Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita (reviewed), iOS, Android, Microsoft Windows
Downwell is a frantic, vertically-scrolling, action platformer all about seeing how deep into an endless well you can make it. It’s a simple game with a simple premise, but mastering the descent will be anything but an easy endeavor.
This mysterious well is populated by a number of monsters and environmental hazards that are out to make sure you don’t make it far. Luckily, you have a pair of gun boots strapped to your feet that help you even up the odds. Your gun boots have a limited number of charges (basically the number of shots available) and the only way to replenish them is to land on an enemy or any other surface, so using them strategically while in free fall is vital to your survival.
There are also a few different modules that you can find for your gun boots as you make your way deeper into the well. These will change the way your boots fire and range from standard weaponry like a shotgun or a machine gun to more unique items like a laser or a triple shot. Each of these gun boot modules will have varying amounts of power and charges. While some of them do offer up more unique ways to play, between the limited number of modules available and around half of them feeling far too similar to one another, it can lead to gameplay getting a little stale in longer play sessions.
Downwell is procedurally generated so each run will be different, but it does have a specific level progression. Similar to a game like Spelunky, levels are broken up into different areas that all have a particular aesthetic. After every three levels you complete, the game’s style and music will change and there will also be a boost in difficulty. Each area will also feature new enemy types and hazards as well. This change does alleviate some of the aforementioned staleness that can occur, assuming you live long enough to see the scenery change.
If you’re fortunate enough to make it through a level of the well, you’ll be allowed to choose an upgrade for your character from a random assortment. These upgrades have varying effects and offer up the most game changing aspects of Downwell. With these you might be able to replenish health, gain advantages in combat, partner up with your own drone, or even carry a pretty balloon down the well with you. There are far more upgrades available than gun modules and most of them actually feel rather unique in their function.
As you make your way down the well killing enemies with the gun boots (or by stomping on certain ones) you’ll collect treasure, gems to be more precise. These gems can be used to make purchases in shops that are scattered throughout the well. Unfortunately your options in the shops are rather limited as you’ll only be able to buy health or extra charges for your boots. It would have been nice to see a set a specific upgrades that you could only get from shops, making them much more of a boon throughout your runs.
The total amount of gems you collect during each playthrough also contribute to your overall level, similar to the way XP would work. As you cross certain thresholds for the amount of total gems you’ve collected you’ll unlock either a new color palette or a new style. Color palettes are just what you’d expect as they change the way the game looks. I personally found most of them to be off-putting and just stuck with the standard red/white/black look, but I guess it’s nice to have options.
Styles will change your starting character in a variety of ways. These range from giving you more health, but less upgrade options to allowing you to find more gun modules, but making shops more rare. These changes only felt like small, subtle differences and for the most part I didn’t find much reason to use any style other than the stock starting character during my time playing. The entire leveling and unlocking system just felt a bit underwhelming and like more of an afterthought than anything else.
One thing that keeps Downwell fresh is the constant pursuit of building up your combo. As you kill enemies in succession without landing on a surface your combo will increase. The higher you drive your combo up, the bigger the reward you’ll receive. At a combo of eight, you’ll earn 100 gems, at 15 you’ll earn 100 gems and +1 charge, and at 25 you’ll earn 100 gems, +1 charge, and heal 1 HP. Putting together combos is almost a necessity as you get deeper into the well and is probably the most satisfying aspect of the game when you’re able to pull it off.
Downwell is a fun game, but also one that is better played in small doses. It is perfect on the Vita as you can do a run or two here and there, but I don’t think it’s the type of game I’d ever want to spend an extended amount of time with on the PS4. If you’re looking for a simple, yet challenging game to kill some time with while you’re in between other games then Downwell might be the perfect fit. Just don’t go in expecting a game that will keep you satisfied for the long haul.