Falling Down Has Never Been Harder

Downwell

HIGH Nailing a long combo and glorying in well-earned gems.

LOW Getting overwhelmed with enemies and dying incredibly quickly.

WTF Why are we going down this well anyway? The park bench was lovely.


For every player tired of climbing a dark tower or scaling an impossible peak, Downwell provides an easier alternative: jump down a hole and let gravity do the rest. Downwell combines retro aesthetics, procedural level design, and the contemporary fad of roguelike games to create a enjoyably tight (and punishing!) game that demands precision and skill.

Downwell gives players only one life to beat it, and then tosses them down a well—literally. In Downwell, players navigate a vertical shaft while plummeting to its unseen depths. The central mechanic (and the game’s unique hook) is that the gunboots players wear allow them to strategically control their descent.

These multipurpose gunboots attack enemies, destroy obstacles, and temporarily slow the otherwise-plummeting player. However, the ammo for the gunboots works on a stamina system. Players can only fire for a short while before they have to let the boots recharge. Players can upgrade them to increase their ammo, but this limitation still requires a careful balance between falling and blasting.

This balance produces a brilliant gameplay loop that makes Downwell easy to pick up and difficult to put down. Players need to master moments of dropping like a rock with the ballet-like dance that occurs when firing from enemy to platform and back again. Shooting (or head-stomping, like Mario) a series of enemies without touching a platform racks up a combo meter. The higher the combo meter, the greater the reward of in-game gems to be used for purchasing power-ups like additional hit points or more ammo.

Exploring side-caverns and shops is key to success, but enemies can quickly overwhelm players who tarry too long in the same elevation. So, sometimes avoiding enemies by falling quickly past them is the smartest option. This risk/reward system for combat and exploration is the foundation of Downwell’s admittedly simple economy, but it works well.

Luckily, Downwell’s controls are responsive and tight on a PS4 controller. This is essential in an inverted platformer where players are tasked with making split-second decisions as they fall toward obstacles and enemies. Every death is the fault of the player, not the game, therefore each death offers lessons for improving, although these lessons are not always easy to parse.

Like many roguelikes, Downwell demands a high level of skill from its players. Most will die fairly quickly their first few times descending into the well, but with enough practice, players will accumulate power-ups that are awarded between levels. In this way Downwell rewards progress, but also expects players to adapt quickly to the difficult challenges it mounts. In other words, as players fall down, the game ratchets the challenge up.

The difficulty of Downwell will turn away just as many players as it attracts. While persistent effort will ultimately unlock alternative starting stats that benefit less-skilled players, the game starts players from zero after each death—it’s a formula that will either exhaust or inspire the player depending on how they feel about this kind of experience. As for me, Downwell joins the ranks of Spelunky as a go-to, action-oriented roguelike, but I expect many who try it will quickly shelve it for less difficult adventures. Rating: 8 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Moppin and published by Devolver Digital. It is currently available on PlayStation 4, Android, PlayStation Vita, iOS, and Microsoft Windows. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 3 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. Yeah, it’s pretty difficult. There are no multiplayer modes. 

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E for everyone and contains mild fantasy violence. Players shoot small animals like turtles and bats who explode in a cartoon fashion.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The game can be enjoyed without sound. There is no dialogue that requires subtitles.

Remappable Controls: Certain functions are remappable. There are a few options for movement and weapon fire.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

 

John Vanderhoef

John Vanderhoef

John Vanderhoef is a writer, editor, and academic. Other than game reviews, he mostly writes about the culture and industry of video games. He loves narrative games and is an MCU fanatic.
John Vanderhoef

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