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The CalRef Review Bunker

Started by Natalie, December 29, 2022, 09:59:21 PM

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I thought it'd be cool to have a place for people to post reviews of things. Games, books, movies, buildings, whatever. Post reviews, talk about reviews, talk about things being reviewed. We should do more talking about things. Please find below a review of a thing to kickstart the topic, followed by a long period of silence, followed by many more reviews of things.


There's a concept that comes up a lot in designing and analyzing video games: the gameplay loop. A gameplay loop is the broad, abstract set of actions the player is frequently performing throughout the game. In Halo, you could say the core loop is entering an area, locating enemies, killing them, and figuring out which way to go next. In Super Mario 64, it's entering a painting, selecting a star, and exploring until you figure out how to get it. Of course, each iteration of this loop might feel vastly different to the player. It's not a bad thing, nor is it a critique, but it's present. I recommend Action Button's review of The Last of Us for much deeper insight into the development of top down cyclical gameplay in a game that does its best to disguise it.

What's interesting is that some games don't even try to hide it, presenting a loop as a matter of fact. This shows up a lot in roguelikes, where the repetitive nature of beginning new runs is central, and it's perhaps most fully embraced by idle and clicker games where the only gameplay involves waiting for time to elapse. It's strange, right? Lots of titles emphasize plot and spectacle and emotion and variance in ways that make it feel like we're constantly experiencing something new, yet there's a certain comfort in the discovery of a routine.

It's that sense of routine that bridges SteamWorld Dig 2 to its predecessor and distinguishes it from other games in its genre. If you haven't played the first, the general premise is that you're a robot in a steampunk western town, digging down into the mine below the city to kill monsters and find resources you can sell on the surface. That right there is your loop: enter the mine, dig in an area you haven't finished digging in yet to find stuff, and return to town when your health runs low or your pockets get full so you can get cash and buy upgrades. But SteamWorld Dig 2 isn't a roguelike - indeed, the mine permanently retains almost all the changes you make to it rather than resetting or randomizing. Rather, it's a Metroidvania (AKA Igavania [AKA Castleroid]). This is where the game shows the most growth from its predecessor, with a fairly large, less linear world to explore and key items allowing access to new areas throughout, and it adds a new wrinkle to the loop: searching for secrets.

Qualitative analysis time: I like the repetition of SWD's game loop. Burrowing deeper and deeper through the mines, discovering new types of ores and enemies and key locations. It's comfortable. And it's also a little personal in the way you can decide how to approach your mining and get used to the tunnels you create. I would probably play a roguelike or pseudo-endless version of this game for longer than I should admit. But the way it combines with the new exploration elements is awkward at times. A big part of this is that you have several distinct mines now rather than just one. Each new mine you enter starts with the weak enemies and low value materials you'll have long since outgrown, and each mine also ends rather unceremoniously. The game's two overworld sections have very little meat or challenge. Because of this, there are portions of the journey where the routine becomes a bit of a chore as you studiously explore in the absence of any real tension, only surfacing because your torch keeps running out, and this is where the overt loopiness of the game flow starts to wear thin. Most Castleroids only draw you back the hub by offering you utility; SWD2 has limited inventory space, limited lantern fuel, and areas so cumbersome to navigate that you'd rather fast travel home and back out to another warp. In practice, I think any one of these would have been enough. With all three, you can only get so much done before that loop kicks in and interrupts your travels.

But the bigger issue from this world structure is the secret-gathering. Deeply hidden secret areas in Metroidvanias can be great; I love Symphony of the Night, and some of the rooms in that castle are pretty obscure. But most Metroidvanias present you with a largely static world to parse and navigate. SWD2 has a few consistent ways in which it telegraphs its secrets, but by asking you to make your own path through the mines it removes its own ability to guide you. As a result, a lot of hidden areas require you to dutifully dig to the edges of the map to check for false walls or breakable blocks, and in low-light areas it's even more difficult to spot. There is an unlockable ability to make these locations easier to spot, but it doesn't come until late in the game and doesn't show on your minimap, meaning you'll still have to scour every inch to see those sparkling blocks. (Or look up a user-made map, which I did for the last five or so secrets I missed.) I should stress, you don't need to do this to beat the game, but a neat postgame challenge is locked behind 100% completion. And the end result is that if you're going for completion without using external help, SWD2 asks for a lot of your time.

