Steve Jobs caught lightning in a bottle when creating Atari’s arcade hit Breakout, taking something as simple as Pong and adding a compelling twist. Some forty years later, breaking blocks with a paddle remains an inviting mechanic, the draw and desire to clear the board – potentially with one well-placed shot – forever burning strong.
Creature in the Well takes this simple concept and applies it to a top-down dungeon-crawling template, casting aside enemies to instead fill rooms with bricks, pinball bumpers, and ball-firing turrets. The two “tools” carried by the protagonist act as flippers, with one sending glowing balls ricocheting, and the other to hold and charge shots.
It’s an inviting premise. It’s also one backed by an intriguing story. You play as a recently reactivated robot; one whose sole purpose is to maintain a multi-floored machine intended to calm a raging sandstorm. In the robot’s absence, the storm rages on and an ominous colossal creature has moved into the depths of the machine, making it their home. The remaining inhabitants of the nearby storm-battered town are too scared to leave their windswept shacks, meanwhile.
As you voyage into the defunct machine, restoring power to one sector at a time, you give them hope that the storm may soon cease, all the while making the creature more agitated.
Generating power is Creature in the Well’s central theme, as every dungeon room door requires a certain amount of energy to unlock. Power is gained simply by bouncing balls off bumpers, with a typical room involving hitting all obstacles within a time limit. Some rooms give just a few seconds to hit marked targets, and occasionally a puzzle – for want of a better description – will require shots to be angled perfectly or feature narrow spaces to aim the ball through.
Once a room has been drained of power, it appears as ‘cleared’ on the map screen, ushering you onwards to opening more doors in the dungeon. Instead of typical dungeon dwelling enemies, hazards include slow-moving homing projectiles, fast-moving fireballs, and parts of the floor that become electrified.
Illustrating the quirky sense of humour present, a wooden spoon and a frying pan are amongst the starting tools. Different coloured capes are the other collectable, allowing for a small degree of personalisation. Most of these items can be found in secret areas, giving reason to explore.
Each dungeon ends with a confrontation with the creature, pitting you against one of their increasingly elaborate challenges. These can take a few attempts to beat. Thankfully, it’s possible to activate a portal (checkpoint) using a small amount of surplus power. Upon dying elsewhere, the colossal beast scoops you up in their grubby hands before dumping you outside, prompting a trek back into the machine.
To begin with, Creature in the Well is reasonably demanding. You’re pretty much forced to complete every room in the first two or three dungeons as your power reserves are initially empty. However, it soon transpires that some dungeons are more generous with power than others – more than a few rooms dish out a seemingly infinite supply. During the second batch of dungeons we had power to spare, running past obstacles and unlocking doors with barely a dent in our reserves.
While later dungeons up the ante with more hazards and tighter time limits, they suffer from a lack of identity. If you were expecting different themes and unique set-pieces, you’re in for a disappointment – backdrops merely differ in colour. Due to the layouts having an asymmetrical design there are many instances of repeated rooms too, simply connected by dull corridors.
Although the general atmosphere is appropriately foreboding, the music suffers from repetition due to using a dreary central theme throughout. The art direction is at least pleasing, evocative of 1950’s British ‘pop art’. Flight School Studios really put the effort in to make it stand out.
After it came apparent that the dungeons are all rather similar, our interest started to wane. The novelty of the pinball mechanics also soon wears off, brought on by some frustrating moments. Consequently, the game’s second half became a bit of a chore.
Whacking balls with full force and watching them bounce around is all well and good – playful, even – but with the difficulty swiftly rising, tighter controls that allow for more precision wouldn’t have gone amiss. For all its good intentions and initial intrigue, it seems that around 8 hours of Breakout is enough to break a man.