Master Key

PC, Mac, Linux, Switch

I’m so delighted that Animal Well caught the wider attention of the games press, and indeed of players. It’s a wonderful game that deserves to be a massive hit. It’s also exactly the sort of game that often gets entirely overlooked and ends up on sites like this one. And if you don’t believe me, then you should definitely immediately buy and play Master Key.

Let’s be clear: they’re very different games. Animal Well is a Metroid-like platformer, while Master Key is a 2D Zelda-like RPG, but both are astonishingly good games, made by an individual, that perfectly execute their remit in an approachable and deeply engrossing way. One gets lucky, the other doesn’t. Let’s set about changing that.

Master Key is the 2D Zelda format distilled to its purest form. It’s a monochrome RPG in which you play an adorable fox, exploring an ever-growing territory as you can new abilities that allow access to new areas. The map begins shrouded in clouds, each section revealed as you reach it, until you’ve discovered multiple biomes, temples, dungeons and boss fights. And despite being “monochrome” (it defaults to black and white, with options in the settings to pick your own dual colour-scheme), it’s beautifully detailed, with a huge number of distinct enemy types, gorgeously animated, and each fought differently with your increasingly interesting range of attacks.

So yeah, that rather clinically explains that it delivers all the correct ingredients. What’s far more important is how well it’s done. Master Key is just so wonderfully crafted, a constant drip-feed of new abilities opening up new areas, letting you always feel as though you’re progressing. Reach a point where you’re stuck, and the world map (which I’m fairly certain is just the live game running at a tinier scale) with flash a region you should explore further. You’ll inevitably find the passageway you missed, or the secret entrance it’s hinting you toward, or the NPC with an item they need. And then there’s that dopamine hit of realising you’ve now another whole swathe of game to explore.

There’s no talking in the game, other characters instead communicating in the simplest pictogram speech bubbles. And yet, everyone feels characterful. Where the game isn’t dumping exposition on me, I find I’m filling in the narrative for myself, imagining motivations for this little fox. It’s all adorable.

It’s also absolutely bursting with secrets, puzzles and surprises. There are some pretty in-depth puzzles in there, some dungeons offering bespoke challenges that require a fair amount of head-scratching. At some points you’ll see rocks with peculiar patterns on them, and begin noting them down in case they become useful later. (Spoiler: they will.) Every area feels like it’s hiding something extra, making it always worth revisiting areas you’ve not seen for a while in case your bucket of new skills now lets you reach a formerly irrelevant-looking platform, or reveals an entire new dungeon.

The abilities are the ones any right-minded person desires. So yes, there’s a splendid hook-shot for so satisfactorily zipping across gaps, and of course a boomerang for bonking distant enemies, alongside a bunch more that are only discovered a lot later. Thorough exploration is always rewarded with more bonus items, that will unlock more health, non-vital but lovely bonus abilities, and piles of lovely money. So a new ability is a fresh chance to gather loads more of that, too.

Now, I’ve gotten properly stuck a couple of times, and I’m not alone. But there’s already a small but lovely community on Steam swapping hints, and a thread dedicated to those in the end-game sharing discoveries of the game’s deepest secrets. I’ve certainly been in there, looking for nudges, and at one point just outright begging for a clue. (Unfortunately the game hasn’t received any guides or YouTube walkthroughs yet, but hopefully if we can all shout loudly enough about it, people will get more involved.)

This deserves to be a break-out success for developer Achromi, and it’s the eternal tale of frustration at the abysmal curation on Steam that it is not. (I have to admit, I do get a little cheesed off when I see more successful indies kvetching hopelessly about this on Twitter, rather than pointing their large followings toward supporting projects like Buried Treasure and many others.)

It’s ridiculously cheap for a game of this size and complexity, and it’ll absorb you for many, many hours. If you, like me, wish Nintendo would just make another Link To The Past, then this is a must-buy. It completely understands the remit, and then delivers and delivers and delivers.

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  1. Definitely interested in this one, and thank you for bringing it to our attention! Agreed that I frankly expected Animal Well to be overlooked almost entirely and I’m happy to have been wrong about that.

    By the way, I think you missed a word or somesuch here: “exploring an ever-growing territory as you can new abilities that allow access to new areas.”

  2. Aha! Yesss! I’m so glad I got to kickstart this, and also glad I saw your article. Thank you for covering it. I’m definitely playing it now when it releases on Switch on the 30th.

  3. On my way to wishlist, I saw there is a demo on Steam. A great demo, took me 4h40m according to the save game to complete (probably not 100%). Plus over an hour of Picross, which I’m one third through and is quite neat.. (And in chorus with Terry, I’m surprised you didn’t mention it, John.)

    It’s crazy hard though, like a concentrate of the most difficult parts of Zelda Link to the Past all thrown at the player at the same time..
    And I want to mention, the very intro, and a good part of the music gave me strong vibes of Cave Story. I haven’t tried Animal Well, but this gives me a feeling I should try it!

  4. Master Key is on par with the best of the old school Zelda games. It draws heavily from Link’s Awakening in particular. Thanks John for covering this wonderful game. Sometimes games don’t need to bring much new to the table if they are done to near perfection like this.

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