Well, a lot of time relative to the overall game length. Unlike some people, I found SWD2 disappointingly short. I beat the game with a fairly high completion percentage in about 10 hours, then spent another few hunting for secrets before using a map to find the remainder and maybe 60-90 minutes on the final secret. I've got 15 hours on file and a solid hour of that was me being AFK, so factor that however you like. The ending also felt a little underbaked, unfortunately. I won't go into details here but the conclusion was so abrupt and brisk that it slightly undercut my previous investment in the world and left me feeling like something was missing.

Let's talk positives, though. Despite my quibbles with the overall flow, the core gameplay loop is still really good for most of the duration. I haven't talked about the puzzles which appear in caves, but they're generally fun and not too tricky. The game's Metroid-style upgrades are satisfyingly powerful and significantly increase your mobility and options in a way I really liked. And the overall gamefeel is pretty nice, with only occasional hiccups in what are otherwise solid physics. On the story side, the writing is fine, if a tad predictable. But my favourite aspect was the cog system. Replacing the linear equipment purchases of SWD1, you unlock blueprints for upgrades to your various abilities. You can toggle these on and off from town, but each one requires a certain number of golden cogs to use, which you find by solving puzzles and discovering secrets. It's effectively the same as the badge system in Paper Mario, except you find badge points in the wild. You're actually given good reasons to change up your loadout for different locations and it encourages going out of your way to try and get extra cogs to kit yourself out. More games should explore this type of progression.

This is the part of the review where you're supposed to tell the audience if the game is worth it, but I don't think that's super useful for indie releases like this. This game regularly goes on sale for $5 or less. If you're reading this, you're probably curious enough to get your money's worth out of it. The real question is whether this game is worth your time, and I'd say... probably? If you liked digging around in the mine in the first game, you'll probably like doing more of that here. And if you're a big Metroidvania fan who's already played the big ones, this is a nice palate cleanser. For anyone new to that genre, there are several games I'd prioritize higher than this one unless the steampunk mining overtone really speaks to you, but SteamWorld Dig 2 is well-polished and more than playable enough to warrant a positive outlook, even if the parts don't come together how I'd like.

Recommended If You Like: SteamWorld Dig; the "Drindy Adventure" mode in Mr. Driller DrillLand; the idea of playing Spelunky but not its difficulty level


CalRef-exclusive bonus feature: The main character, Dorothy, is often referred to as Dot. This grows the Dot Cinematic Universe by one.


I will inspire you back to reviewing games (because you are a good writer and should do more of it) by sharing one I just wrote for Potion Permit :P


I don't know who this game is for. I played for six hours, focusing on fulfilling quests and beelining progression, and I still felt like I was being held back from accessing the full range of possibilities. Potion Permit is like if Stardew Valley had a different art style and worse mechanics. You're a chemist, which is cool, but you're in a town of people who don't like you. You're a doctor, which is also cool, but your home and clinic are in shambles, and the gameplay loop is grinding out foraging materials in the local woods. The game has almost no interest in the actual idea of being a chemist or a village doctor.

The town and people in it are somewhat interesting, but a lot of them just feel like worse versions of Stardew characters. Like, the "homeless person" lives in a shack (still labelled a tent) and you overhear a conversation where he chooses to be homeless despite having plenty of money. That's really weird. There's one interesting character, and she's the apprentice blacksmith named Runeheart. Everyone else is an incredibly bland stereotype. Young rascal, upstanding nun, friendly barmaid, and the mayor is Mr. Monopoly. To befriend these characters, you must talk to them every day (they have one line per affection level, which they repeat every time you talk to them) and/or give them a gift, limited to the reward you receive for healing people.

The main draw of this game for me was that you're a healer/potion maker. But that means you're using your cauldron to make potions, which comes down to using the ingredients you've harvested (each of which gives you a 3- or 4-block tetris piece) to fill a pattern. Upgrading the cauldron gives you more space to add ingredients, so you can be less efficient or make more complex potions. Being a doctor requires you approach the sick villagers, who arrive in your clinic and activate a loud alarm, and listen to them say "my [body part] feels weird". Afterward, you hover over that body part and click "diagnose", leading to one of two minigames, either extremely slow simon says or extremely slow dance dance revolution. After succeeding in diagnosing the person, you automatically know which potion is required and can apply it with another click.

