“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
Ever see a new release and you know you just have to get it? It’s the only time that judging a book by its cover is acceptable. Unless you’re trying to save cash.
When I bought Downwell a few days ago, upon its release for PS4, I had only encountered a single image of it previously: a tri-color 8-bit portrait of a white figure falling down a vertical shaft, monsters and creatures flittering about the lone human figure. Judging by the looks of this blog, you can easily surmise that I’m a fan of the classics. Downwell had me at “Release date May 24”.
Downwell begins idly enough with a curious young man in what appears to be a park at night. Why is he there for a leisurely stroll in the dark? To inspect a well nearby his bench. Perhaps he can hear the echoes of growling monsters down inside. Perhaps he dropped something in there.
My wife told me a creepy story about where she grew up. It was somewhere out in one of those “ghost towns” of the Mojave desert. She and her friends were playing as children and they stumbled across an abandoned well and one of her companions almost fell into it. There was evidently weird stuff that went on in that town. They even found human bones near the well. Horrible story, I know, but it frames Downwell nicely.
Undeterred from the noises of monsters and spurred on by his insatiable inquisitiveness, the young man straps his gunboots to his feet and dives in…
Indie-developed Downwell has both the look and feel of vintage gaming at its finest, and the difficulty of points-based arcade games to boot. It is a down-scrolling, vertical platforming shooter with roguelike elements. All of that techno-talk means you fall, the levels are vertical, you jump, you shoot, and the stages are procedurally generated, aka random. That means no amount of replaying Downwell will let you memorize the level layout. If you lose all your hit points, you get a game over and return to the start of the game. Very arcadish, there.
You do get to keep all of the gems you earn, though, and they add up toward rewards in the form of new color palettes. Gems are basically the points/currency of the game. If you collect enough gems then you’ll reach “gem high”, which makes a shadow image behind your character and ramps up your offensive capabilities. “Gem high” will run out if you don’t pick up more gems quickly enough. Gems are dropped by enemies upon death or found in some side rooms, and they can be spent on items in the shop.
Shops and gem hoards are both found in side rooms, which are protected by time bubbles. Entering the bubbles and the following room pauses the action and freezes enemies and objects in place. Also found in side rooms are gunboot power ups. There are a variety. They change your mode of attack and vary on how well firing them suspends you in the air to slow your descent. I shall explain them in brief:
Triple Gun fires three bullets, Shotgun fires short-range powerful bursts, Burst fires in quick shots and has no auto-fire, Noppy is fast with small bullets that angle in the direction your character is moving, Machine Gun is a faster version of the default gunboot with more ammunition, Puncher is a super-strong shooter with wide projectiles, and my personal favorite is Laser, terrible at slowing your descent but by far the strongest gun in the game, able to blow through multiple targets in one shot.
These aren’t the only power up items in the game. The shopkeeper sells items, yes, but there are also randomized upgrades you can choose from upon the completion of every level. You can only choose one so make a good choice. You’ll have to play for yourself to find which are the best for your personal skill-level, style and reflexes. Plus discovering them and learning what each of them do was one of the best things about playing Downwell.
I’ll simply say that Safety Jetpack and Gem Powered are some of the best ones to keep an eye out for. Knife and Fork is my favorite upgrade in the game because it lets you consume the bodies of fallen enemies. Ew? No. Eating ten bodies restores one health point, which is great for trying to increase your max health or simply trying to regain it on this brutally hard game.
I mentioned that you get a game over if your life reaches zero. Rudimentary, yes? Well, you can earn more maximum life points. If you’re already at full health and you get a hold of something that heals one point of health, you get a piece of health (think piece of heart from The Legend of Zelda franchise).
If you can get four pieces of health, you get one extra maximum health point. Look out for the Apple upgrade at the end of a stage. It heals four health points. If you’re already at full health, that’s one whole maximum health point, automatically.
Besides health, there’s also charge to fill out your stats. Charge has to do with the full ammunition capacity of your gunboots’ weapon system. The more charge you have, the more shots your gunboots get, which means you can stay in the air longer from the recoil of the shots and have more offensive power altogether. You can get more charge points from items in the shop or from certain weapon power ups.
Downwell is short but it doesn’t matter. It’ll take forever to reach the bottom as you’ll be dying again and again and again. I did.
The well is broken down into four areas with three levels each. The first area is the Caverns, full of bats, turtles, frogs, worms, snails and a few Metroid-like enemies. There are several places to set your foot down here so it isn’t too difficult. The Caverns serve as the training grounds. You can still die here quite easily but you’ll need to hone some real skills here if you hope to complete Downwell.
The second area is the Catacombs, haunted by ghosts and skeletons and filled with booby-trapped floors.
After that is the Aquifier, a watery region where you not only have to worry about enemies but you’ll now also risk drowning. Look for breakable chests and bottles to get more air. There are lots of slow moving turtles and squid here, which are great with the Knife and Fork upgrade (if you got it) to increase your max health by feasting on their bodies. Yum!
The fourth area is the Limbo zone. It’s a nebulous, anti-gravity stage with amorphous enemies that cannot be stomped on to be defeated. Further, there are spikes everywhere and no place to set your foot beyond a few piece of furniture floating in the ether, a la Alice in Wonderland. In this continuous descent, timing your shots to maintain airborne maneuverability and having the right upgrades is key.
