Just looking at Downwell, it’s going to be hard to see why there’s any fuss about it for many. You can almost hear the soft squelch of countless rolling eyes when they see ‘another indie platformer with ZX Spectrum-era retro visuals’ on PlayStation. Well, that’s on them, because Downwell is a splendid cross-breed of platformer and shoot ‘em up, lightly dipped in a roguelike sauce.
Downwell has a few surprises out of the gate. The first being that this is from a Japanese studio. It isn’t until you get into Downwell properly that you can see that cultural influence, otherwise it all seems remarkably Western in aesthetic. Secondly, it eschews the platforming and shoot ‘em up norms of sideways and upward movement by being primarily all about heading downwards…in a well. At first, this seems a little too simple, too basic. ‘You just head downward and blast stuff?’ you ask yourself, puzzled, ‘so it’s just a shoot ‘em up in reverse?’ and in fairness, that’s exactly what it seems like. But there’s a diversity to it that acts as the third surprise.
The enemies of Downwell pack a punch
Enemies are eliminated with a dose of cold hard violence via your pudgy-looking avatar’s gun-boots (shockingly, these are boots…that fire bullets like a gun would). You rack up combos by continually dispatching with your foes whilst not touching the ground (harder than it sounds), with different enemies requiring different strategies to defeat. For example, early enemies like bats and jellyfish (yep) are killable via bullets or being jumped on, but tortoises have the protection of their shells against your gun boots, so jumping on them is the only solution. Then there are those foes who are impervious to being jumped on, and actually damage you if you dare try, so they need taking out with the gun boots. The earlier enemy types are pretty well signposted for what kind of danger they pose thanks to the visual design, but these crutches are kicked out from under you once you reach the second world. Then you have to learn a whole new set of parameters. This escalates as you progress through the game’s four multi-act worlds and it would be pretty standard fare as far as combat goes if it wasn’t for the ever-increasing need for speed filling you with a giddy sense of determination and fear.
At full tilt, you need to memorize which enemies need what attention and act accordingly, the adrenaline kicking in as you swiftly dance your way downwards, switching tactics on the fly, stopping to reload, and making near miss after near miss as you cling to your precious few hit points, praying you’ll make it to the next stage in some sort of shape to continue unabated. Each stage you finish gives you a choice of three random power ups to help you on your continuing descent, and while some are very helpful as the chaos ensues, only a few manage to be worth your time at all. It takes a fair few goes to figure out which ones they are though so I’ll leave you that little mystery to ponder.
Enjoy Roguelike gameplay and procedurally-generated levels
So where does the roguelike element come into it? Well, as with most roguelikes, you die, there is no second chance; you start over, and any toys you obtained are taken away and you return armed with a smidgen more fresh knowledge of how the Downwell universe works. This would, of course, be terribly dull if you kept doing the same levels over and over again, but this is a roguelike, so naturally, much like the best examples on PlayStation such as Don’t Starve, Spelunky, Binding of Isaac and Rogue Legacy, we have procedurally-generated levels. This means that while the stages have the same basic look, the order of things is unlikely to ever be the same twice. Your reward for each run is an ongoing ranking system that’s based on the gems you pick up from destroying enemies, certain rocks and objects. Every time it ranks up, you receive a new color palette for the game (personal faves are a vivid pastel blue and a palette that apes a classic Game Boy screen) or a style, which changes the way your avatar operates, making it stronger, lighter or provides some other such trait-based boost. It is a major plus point for Downwell to have this system in place alongside the roguelike elements because without that, you’d be looking at a much shorter, less enjoyable game. The ‘one more go’ factor is very much alive in Downwell, making the most of its short, sharp levels and simple pick up n’ play style to turn ‘a quick five minutes’ into an hour.
True as that may be, Downwell isn’t setup to last all that long. It’s relative simplicity means it doesn’t quite have the drip-feed goodness of a Spelunky or the steady, compelling progression of a Rogue Legacy, but it is a very good, very intense joy while it lasts, utterly engrossing in fact. The low cost of entry does negate some of the relative brevity, so that helps too.
I’d like to be able to say at this point that Downwell is a perfectly-formed package of nostalgia-tinged fun, but there are occasions the veil slips and the game can be suspiciously unfair. The panic-inducing chaos that occurs in later sections means a small mistake is deadly, but there are points where you feel the game is deliberately trying to hobble you by offing you when you clearly made the correct decision. Downwell is already a challenge to conquer, but having pockets of artificial difficulty is a tad disappointing. It is a thankfully rare phenomenon, and the game does mask it pretty well by having a lot going on at once, but when you see it happen for the first time, it cannot be unseen, and does not stop frustrating you.
The thing that matters most is that Downwell is a game worthy of your time, unique enough to stand out whilst presenting a familiar front. Indeed, it may very well consume a significant portion of your time for a week or two if you let it. While not possessing the longevity of its roguelike platforming peers, it still holds its own as an entertaining, engrossing addition the the sub-genre. There’s good reasons to champion playing it on console and on handheld (PS4 gives you a clearer view of the action, while PS Vita has a vertical screen view that suits it down to the ground), but truth is, it works just fine on both. For a relatively small sum of cash, you’d be hard-pressed to find this much value for money.