I gave the game a chance long enough to upgrade all of my tools, my cauldron, and to unlock the first forage expansion, but god it was soul-draining to get that far. Every advancement in the game requires money, in the realm of several hundred gold to over a thousand, but the only ways to get money are through healing people (one person might arrive every 2-3 days, and will pay you 150-300 gold for successfully treating them) or selling excess potions (this option opens up after several days, and is limited to a limited drop box that gets emptied once per day). The advancements also each require at least 100 wood and 100 stone, which require you to interface with the main gameplay loop, foraging. This requires you to hit a tree with an axe 3-5 times, netting you 4-7 sticks per tree, or to hit a stone with a hammer 3-5 times, netting you 4-7 pebbles. All trees, rocks, and plants (3-5 hits with a scythe for potion ingredients) respawn in exactly the same place every day, with no variety. Upgrading your tools lessens the number of hits required to forage, but not by much.

Once I opened up the expanded foraging territory, new creatures and plants appeared, but rocks and trees were mostly unchanged. They gave more pebbles and sticks, but not a lot more pebbles and sticks. That was the point where it became clear to me that the game wasn't worth playing any further.

Overall, Potion Permit is a series of systems that are severely underdeveloped. The art and music are inoffensive and pleasant. The townsfolk have interesting designs, but very little development or writing outside of the relatively rare quest, and even then it's nothing particularly special. The gameplay mechanics are boring, the prices relative to what you're able to forage require a ton of unnecessary grinding. And the main draw of the game, being a potion maker and doctor, is barely focused on in the game at all. If this game gets significantly better later on, that's unfortunate, because nothing in the first six hours was worthwhile.


Thank you for the encouragement. Here are 2,400 words about breaking bricks.


The block breaker is, I think, a deceptively interesting genre. Maybe you know it as Breakout, as Arkanoid, or more commonly as the world's oldest profession, but it's up there with Super Mario Bros. and Pac-Man as one of the archetypal ideas of what a video game is. If you're too young to agree to the CalRef CoC, block breaker games are an extension of the gameplay constructs established by Pong and applied to a single player experience: move a paddle around at the edge of the screen (usually the bottom), bounce a ball with it, hit blocks to break them, repeat. Breakout was largely the progenitor of this gameplay style and it dates back to 1976 - this genre is pushing 50 years old.

And that's what's so interesting to me: for a genre so long established, it's had strikingly little forward movement and innovation. Arkanoid, the game that helped establish features like level-based campaigns and bosses in block breakers, came out in 1986, and that's really the last time anything became a new standard. Sure, lots of games have attempted to break new ground - Firestriker turned it into a fantasy action game, Gunbarich added unwieldy pinball flippers, Wizorb added RPG elements - but the best they can hope for is being recognized as cute twists you can spend a couple hours on. For the most part, the games coming out today are rooted in the same design principles as those nearly 40 years ago.

None of this is meant to set Breakout: Recharged up for failure. I have a fondness for the block breaker in relatively pure forms. I want to see it succeed, the same way I wanted Arkanoid: Eternal Battle to. Both games were attempts to revitalize the two pillars of the genre, both released in 2022, and both landed without a lot of impact. This review is going to focus on Breakout largely because Eternal Battle isn't worth talking that much about - it's underwhelming and buggy and features frustrating level designs and it launched at a gallingly high $30 USD price tag ($40 if you wanted physical). Recharged comes in at a leaner $10, and I grabbed it on sale for $5, so know that this review is through the lens of a budget game. Gameplay for this review was conducted on the PS5 version, your mileage may vary with the other ports.

Co-developed by Adamvision Studios, whose portfolio includes some of Atari's other Recharged games as well as, uh, Lewdle, and SneakyBox, a porting and development studio, Breakout: Recharged is all about going back to basics: minimal menus, minimal window dressing, minimal music, and a mostly minimal visual design - we'll put a pin in that last one. Similarly minimal are its modes on offer - a classic endless arcade mode and a mission-based challenge mode are all you get. Both come in a co-op flavour too, but I was unable to test this because it would require forcing someone to come over and play multiple hours of Breakout.

A normal, sparse game state.

