As Downwell begins, you find yourself in control of a nondescript white humanoid, lounging in a state of relaxation.
Perhaps he’s lying on the bench, or sitting against a tree, or perched, legs dangling over the edge of a well. Press a button and he jumps to life. You can hang around at the top of the well as long as you’d like, but you’ll find there’s nothing to do, nothing with which you can interact.
Downwell never explicitly tells you, “Jump into the well to begin the game” but you know that’s what you have to do. I hope it’s a leap of faith you’ll take, because Downwell is one of the best – and most unappreciated – games of 2015.
So what, exactly, is Downwell? Available on iOS, Android, and Steam, Downwell is produced by Moppin and published by Devolver Digital. It is one of the rare games to have the same price – $2.99 US – on both mobile platforms and on Steam.
Downwell merges elements from many different genres and concepts, drawing inspiration from classic game design and modern gaming conventions alike. I describe it as a hybrid between a platformer and a vertical shoot em up, with a retro NES-era aesthetic and modern Rogue-light elements such as permadeath with persistent unlocks.
On your first play, you’ll have just one style available to choose with the others locked, and you’ll be thrown right into the game without explanation or tutorial. Downwell isn’t just emulating the clothes of retro gaming, it also relies on the classic gaming concept of forcing the player to learn the game through the experience of playing, teaching you its concepts – and letting you learn its secrets – through smart game design.
Downwell only uses three buttons: move left, move right, and a combination button for jump and to fire your gun boots. If you’re standing on solid ground and you hit that button, you’ll jump. If you’re in the air and you press it, your gun boots will fire, which can damage most enemies, destroy some terrain, and will slow your descent. Your gun boots have an energy charge that refills when you land on solid ground or an enemy.
You can also fall or jump onto the top of enemies like you would in a platformer, which will stomp them and kill them in one hit, with some exceptions; enemies you can’t kill this way are colored red, whereas all others are white. These red enemies, as well as red terrain in later levels, will damage you upon contact. The only other red objects are gems, which you acquire through killing enemies, destroying items that contain them such as terrain or gem clusters in caves, or by stringing together combos.
Acquire many gems in a short time period, and you’ll experience a “gem high” which increases the size and range of your bullets, and can be maintained provided you keep collecting gems. Gems acquired in gameplay provide permanent unlocks for use between games – palette swaps and additional “styles” – and can be used in-game for purchases at the Shops found in each level, which you’ll lose each time you die. These shops present you with three options, from hit point refills, additional energy, additional maximum HPs, or some combination of those things. Note that if you already have full HPs, and you pick up health refills, you’ll fill up a meter below your health bar. Every four HPs picked up while at full health adds +1 maximum HP.
In addition to the shops, each level has a few side caves, which will have either Gems or a gun power-up. Some gun power-ups also restore one HP, others +1 Energy. It is almost always worth picking these up for the stat bonus, even if you have a favorite that you don’t want to lose. That said, some weapons are better on certain levels than others, so there is a certain degree of luck involved in each run. When entering Shops or Side caves, you’ll land in a time bubble, which stops everything outside the bubble from moving in a nice graphical effect.
The combo system in Downwell is subtle enough that you might not notice it at first. Stringing together enemy kills – five or more – without hitting the ground will unlock additional gem rewards, scaling the reward based on your combo size. The various styles impact the ease of making combos; Boulder style adds +2 HP so that you start with 6 HP, but you’ll also fall faster, and as a result it can be harder to string together combos, whereas Floaty style slows your descent, making it easier to string together combos, but also easier for enemies that chase you – like Bats – to catch you. Later levels, which move farther away from the platformer feel of the first level to the more combo-focused shmup feel of the fourth level – also provide more opportunity to achieve large combos and the ensuing gem rewards, which you’ll need to pay the ever-escalation Shop prices.
There are four levels in the game, each with its own unique themes and hazards, and each is broken into three sublevels. After each segment is completed, you’ll get to pick from a random set of upgrades. These include a variety of offensive and defensive options, such as longer Gemhigh duration, shooting bullets up whenever you collect a gem, shops at 10% discount and always appearing at the start of a level, regaining 4 HP, and so on.
There are some options that are better than others for specific levels and styles. For instance, having bullets shoot up whenever a block is destroyed isn’t very helpful on the fourth level, where there’s barely any solid ground, but it can be very helpful in the first and second level, where some persistent enemies will chase you down from above. Many enemies are unique to a level, while others repeat, and new mechanics will appear as you progress such as needing air refills as you move through the water-based level 3.
The art in Downwell is playful, and this extends to the great animation and design of the enemies. The music is catchy and appropriately retro, and sound design as a whole is excellent, with stomps, explosions, and enemy sound effects being recognizable and appropriately impactful. Much like Shovel Knight, Downwell understands how the best 8-bit games made the most of their limited graphical and audio capabilities, and so Downwell feels appropriately retro-inspired but also modern in all the right ways.
Well… most of the right ways.
Re-bindable keys for the PC version would’ve been appreciated, and I’ve had some minor issues that aren’t necessarily the fault of the game, such as it temporarily not working with the Steam Beta. There’s also no borderless Window mode on the PC, nor any option for V-sync. The game itself also feels cramped on smaller phones, making it more ideal for Android tablets and iPads. You can certainly play it on a phone, but even on my Nexus 6P – which has a 5.7 inch display – I have a much harder time getting far into the game than I do with a controller on PC.
Downwell is not an easy game. It has the same “one more round” feeling as Luftrausers, another great retro-inspired Devolver Digital release, but it is also a challenging game. It is rarely unfair, but it is always difficult, and what seems like a perfect run can fall apart almost instantly. Be aware going in that there’s no difficulty setting and that, much like Spelunky, you may never beat this game. If you appreciated the difficulty of FTL, Risk of Rain, or Spelunky, you should feel at home here, but if you didn’t, perhaps this one isn’t for you.
Note that there is a boss after level four, and beating said boss unlocks New Game Plus.
For me, Downwell hit all the right notes, both figuratively and literally – it has a great soundtrack. I love its playful art design and appreciate its commitment to making you learn its systems through intelligent game design. Its difficulty feels just right to me, at times frustrating but almost always in a “Why did I do that?” way where I know what happened was my fault. What appears at first to perhaps be a simplistic game reveals itself to be a surprisingly deep mesh of gameplay systems and secrets.
Everybody loves to beat on the games industry for everything it does wrong, but we rarely stop to pause and give praise when we find something that’s right. When a game as excellent as Downwell comes along, I feel almost obligated to sing its praises.
Note that while Downwell may not be getting the coverage I wish that it would, it is one of the highest reviewed games from 2015:
- Metacritic store of 84 on PC
- Overwhelmingly Positive score on Steam with over 97% Positive reviews out of 1,324 total
- iTunes Rating of 5 out of 5 on 1,122 ratings
- Play Store Rating of 4.8 out of 5 on 1,767 ratings
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going down that well again…
Downwell is available on Steam, iOS, and Android:
Purchase Downwell on Steam: Click here
Purchase Downwell on iOS: Click here
Purchase Downwell on Android: Click here
Disclaimer: I did not receive any compensation for this review in any way, shape, or form, and I purchased Downwell with my own funds on all three formats.
(Yes, I like it that much.)