Downwell

Downwell takes the shoot-‘em-up genre and turns it around, quite literally. Instead of traveling upwards, the plain white pixelated protagonist makes his way down a well filled with perilous creatures and hazards. The objective of Downwell is to descend twelve randomly generated vertical sections. This task isn’t as easy as it seems. Your character cannot climb back up, so aside from a limited jump ability, you are mostly falling and landing on platforms. Additionally, there are many enemies lurking in the cramped vertical space, ready to eat at your health.

Luckily, you are equipped with gunboots, a versatile weapon that lets you stomp and shoot foes. Jumping onto enemies recalls the classic platformer thrill of squishing Goombas. Landing on creature after creature in succession without touching a safe platform fills a combo meter, which generates rewards upon completion of the combo. Unlike sidescrolling or upward vertical platformers, you never know what is coming up next as gravity pulls you downwards. Yet, that’s what makes Downwell stand out from other experiences. The sensation of free falling while you chain consecutive kills is exhilarating and contributes to the game’s addictive nature.

The aptly named gunboots also allow you to shoot downwards from your feet. Every time you fire, you are sent upwards a little. This effectively doubles your weapon’s usefulness, allowing you to simultaneously kill enemies while slowing your descent. Your gunboots run on a limited charge, which can be instantly refilled by either landing on a platform or an enemy. If you run out of firepower while in midair, your gunboots will spout out air, doing nothing to help you until you can recharge. The balance between landing on enemies, keeping yourself afloat with your gunboots, and knowing when to recharge keeps you constantly engaged.

Downwell features procedurally generated sections. Although every experience will be technically different, the hazards and difficulty of any one section is generally uniform. Only the platform configurations and enemy placements will vary, meaning that it is possible to improve by learning how to see patterns and combos. As such, even though you must start over from the beginning and face entirely different sections each time you play, you get better based on your own experience. Not all roguelikes promote this sense of progression, but Downwell masters it to the point where you may not even realize the sections are different for every game.

There are quite a few upgrades and power-ups that can assist you during your descent. After you clear a section, you can choose one new upgrade from a set of three. Each set of upgrades is randomly selected from a collection of over a dozen. The random factor means that you will not always have the optimum upgrade configurations. They are all still pretty useful, including powers such as converting breakable blocks to upward-shooting bullets, gaining a scope that helps aim your fire, and generating a drone companion that floats and shoots enemies alongside you.

The well also features special time void rooms off to the sides in which you will find weapon power-ups and shops. Weapon power-ups alter your firing capabilities. For instance, the Triple shot shoots three bullets simultaneously, and the Shotgun lets out a massive spread with more power but less range. Each weapon is balanced according to how powerful they are and how much charge it uses up. Shops offer health and charge refills at the cost of gems, which you can collect after destroying blocks, killing enemies, and landing combos. These items get pricey towards the end of the game, so you must play aggressively if you want to afford these helpful refills.

The action is fast-paced, and the game quickly gets difficult. Later levels introduce treacherous spikes and underwater segments. Enemies also become more dangerous, sporting spikes to prevent you from stomping on them. Some enemies even start following you as you fall. The lowest part of the well presents a unique challenge that awaits anyone who can make it all the way down.

With only 12 sections, the game is short. Regardless, making it to the end can take many hours because losing all your health takes you all the way back to the top of the well. This can be frustrating, but Downwell does include permanent unlocks through the gems you collect. Every gem is added to a progress bar. Upon reaching certain milestones, you gain rewards. Most of these gifts are stylistic, changing the color palette. You can also unlock useful Styles, which slightly tweak your stats. For example, the Boulder Style increases your maximum health capacity from 4 to 6, but decreases the amount of upgrades you can choose from between stages. The Levitate Style reduces the rate at which you fall. Each Style suits different play strategies, and greatly improves the replay value. The drive to keep going and play “just one more time” can also keep you glued to your screen. Online leaderboards that keep track of time elapsed, enemies killed, and total combos, keep you motivated to do even better than before.

Everything in the game is pixelated, invoking a simple, retro style, but I have issues the color palette. At any one time, there are only three colors on the screen: a black background, white platforms, and red enemies. While the actual colors can be altered, there are always only three. This can make it difficult to discern different objects on the screen. You can sometimes get hurt by enemies, just because you couldn’t tell that they were spiked or otherwise untouchable. Additionally, the entire screen is vertical, matching the resolution of a mobile phone. This makes the well feel cramped even though there is so much unused empty space outside of the well.

The music is similarly retro-themed, with a few chiptunes making up the entirety of the soundtrack. They’re nice to have in the background, but are neither catchy nor extraordinary. On the other hand, the sound effects emanating from each successful stomp and shot are gratifying.

Downwell takes the simple concept of falling down and executes it brilliantly. The thrill of chaining combos through stomping enemies, combined with the shoot-‘em-up nature of the gunboots, contributes to its exhilarating and addictive gameplay. Roguelike elements are used effectively, ensuring that each playthrough is different, but still providing an integral sense of progression. Downwell is highly recommended, whether you have a few minutes or several hours to devote to getting down this well.

I am a lifelong gamer, having grown up with Nintendo since I was young. My passion for gaming led to one of the greatest moments of my life, my video game themed wedding!