as cryptic indications of secrets that we haven’t quite figured out yet but have earmarked.

That’s little surprise given that Basso has said he intentionally designed the game with puzzles that may go “unnoticed for years, potentially, or require community collaboration to solve.” Indeed, we can certainly envisage an eagle-eyed community unpacking all of Animal Well’s enigmas and riddles to 100% completion on message boards and Discord servers.

Solving certain puzzles or pulling off advanced traversal techniques requires perfectly timed and executed manoeuvres, but fortunately Animal Well is quite forgiving. You do not take damage from sloppy platforming or bungled jumps; we were simply regenerated in a brief daze from where we began, greatly easing frustration and keeping the emphasis on discovery.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Animals you come across can help or harm, with unnerving audio cues conveying your place on the food chain. While the game is an obvious looker, its sound design is likewise exceptional with vivid splashes, plip-plopping water drops, rustling plants, and stunning creature noises that together create a mysterious, at times foreboding, atmosphere.

The quiet, tonal ambiance of its world kept us focused and deeply immersed, while the darkly evocative theme heard at save points plays like a piece legendary composer Angelo Badalamenti could have written for David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Animal Well excels at basically everything it sets out to achieve, though its atmosphere is poetically well-executed.

It is an aesthetic triumph with some of the most gorgeous modern pixel art around, courtesy of a custom engine that imbues its environments with visual flourishes and lighting effects that are brought to the forefront by the occasional blast of a well-placed TNT explosive or in the simple creeping of shadows cast as a moving platform glides across flickering candlelight.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Though a fast-travel system of sorts can be unlocked, there is a great deal of backtracking, as is typical of Metroidvanias. We were once stuck behind some previously completed environmental puzzles, necessitating their re-completion. That is perhaps the only discernible flaw, albeit a minor and surmountable one, we found throughout the experience. If you're wondering, the CRT-style scanlines are on by default but they can be toggled off.

We haven’t ever played a game that looks or feels quite like Animal Well, or indeed any Metroidvania that leans this deep into puzzle platforming over combat. In doing so, it reprioritises core features of the genre without necessarily reinventing the wheel, per se. But it certainly redecorates the wheel to an artful degree so as to be uniquely original.


Developer Shared Memory's stated goal is “to craft complete experiences that will be playable long after the world loses its internet connection,” and screen after screen, Animal Well excels in delighting your eyes and giving your brain something to stew on. It’s a riposte against a culture of post-launch updates in favour of a meticulously crafted, singular vision with potentially years’ worth of discoveries baked in. By all indications, Animal Well delivers on that long-term promise and does so with a one-of-a-kind elegance.