Downwell may look simple, but scratch under the surface and you’ll find detail, depth and a whole lot of fun in this adventure of a tiny little character who jumps down a well. The following is my review of Downwell.
The concept is pretty easy to get your head around, jump into a well and safely navigate your way past enemies and projectiles while trying not to die to reach the objective at the bottom. You only have a few hit points, so try not to get hit by the variety of enemies and traps that stand in your way.
Levels are different each time in this vertical scrolling roguelike, which feels like parts of Super Mario 2 but on steroids. There’s also the small matter of having to start fresh when you run out of health, so taking care through levels is a must. First appearances can be deceiving and on first look, Downwell may seem straight forward (or down), but it’s far from simple. It’s challenging, sometimes infuriating, and also very fast.
The controls are similar to the concept of the game itself, seemingly simple but with a hidden depth the more you play. There’s a simple 3 button control system, perhaps from its roots as a mobile phone game, with left, right and jump. The jump button doubles as a fire button for whatever gun you happen to have strapped to your boots at the time. Projectiles shoot from your boots serve a couple of purposes, not only to clear enemies out of the way but to also allow to affect your trajectory as you fall at speed down the well and clear your path.
As well as shooting enemies with your gun enabled boots you can also jump on enemies heads to kill them. Do this a few times in quick succession and you can chain together combinations that allow you to get more points and reload your weapon while in mid-air. You only have a few shots from your boots, so combing your shooting and your Mario-style jump attacks on enemies are more useful than may seem at first.
As you make your way down the various levels in the well you come across rooms that give you moments away from the action. here you can pick up power-ups including new guns for the boot including shotguns, lasers, triple shot and burst (and many more). These power-ups affect tactics as you speed down the well, with lasers allowing you to clear things from a distance and shotguns allowing you to take out tanky enemies in a single shot. The new weapon power-ups also serve a dual purpose as you can recover health too and increase your max HP.
Also on your way down you come across shops, where you can buy energy and other power-ups (although I tended to focus on energy as that was what I needed the most!). The shop keeper is very smiley, but don’t jump over him and stomp on his or her products as his face will turn to a frown in a nice little touch. These rooms and shops provide rare moments of calm in an otherwise action-packed, fast-paced descent into danger.
In between levels you can pick up modifiers allowing you to enhance the environment in your favour, for example, blocks that explode shoot out projectiles, or by eating enemies after you’ll kill them restores some health. Gross, but useful! You can get 10% off the price at shops and plenty of other things that help you along the way.
As you dive bomb your way down you’ll want to collect a currency called Gems, not only allowing you to pick up items from the vendor but building up your gem meter. Downwell keeps track of your overall gem count and you can unlock new games modes as well as colour palettes for your adventure. By collecting loads of gems you’ll unlock Gem High mode where your attacks do more damage as long as your topping up your gems through the collection. The ideal state is to get to Gem High mode as fast as possible and keep the buff going by continuing to collect gems.
Spending your gems wisely in the game is advised, although using them to unlock new styles of play is also fun. These modifiers either add or remove the difficulty, for example, Arm Spin mode adds more gun modules but makes shops really rare, giving you fewer opportunities to upgrade or buy items like health. There’s also the different visual styles to unlock in the game like the obvious Nintendo nods to GBOY and VBOY, referring to Gameboy and Virtual Boy colour palettes. The visual styles may seem like a simple colour change, but when trying to get down the well as the speed you want to be seeing where you’re going as best as possible, otherwise, it’s going to be much, much harder to get down there safely.
The systems all work together beautifully. On the surface, the controls seem very simple, but clearly a lot of thought and craft has gone into Downwell because it flows so well. Combining the jump and attack buttons into one means you don’t have more than one control system to learn, allowing you to focus on your tactics and flying down the well as fast as you can.
Once you get through a few rounds you realise that the speed element of the game is an underlying focus with the game designer Ojiro Fumoto adding a timer for the end of your runs. Rather than taking the cautious route, you’re promoted to fly down the well as pace, jumping off enemies where possible, avoiding the enemies highlighted that you can’t bounce off and shotting your way through walls where possible. There are a few ways to approach Downwell; hurtling down the well as fast as you can trying desperately to avoid everything in your path or the cautious, methodical approach of killing everything in your path before carving a way forward. The combo system is a great addition, but for me, that’s going to take a little more practice and time.
This is a dip-in and dip-out game that respects your time. Originally a mobile game that found it’s way to PC and consoles like Nintendo Switch, this is the perfect game for when you’re on the go and have a few moments to spare. The early levels serve as a nice warm-up to the tricky levels ahead (and they do get super tough in places!). You may find yourself practice for as little as 10 minutes on a level, or find yourself dragged into a multi-hour session trying to perfect your runs.
I played the game on Xbox Game Pass, but you can pick this game up for a very reasonable price on mobile devices and Nintendo Switch or Steam for PC. It’s been out for some time, but it’s a game I came away from thinking how fun it was, and how much I want to go back to it to perfect my runs, get better times and spend plenty more time in the world of Downwell. Don’t judge a book by its cover, find some time to spend with Downwell… you won’t regret it.
Release Date: 15th October 2015
Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch, iOS, Android, Vita
Check out more reviews from This Week In Video Games.