There was a time, mainly during the 80’s and 90’s, when all you had to worry about was running to the right of the screen and shooting anything that crossed your path. It worked for Contra. It worked for Gunstar Heroes. Heck, it worked so well for Mega Man that we needed about forty seven games and spin offs. Now, about thirty some years later, Wells, a game available on Steam and Xbox One, hopes to revive the formula of the “run and gun” one more time.
This game comes to us from Tower Up Studios, a Brazilian studio formed in 2014, and is indeed their first release on Steam. In Wells, you play as, well, Wells, the titular steampunk… um… automoton man? It’s not particularly clear what he is, but he is steampunk and he wears a hat and wields a gun and that’s all you need to know! Anyway, Wells is “a notorious smuggler from Percepolis, the city of the new century” and he wants to “get even with the clients that tried to murder.” Right, so that was taken verbatim from the game’s website.
Murder who? Why? While there are cutscenes in the game that try to explain what is happening, there is a very large disconnect between the storytelling and the player. These cutscenes do not convey any actual story besides showing that Wells is chasing after someone. Part of this issue is also due in some ways by a language barrier. The game is in English, however, you’ll notice there’s just something off about what little dialogue and exposition Wells contains. With the small amount of story elements to be translated, it’s hard to give them a pass on how poor a job has been done here.
Does this look better in all brown?
Or all grey?
As a game that has taken inspiration like the aforementioned Gunstar Heroes, Contra and Mega Man, controls and design are everything. Wells controls well enough, if a little stiff. This is worsened by the choppy animation. Shooting with the mouse is accurate enough and moving around with the keyboard works fine. Oddly, I never tried using a controller and I don’t think I would want to. The enemy placement and level design make it difficult to imagine playing with a controller, since flicking back and forth from left, right, and above requires the type of reflex control afforded by a mouse. You also pick up four other guns besides your starting weapon, and each seems interesting, but there isn’t really any indication or reason for these weapons. They are just there. Here’s some guns! Don’t question it!
Enemy AI is fairly straightforward, and boss fights almost seem ripped from other games. There’s the airship ala Mario Bros 3, a large mechanical spider you might see in Gunstar Heroes, a giant robot you might have experienced in Contra: Hard Corps. It’s nice to go back to a formula where there are these monstrous bosses waiting for you at the end of the level, but it all seems so uninspired given the possibilities of the steampunk genre. There are some moments that are challenging due to enemy placement, and it’s during these times you get a hint of that retro gaming difficulty that borders on unfairness. These moments require positional awareness, deft weapon switching, and accuracy, as well as an eye on your regenerating health bar. Level design is quirky, the game starts with the classic “run right” mechanic, but then starts to move into more of a “run right, now run back to the left, now zipline into the background and continue left, drop down and run right” type of design that seems nonsensical. The levels feel arbitrary set up, with no real reason for these winding paths. Feeding into this dizzying navigation are the graphics, which sometimes make it difficult to differentiate what you need to focus on from everything else.
Contrary to popular belief, this was not Bowser’s famous airship.
Looking at Wells is a bit of an eyesore. It’s not so much what has been created that’s a problem; the design of Wells, and indeed the rest of the enemies and environments, translate well enough. However, the overall palette of the game, all browns and greys, combined with the extremely flat lighting, make for a look that seems very plain. This does a huge disservice to the game, where the success of this genre lies in it’s visual creativity and acuity to tell story through setting, ambience, and design. That might be one of my biggest issues with Wells, nothing here is memorable. Wells is just a steampunk man, the enemies are non-descript, and don’t seem to fit together, the city has no life or story to it. It all seems so empty and uninspired.
Speaking of uninspired, let’s spend a quick minute on audio. There’s not much to say, this was probably the most overlooked aspect of the game aside from story. The sound effects are weak, particularly with the guns. What few utterances Wells delivers are of extremely low quality and tell us nothing of the character. The music is largely forgettable, suffering from a lack of varied instrumentation. The exception being the Oil Platform stage, where mechanical ticks and clunks break up the monotony of cheap music production. Once again, completely uninspired.
Putting all of this together, Wells is a game that seems to have taken inspiration from games in the 90’s, but may have been shackled by those inspirations. The game lasts but two hours, which, for this type of game isn’t unheard of, but the price and quality for those two hours is severe. The threadbare story and overall design of Wells makes for a game that lacks any sort of character or lasting impression. For me, that is the real tragedy here. When playing Wells, I could sense the backbone of a decent game, there was some genuinely decent work put into it. Wells functions as the bare minimum of a “run and gun” shooter. Unfortunately, Wells suffers from an overall design issue that keeps the game from being memorable. I would be interested in the next release from Tower Up Studios, as there is a solid foundation to the game, but maybe next time the studio will release something a bit more polished. But for now, sitting at an overpriced $9.99 on the Steam store, it’s hard for me to recommend Wells.
Wells is available now on Steam. Wells was reviewed using a Steam code provided by the publisher. You can read additional information about PSVG’s review policy on our disclaimer page here.