You’d think that pinball and the basic mechanics of hack and slash gameplay would be completely incompatible, but The Creature in the Well is here to prove that a hybrid of the two only takes a little imagination. The artfully-rendered title, from a developer pair called Flight School Studio, casts players in the role of a robot tasked with restoring power to an ancient, cobwebbed underground facility — and there’s a monster somewhere down there, too.
You won’t see much of the title beast in The Creature in the Well — at least not at first. It makes itself known with eyes that glow from deep shadows, and by the skeletal hands that can grab the platform you’re standing on before pulling it down into the depths. You will find gameplay is easy to pick up and curiously addictive. I played through part of one of the game’s eight dungeons at E3 and walked away thinking of it as one of the more unique and promising games at the show.
So, what’s all this about pinball? The gameplay is pretty simple — at least in the 15-minute demo available at E3. Upon entering the dungeon, you’ll pick up a bat. By swinging the bat you can knock small balls of energy into squat little pylons, thereby building up a charge. There’s the option to capture those balls, to build up a bit of power before setting them loose. You’ll need the stored electricity to open gates that divide the map into smaller sub-areas.
The relationship to pinball is impossible to miss. It’s just pinballs, bumpers, and your bat as the flipper. Learning the basic mechanics takes only a moment. You’ll use one face button to swing the bat and “capture” the balls of energy, and another, in conjunction with the right stick, to launch them in specific directions. Before you’ve gone too far that directional launch will be crucial, as you’ll have to hit moving targets while also dodging lasers and trying to capture projectiles.
Some of the screens in the E3 demo got pretty frantic, but the overall art direction in The Creature in the Well helps keep the action clear. This is a great-looking game, with excellent use of lighting and negative space to define each area, and lighted paths on the floor to suggest that maybe you should keep swinging before leaving an area, as there might be alternate pathways to open. (I found a much-upgraded weapon behind a hidden door in the demo.)
The use of black lines and a limited color palette suggests indie comic books of the ‘90s. Art Director Adam Volker was evidently inspired by the art of Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, and it shows in the game, from the overall look to the slightly shambling but still powerful appearance and animation of the robotic player character. Sound design helps there, too, as Creature is finely-tuned with mechanical grinding and scraping sounds that echo off the cavernous walls.
Arcade at Heart
Even with the aesthetic choices and unusual gameplay, an arcade heart beats at the center of this title. Each door requires a certain power level to open — 1000, say, or 10,000 — and point tallies will constantly ping as you slap white power balls into the bumpers and other objects. There are moments where you’ll bat a swarm of balls at larger pylons, starting a little storm of energy around the object, and it is unquestionably satisfying to see big point totals rack up fast.
Creature in the Well’s synthesis of Arkanoid-like arcade puzzle gameplay with a great-looking dungeon crawl was unique enough to stand out as an exceptional indie this year. (I wouldn’t mind seeing this character and art style further explored in a roguelike.) We’re eager to see what the title has to offer down the road as it approaches release on Xbox Game Pass and Windows 10 PCs.