If you manage to sink past even the physics-breaking world of Limbo (eat your heart out, Dom Cobb!) then you’ll meet the final, horrifying boss of Downwell. I don’t want to ruin the big reveal and face off.
All I can say is: angry sphincter.
The 8-Bit Review
Visually, Downwell reminded me of the vertical areas in the original Metroid. At first, there was even a small bit of disappointment at that touch of familiarity, but it quickly went away. Though Downwell only uses three stark colors, it uses them to great effect. The game is harder for it but not unfairly. These would be what some would consider “bad graphics” simply because they’re very pixelated, but I say that it 1. gives the game its throwback appeal, 2. represents artistic minimalism as a viable alternative to pure graphical fidelity, and 3. features interesting results when the seemingly antiquated graphics style displays some smooth animations and surprising detail. Furthermore, there are the palettes you can earn by collecting gems. These can be selected at any time and will change up the tri-color set from red, white and black to almost anything else. I’ve collected over a dozen already and they’re pretty far out. Gotta appreciate the GBOY and VBOY palettes. Yay, history!
Downwell has the style of music that you’d expect from an 8-bit indie title, something retro that sounds as if it would’ve been on the NES. However, I was still surprised by this track. I anticipated something along the lines of 80’s rock or pure electronica, something like Mega Man OST’s typically bore. What I heard was something that was trippier than that and darker too. If I had to characterize the music on Downwell (which I do in this part of the review), I’d say that it “inspires dread”. Falling is already a dreadful feeling. We have nightmares about it. Falling in Downwell is accompanied by music that, contrary to expectations, does not inspire action and adventure, but dread. It’s unique and it’s less pleasant than other soundtracks in this style, but it’s extremely effective and distinctively Downwell. Just expect to hear the first track a lot.
One of the things that makes Downwell tough to put down are all the numerous items, upgrades and power ups. There are also “styles” of gameplay that change things like your starting health, upgrade availability, the frequency of shops, etc. The fact that these are randomized (minus the selectable styles) with each randomized level in the game means that no two playthroughs are ever the same and that you’ll need to think on your feet. Scratch that. You’ll need to have razor-sharp wit and reaction time. Otherwise, you’re dead. If you’re really quick, you can rack up combos by falling without stopping to touch the ground, bouncing off enemies and firing your weapons when necessary, recharging in midair with gems or on the backs of foes.
Different enemies can either be defeated by stomping on them (like Mario) or by shooting them. Some can be beaten both ways, others can be beaten exclusively in either way. And some of the areas have tons of enemies on the screen. This simple variation in attacking enemies also lends to the intensity of Downwell, as you’ll need to think about how to deal with so many different enemies and how to beat them specifically without making a mistake. Tough, since you know, you happen to be falling at an alarming rate. Since you’re falling so fast, Downwell is about making split-second decisions, which ends up being just as mentally and physically taxing as it sounds. But it sure makes it fun.
The game informs you of its controls with a single screen prior to the title: a black and white image of a controller (I presume a keyboard for the PC version) with inputs indicated in red for jumping and moving left and right. Aaaaaaand… that’s it. Everything else you encounter in Downwell is based on just jumping and moving. It’s still a platformer at heart. You’ll learn what hit points are and charge is just from playing the game and the items and upgrades you find are all decently explained by simple blurbs of text. In a lot of ways, accessibility is how a game shines and Downwell shines bright in this department. Easy to learn, hard to master.
Speaking of hard, it might be easier to earn my degree in Law than master Downwell. Is it too hard? Good question. I don’t believe so. Here’s why. It’s got accessible controls, it is short enough to beat if you can, and it is really, really fun. A big indicator for a game that is unfairly difficult? It isn’t fun to play. Downwell is extremely hard but it’s unbearably, excruciatingly, ineffably fun. And there’s even a Hard Mode for all those meatarians out there. If you’re looking for a game to really put your skills and reflexes to the test, look no further than this three-color madhouse.
Downwell is extremely addictive. Maybe it’s the random level layout or the multitudinous upgrades, but getting a game over seemed like no big whoop to me. I happily hit retry. Okay, there was a little rage-whining, but hardly any. Throwing hands up in the air. Pulling at hair. The usual. Downwell has some real replay value, stemming from its arcade-like core.
Both Spelunky and Cave Story are said to be influential to the design of Downwell. I haven’t played either of those titles so this game was largely a surprise for me. Switching up the side-scrolling platformer for a vertically-scrolling platformer yet keeping the shooting capabilities felt like a really cool alternative to traditional platforming. I’d played up-scrolling games but not down-scrolling ones. It’s just a clever and distinctive idea, falling down a fell with gunbooties strapped to your feet. The premise is unique and once you discover that he jumped down the well to (spoilers: highlight to reveal) simply save his cat, you’ll suddenly come to the realization that for the character, jumping down this well and fighting all these horrors ain’t no thang. Hilarious.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
I haven’t played anything like Downwell in a long time, yet it seems to be comprised of so many borrowed elements and it’s evocative of so many older franchises. That’s its beauty. Downwell
was is a game I just can’t put down. It’s the first game I’ve played since the inception of The Well-Red Mage blog that I’d rather play than review. It’s the first game in as long as I can remember that I play on the edge of my seat, it’s that fast-paced and intense. It’s the first game in forever that I continually told myself upon getting a game over: “Just one more round!” Downwell deserves every accolade out there and it is well worth it’s digital weight in gaming gold.
Aggregated Score: 9.1
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Categories: Game Review