In Arcade mode, you're playing Breakout in a traditional sense. Blocks spawn, break the blocks, more blocks spawn, and your only goal is to see how long you can go and how high your score can get. This is a good chance to talk about what the game of Breakout actually looks like here, because in practice it's a fair bit different than you're likely to have seen in other clones. For one, powerups are a major part of the game. Arcade mode actually comes in three varities: Recharged features powerups and only gives you one life, Classic has no powerups and gives you three lives, and Classic Recharged has powerups as well as three lives. The Classic modes feel like afterthoughts, however, and you should count on powerups being present in the vast majority of your playtime. Most of these are pretty standard - you've got your paddle extender, multiball, a guiding line that shows the path the ball will take, and so on. The most interesting by far is the time warp, an effect which causes the ball to move slower when it's closer to your paddle and much faster when it's far away, and this is handled on a per-ball basis in the event that you can nab it while you've got multiple balls in play.

But mostly you're going to be dealing with shooting powerups, all of which fire automatically for a set duration. And unlike most block breakers, shooting is a huge component in this gameplay. We haven't talked about block types yet, and yeah, you have your standard blocks and your takes-a-few-hits-to-break blocks and your blows-up-the-nearby-blocks blocks - mercifully, indestructible blocks do not make an appearance - but most of your opposition is going to come from the blocks that shoot back. There are turret blocks which simply shoot on a timer, and there are trap blocks which fire a bullet when they're broken, and you're going to see a lot of both. This is less prevalent in the Arcade mode until you start reaching higher scores, and it becomes the primary source of difficulty in the aforementioned Challenge mode.

This is as good a time as any to mention the other core change Breakout: Recharged makes. Traditionally, these games will gradually increase the speed at which your ball moves the longer it's in play, making it harder and harder to keep up with. Recharged might be doing this, I didn't have a way of measuring it to tell, but if it does, it's milder than in any other game I've played, possibly intended to have an impact on the much longer single-life Arcade mode. Instead, the blocks periodically move one row closer to the paddle, Space Invaders style, and this is how the game attempts to glean some inevitability. The problem with this is that in a powerup-heavy round, you're going to be keeping the blocks under control pretty handily, which means you're not necessarily punished for slow, conservative play, but it also means that an errant bounce on a wide angle will always put the ball out of your control for an extended period, replacing the usually frantic late game state with one of building dread after a misplay as the blocks continue to encroach. This mechanic comes into play a lot more in Challenge mode when the timing gets ramped up, but in normal gameplay it'll mostly serve to randomly frustrate you by dodging the ball rather than putting you on a real timer.

There is, however, a tertiary source of difficulty, which I'll refer to with the shmup term of readability. Because Breakout: Recharged ends up feeling quite a bit like a shmup once it gets busy, with a constant barrage of bullets coming out of your paddle as long as you can keep grabbing powerups, sporadic waves of bullets coming back down towards you, and your ball bounding around in the middle of it. In games with a lot of visual data like this, being able to easily discern different gameplay elements is key, and I don't think Recharged does this particularly well. Part of this comes back to that earlier caveat about its presentation - while in most areas the game goes for sleek minimalism, it features a lot of visual effects in game. By default it uses some bloom-y lighting effects which can be disabled with the "Effects Off" toggle, but even then, the background pattern scrolls, particle effects pop off of blocks (and practically cover the screen when an explosive block goes off), bullets and your ball both have long trails and don't have distinct high contrast colours - in fact, the game seems to randomly shift the colour palette for vibes, which is kind of confusing in a genre that historically often colour-codes its blocks and powerups. It's very easy to get lost in the spectacle, or to autopilot your way directly into a brightly coloured bullet while you're trying to split your attention between the paddle and the ball, but I admit that I'm also just bad at this sort of thing.

A moderate example of visual clutter - it's hard to capture the full impact in a single screenshot.

