Publisher: Devolver Digital
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
(Review code provided by publisher)
Picture a well. Yes, one of those holes in the ground that are surrounded by a circle of bricks, often with a bucket on a rope dangling above it. Now imagine you have a desire to jump down that well. But wait – there are creatures in the well, bats and frogs and snakes and turtles and sometimes flying jellyfish and eyeballs and they all want to kill and probably eat you. But it’s okay, because you have guns on your feet and you can shoot the nasties or jump on their heads. Oh, and there are shops where you can buy rice and sushi and car batteries. Because this is Downwell and it’s a bit mental.
Downwell is effectively a mashup of platform and shmup games filtered through some gloriously defined 4bit style visuals (think Spectrum/C64 era). The mechanics are as simple as they come; don’t stop falling down. Movement is from left to right, with one button used to jump and, when you’re in the air, fire off your gunboots. Enemies can be dispatched with bullets or a Mario special and weak blocks can be disposed to clear your route. You only have a certain number of shots in your boots before they run out but these are recharged by touching the floor or jumping off an enemies head. Hit an enemy and you’ll lose a chunk of health. Lose all health and you die – no extra lives here. Those are the basics, but the wonderful Downwell has far more depth and strategy than its simple mechanics suggest.
As you’re descending through these procedurally generated environments you’ll find rooms off to the sides that the enemies can’t enter; most of the time these will contain bonus pickups or stacks of gems. Pickups do two things – they change your gun type and either give you one of your health slots back should you have lost it to an enemy, or increase the number of available shots in your gun boots by one. Gems are the games primary collectable and are dropped every time you kill an enemy. As well as being able to use them in shops to top u poor extend your available health or add shots to your guns, at the end of a game, on death or reaching the endgame, all collected gems will be added to a running total. Reaching specific goals on this total will unlock new palette styles, mimicking different consoles and computers (my personal favourite being the C64 esque Pastel style) or unlocking a different character style which generally makes one element of the game easier (more health, for example) while making another harder (less power ups).
While the basics are all fairly easy to pick up and create a rewarding game flow, there are also advanced mechanics that add more challenge to the game. The key one of these is the combo system. Every enemy you dispatch without touching the floor adds one to your combo meter – using the gun boots to hover, jump off enemies and rack up a significant combo and you’ll be rewarded with bonus gems, extra health and more shots making the later stages significantly easier. At the end of each stage you can select one of a number of perks which can affect your rate of fire, damage, health and other things which can change up the game mechanics in subtle ways, adding different layers of strategy.
Being a procedurally generated, almost rogue-like affair, you would think that Downwell would be some kind of endless game. It’s not. Similar to procedural games like The Binding of Isaac, Downwell has a fixed number of levels and even a final boss and an endgame story which gives reason to your gravity battling antics. Obviously the levels become more challenging as you go with later levels throwing more enemies and less platforms at you, meaning that good perk choices between stages are paramount.
You can probably tell I’m a big fan of Downwell; I’ll freely gush about its merits to anyone who wants to listen and its been my go-to game on my phone for a few months now. Playing it on PS4 and Vita, however, has made me realise what the mobile versions on Android and iOS are missing – physical controls make this game. It’s twitch mechanics are so much more responsive with a stick and buttons, and it’s far far easier to string combos together for sweet bonus gems, gun charges and health. Playstation owners get the advantage of the game being cross-buy so those who still have their Vita can enjoy it on the go. Brilliantly the Vita version also lets you play it with the device on its side, making full use of the long screen – it makes you wish there were more classic ‘smups for the system that would do this, however gamers with larger hands may find playing this way a but unwieldy.
Easy to pick up, hard to master, Downwell is a brilliant “One more go” game. Its simple graphics hide a surprisingly deep skill game with plenty to see and unlock. Perhaps a challenge mode would have added some more longevity but, as it is, Downwell is more than worth picking up.