It's hard to know how to review a game like Downwell. I've played hours of it, gone through the same loop of the first three areas, and never beaten it. And it's a game you can beat. I watched someone do it. There was a boss fight. It looked pretty hard. But I've never gotten there. I never WILL get there, odds are. Because this game's really hard. Like, really hard, and breaking it into levels like it does really helps emphasize this because you can quantify how well you did more than you can with a game like Luftrausers. You get the disappointment in Downwell of having only gotten through the first level, because you've BEEN further down, how could you lose this easily? It's still the first level! It was just one of those snails, come on, who dies to a snail?
And then like how do you decide you've played enough of a game that you CAN beat but that YOU can't beat and is the point even to beat it I mean who can say anyways, right? Especially something that, even as you're playing it, you worry might just wind up being a flash in the pan. It's the thing that happens all the time where a game hits on iOS and it trends for a day and you pick it up because all of your friends are also talking about it and then next week you're already moved on to something else. Is my review too late already? Would it have been too late even if it had hit the day that Downwell came out?
I do like Downwell, but it's getting harder and harder for games like this to really differentiate themselves. There's a paragraph in my Fistful of Gun review where all I do is name games that fit into this kind of mold–fast-paced, quick death, tightly-controlled, very difficult and based around replays and randomness. And it's a cool genre, but the question still remains: how many of these do we need? And it's just getting harder for me to write about them, too, because even if the actual moment-to-moment mechanic is different, it all plays out in a similar way, and it's so difficult to find a new angle in much the same way it's difficult for the developers to find a new way to attack the genre.
Downwell's kinetic energy is among the best I've seen, and it's great for propelling you forward, because it's immediately apparent: the only way to go is to fall down. As Weird White Blob Boy (who has a name I probably just don't know, we'll call him Wellington), you can jump, and hitting jump again shoots your gunboots, and you just keep going down, down, down, until you're dead. Or I guess if you beat the game but come on, you and I both know that's not going to happen. Its main innovation is really its straightforwardness - because you have only one way to go, your tactics mostly revolve around evasion and momentum control, and less about fighting back. Especially once the game introduces enemies that can't be stomped on, who damage you instead, or parts of the ground that shoot up spikes when walked on.
It also does a good job of pushing you to weigh these considerations in a later level that also makes you have to worry about the oxygen you have left since you're underwater. Water levels! Smash enemies so that you can breath!
The game continues to draw from that rogue-like well by introducing shops along the way, and powerups that you get at the end of each area. Of course, when you die, they're gone, but the game does give you unlockables through color patterns (super pointless but still somehow nice? I think games have just taught me "unlockable = good" no matter what) and 'play styles' which change aspects of the game – the physics, your health, how many power ups you get, etc. I liked the play style differences because they also change the model you play as so he's like rolling around or spinning his arms, and it's a fun little thing, but on top of that it's a new strategy you have to consider as well. It's cool to have more health, but is it worth it if you don't get as many power ups at the end?
It's just hard for me to imagine going back to Downwell now that I'm done with this review, but at the same time, it's like three bucks so it's difficult to say you're going wrong with it. Even if you manage to get just four or five hours with it, they're four or five pretty good hours. I think it's the kind of game that might have a longer life for you if you don't have another game to scratch a similar itch, or a good and more rewarding platformer somewhere in your life.
Downwell's a very slight game based around a great, fast-paced mechanic. The drive of jumping off a platform and watching the level zip by, having to control yourself so you don't run into enemies that can't be killed, while also managing your shots to ensure that you even have the ability to fight enemies and control your descent. It might not have staying power, but for the cost, you'll definitely enjoy your time.