As far as I can tell, Arcade mode doesn't have a lot else to it. I made it up past 8,000 points and it never threw anything completely unexpected at me, but maybe at higher thresholds the game amps up more. (This also put me in the top 50 on the scoreboard for Recharged mode, and based on my other scores I don't think more than 500 people have actually played this on PS5.) And this is fine, as long as your expectations are set accordingly, because Breakout is always pretty fun and it's an entirely servicable way to play it. Most of my time, however, was instead spent on Challenge mode. This consists of 50 handmade scenarios, each of which presents you with an objective such as clearing all the blocks, clearing X amount of Y type of block, scoring Z points, surviving for N seconds, and I'd say "and so on" here but I think that's pretty much all of them. Some of these levels have clever designs and get pretty difficult, and repetition aside I think Challenge mode is a pretty good experience in a vacuum as a thing you can spend a couple hours powering through.

In the cold, frictionless void of reality, it's a little more complicated, as we now have to begin to contend with several unfavourable factors. It's very common for block breaker games to present a lot of interesting ideas without making them all that fun to play, and I believe this very often comes down to perceived fairness. When the ball doesn't go where you feel it should have, or a powerup misbehaves, that undermines the sense of player agency. Very often this comes from the age old problem of hit detection on corners. When the ball strikes the lower right corner of a block, should it react as though it's being hit from the side or from below? What direction should it travel in? What about hitting the seam between two adjacent blocks - can you create a scenario in which these events play out intuitively?

Breakout: Recharged is not the game that solves these problems. Its physics engine isn't grossly unfair but definitely rough around the edges, with periodic "How did it bounce like that?" moments that catch you off guard, but it's the shmup firefight elements that really exacerbate this feeling of unfairness. Too often you're put into challenges that mix trap blocks with a slew of cannons which fire on fixed intervals but with random timing, if that makes sense, so each time you restart the level the pattern is going to work out differently, and between those and the near requirement to continually rely on shooting powerups which will further trigger traps whether you intend to or not, you frequently find yourself in situations where the ball simply ends up in the same location as a bullet. A lot of deaths in *Recharged* were my own fault, but these "What was I supposed to do about that?" failures are a significant blow to morale.

And for all its slick presentation, this game has a disappointing number of rough edges. The leaderboards for each mode and mission stopped loading for me after about half an hour; I was able to restore functionality by closing and reloading the game, but all my scores in the meantime went unranked. The guideline powerup shudders and changes slightly with each impact the ball makes and sometimes just flat out lies about its trajectory, which really reduces its efficacy, and the homing missile powerup almost seems coded to aim for whatever you least want it to hit, weaving across the screen and circling blocks inefficiently. At one point I both completed and failed a challenge simultaneously. (To its credit, the game gave me the win.) On another occasion I had a railgun powerup go off after the mission ended and the audio abruptly ramped to max volume and started clipping. It's more stable than Arkanoid: Eternal Battle was, but I had multiple game crashes with that game; the bar's really on the floor here.

Lack of options are another sore point. While I appreciate being able to toggle visuals and audio levels and the presence of multiple colourblind settings is welcome, I think more effort should be made in this genre to adopt new control methods. The original arcade cabinets for these sorts of games often used large knobs or dials to allow for fine control of left and right movements, and this would be replicated in the home market with "paddle controllers." Some games used trackballs, some console ports would allow the use of computer-style mice, but now that we have an obscene amount of tech in our controllers they're not even trying to adapt. No motion controls, no PS5 touchpad controls, no use of the triggers, not even the age old "hold a button to move faster/slower" a lot of games have had in the past. Recharged doesn't control badly, but its barebones approach to movement feels like a missed opportunity given that this is one of the highest profile entries this genre has had in years.

But in spite of all these flaws and disappointments, it's easy to have a good time here. The steady ball speed means it's easy to play long rounds and feel like you're doing well. For every challenge that's a frustrating slog of retries, there are several that are entirely reasonable and balanced. Most of the glitches I encountered don't have a strong impact on gameplay, and the visual clutter is less of an issue outside of the harder challenges. Breakout: Recharged is one of those games that falls into a weird space where it's entirely recommendable on a casual basis but there's really nothing it's great at. It skates by mostly on the virtues of the genre being intuitive and easy to pick up and that gets it a long way, but in a world where you can buy Shatter for $1.99, there's only a very narrow sector of people for whom it's a truly great fit.

Recommended If You: already played the better mainstream block breakers like Shatter; don't like the obstacle course design of Arkanoid-likes; don't have access to or the patience for deeper, weirder cuts like Puchi Carat


What does it mean for a game to "respect the player's time"?

In some cases, this is easy to answer. Games that are full of busywork, whether it's in the form of high volumes of mandatory side quests or mobile game cooldown meters, want the player to stay with the game well past the point of reasonable time investment. Games like Red Dead Redemption II, with huge amounts of slow manual travel both in and out of quests, refuse the player convenience. (Whether RDR2 uses this to good effect is up to taste.) Where it gets more interesting is when a game commits a litany of minor sins which add up - inconvenient menuing, convoluted town layouts, long animations, a gameplay loop that creates frequent trips back to the shop - and causes an otherwise solid game to be bloated and run longer than necessary. Usually, however, these elements are discussed in the context of longer games where they can add up to many additional hours. What does it look like when a game doesn't respect your time but doesn't ask for much of it in the first place?

On a completely unrelated note, this is a review of Creature in the Well, an indie game from 2019 developed by multimedia studio Flight School, This playthrough was conducted on the Switch version via digital download, YMMV for other platforms or formats.

Creature in the Well takes place in a desert village called Mirage which exists within the eye of a sandstorm. The town's inhabitants have long been cut off from the rest of the world by these unending winds, stranded alone on this earth, only them and their gargantuan mechanized mountain of murky origin and purpose. You play as a "BOT-C" who was once an engineer on the machine who's now reawakened and ventured inside to fight off the mysterious creature and finish what was started. I'm going to tell you up front that I simply did not care about this game's story. I think it's pretty by-the-numbers and I struggled to buy in, but I was so disengaged that I don't even really want to give a negative impression since I didn't make much of an effort. Pretty much everything you get is through occasional one-sided conversations and reading old computer logs, and if that's your thing and you like the setting it's probably passable. (There's one exception we'll touch on a little later.)

Flight School describes CitW as "pinball with swords," which is a nice elevator pitch but not a great explanation. It's played in a top-down perspective similar to Hades as you travel through dungeons. Each room is going to have its own obstacles and challenges and such, and there will be ball spawners present. With the Y button, you can catch and charge up to three balls, increasing their power level, and with the X button you can swing your bat and punt them in the direction you're facing. Almost all obstacles in CitW will have a visible meter on them that fills up as they're hit, and once you've imparted enough power onto them they'll deactivate - it's a mix of pinball and block breaker elements. When balls connect with objects, you earn energy based on how much the ball was charged, and this acts as your currency for exactly two things: buying upgrades (and there's only one single linear upgrade option) and opening doors to proceed further into the dungeon. Clear all the objects in rooms with a pinball bumper thing sunk into the floor and it'll raise up and give you a bunch of energy as a reward.

An example of what normal play looks like later in the game.

The first quirk to note here is how the game's treatment of energy makes the sense of progression a little wonky. From what I could tell, you're not actually required to clear rooms to proceed, you can always just go through the next door as long as you can spend enough energy to do so. A lot of side paths in the dungeons are only to give you more energy, with the reward at the end just being a big room full of passive objects to score off of. In some games it's normal to receive cash as a prize, but the weird thing about CitW's energy is that it's limitless. Rooms reset if you leave the dungeon or wait long enough, so you can grind for energy in a lot of places. (Note: I witnessed this room reset behaviour in hostile rooms, but I didn't test its frequency in passive reward rooms.) This makes these rewards feel kind of hollow, even if they're ultimately necessary to stay on pace for max upgrades by the end of the game and make the bosses more manageable.

Most obstacles in the game are standard passive barriers which you damage for energy, but you'll also encounter fireball-shooting cannons, explosive towers, mob spawners, and such that put you under pressure. There are also optional timed challenges where you'll have to break a series of objects, each within a few seconds, in order to open up secret paths. These are where you'll find new items: cores, which are consumed to buy upgrades; banners, which are cosmetic capes you can wear; and charge and strike items which change your attack properties. Some of these weapons will have really useful abilities like healing you or giving you a laser sight, but others appear to have no unique functions - or if they do, they're sufficiently cryptic that I couldn't figure them out.

As a fan of this game's influences, my first and probably most fundamental complaint about Creature in the Well is a limitation in its gameplay. There doesn't appear to be a limit on the number of balls that can be on screen, at least not one that I noticed, but you're only ever allowed to hold and charge three at a time. Any additional balls that enter your range while you're charging will disappear. I understand that arbitrarily high volumes of balls would likely break the game, but I have the same disappointment here that I do with some modern block breaker games. Multiball play is one of the best parts of both Breakout and pinball, and not getting to ramp up the numbers even in the late game is a shame. Now, this limitation only applies to individual instances of charging - you could catch a few balls, charge them up, release them, and then go grab some more balls that have spawned or been fired by enemies and charge those ones up too. And indeed, you'll do this, sometimes inadvertantly, but I found that because the game is balanced around shooting highly charged balls, you're usually better off powering up a set of three, sniping something with them, and repeating. Any extra balls in play are gravy.

Numbers go up.

Like I said at the top, CitW is a short game. It consists of eight dungeons, plus a small hub area that serves very little purpose. Each of these dungeons is maybe half an hour long, and while the game promises unique themes and challenges in each of them, they end up feeling fairly similar. Each one will introduce a new idea, such as moving platforms or a new enemy type, but they mix in a lot of standard stuff along the way and the optional challenges sometimes use entirely different skills rather than having you master those introduced in that dungeon. The boss fight at the end of each area will have some relation to the central theme but even that's sometimes tenuous. Boss battles are a series of several rooms in a row where you have to dodge more enemies than usual and break all the things, and usually the boss will start resetting blocks if you don't clear things fast enough. None of these fights were exceedingly difficult but I did find myself wondering how I would have done a couple of them if I hadn't been exploring for extra gear. As it stood, I played Creature in the Well as a completionist, 100%ing every dungeon and finishing the game in just under five hours.

And in those five hours, there was a lot of downtime because Creature in the Well is severely lacking in consideration for the player. Suppose you get stuck on a particular room, such as I did with a side path in the North Star Conduit. You attempt the room, you die, and you respawn outside of the mountain in the town. You have to walk all the way back from the edge of town up into the level hub inside the mountain. You have to go to the healing pool and stand in it and wait because dying doesn't refill your health bar. Then you have to go back up into the level entrance and traverse the dungeon to get back to where you were. There's no real incentive to replay rooms you've completed on a previous visit, so you'll mostly be running through them trying not to get hit on your way to your real destination. The farther into a dungeon you get stuck, the longer this will take, and it's made worse by the sloppy implementation of running itself. Run is bound to the same button as dash, and in fact you can only run after having dashed; holding down the run button during a screen transition or while getting hit or even repressing it in the middle of a dash animation won't cut it. Running isn't even that much faster than walking and there's very little feedback to tell you which you're doing, so travel quickly becomes a chore. It almost feels like it's borrowing the format of roguelite action games where the post-death walk is your chance to breathe and tweak your build, but there's absolutely nothing to do here except go buy an upgrade if you have a core to spare.

There's also a lot of repetition. While the key challenges are unique, there are a lot of rooms that are cloned from place to place. This isn't a big deal for stuff like transitional hallways - though I do think those are a little too frequent and long - but you're going to run into a lot of minor rooms that are similar if not identical, again usually with no reason to spend time on them except to accumulate energy. And the gameplay itself becomes pretty hollow and repetitive once you get a feel for the rhythm of catch-and-release combat. Pinball is a game about reaction time, conservation of balls, predicting the physics of obstacles. If we take CitW instead to have block breaker DNA akin to Breakout (or more specifically the microgenre of Breakout-meets-tennis action games such as Sanrio World Smash Ball), those games heavily involve positioning and adapting to a changing board as objects go away. Creature in the Well doesn't play badly, but it feels rather inconsequential most of the time because the balls don't matter that much. Outside of a few specific cases, you never have to care much about what happens to them because more will always spawn, and their bounces off the walls and geometry are often completely unpredictable.

You're going to see a lot of small filler rooms like this.

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Really, the nail in the coffin is the price. $15 for a five hour game is steep but acceptable when there's a profound story to tell or a lot of replay value. A game like Vanquish has a short campaign but a lot to offer. With Creature in the Well, you just don't get that much, especially when you consider what portion of that play time is empty or redundant. If you can get it on sale you don't have a lot to lose, but the console ports never get discounted so you'd best stick to Steam.

Recommended If You Like: watching balls bounce around; mysterious post-disaster storytelling (but don't need snappy gameplay to back it up); sand