– Simon Vallenet
I’m just sitting on a bench under a tree, looking up to the stars in the dark sky, wondering what could possibly be out there. My finger presses the right arrow on my keyboard; suddenly I’m not sitting anymore. I’m walking towards what seems to be a big gloomy well. I guess my time to watch the night sky is over. The moon is there, enlightening me and the first few bricks of the well. I press the space bar, my feet leave the floor. It’s too late to look back now, the bench is gone and so is the tree. Good bye the stars, good bye the moon. I’m plunging into the darkness of the well…
We often say less is more and it couldn’t be more true with Downwell. Japan-based developer Moppppin created the perfect combination of hardcore action/platform and arcade mixed with modern rogue-like elements. With its retro graphics and chiptune sound effects, the nostalgia hits you the moment you press play and I have to say that the game is so addictive that I actually can’t go through a day without a quick session; it basically became my new morning coffee. It’s also a notable game for Devolver Digital as it is the first of the publisher’s catalogue to be released on mobile: the game is available on PC, Android and iOS. Please note that I only played the Steam version therefore I can’t say much about the game on mobile.
So what is Downwell and why is it so good? First of all, don’t get fooled by the screenshots: this isn’t an endless runner (or in this case should I say…faller …downer?); it has an end that you can reach in about 20 minutes (yes, that short!) but as you can imagine, it’s a true challenge. As I’m writing this up, only 5.9% of the players have finished it, according to the Steam success statistics. The gameplay consists of only one button: as you fall down the well, you can move right, left and jump. Press the jump button twice and you fire bullets at enemies using your gunboots, which is also slowing you down and allowing you to control your descent. To reload, you have to touch the ground or jump on enemies (just be careful as you can’t jump on all of them). Simple? Yes. Easy? Oh boy, no. In fact, it took me more than 15 hours to actually beat the game.
The well is divided into five zones: the cave, the catacombs, the aquifer, limbo and the boss. Each area, except for the boss, contains three randomly generated levels of increasing difficulty, making every exploration of the well a different one. You start to fall with only four HP and a simple machine gun(boot) with an eight-bullet charger. There are some “safe spots” here and there allowing you to relax or take a deep breath during your descent as well as gain jewels (the money in the game) or change your weapon. Speaking of it, Downwell’s firearms are all very interesting and completely different from one another: you have the shotgun, the laser, the noppy, the burst and of course the original machine gun. When you change your gun, you have to adapt the way you play and some of those weapons are better in certain situations than others. Some can be very powerful (hello laser and shotgun!) but their charger is tiny! Sometimes, the weapon’s icon is shaped like a heart, which means they give you one HP if you decide to change your gun and it can happen that you’re such in desperate need of health that you trade it for a weapon you hate…
That’s only the tip of the iceberg. As you kill enemies, you start amassing jewels that you will be able to trade for more HP or a bigger ammo capacity in the few shops here and there (randomly generated as well, about one every two levels). Downwell is ruthless and leaves little room for mistakes but plenty of room for different strategies: would you privilege defence over offence? Or the opposite? At some point, this choice can be crucial. How many times have I bought HP to directly lose it to the first enemy I crossed? How many times have I been saying to myself “the best defence is a good offence” before dying like a noob?
The game can be nerve breaking and the more you fall into the depth of the well the more adrenaline you get. It feels like you used your last coin on an erstwhile popular arcade: your heartbeat accelerates, your hands get sweaty, your whole body is tense and you’re more focused than ever. Good times.
Another strategic aspect of Downwell is the “temporary permanent” upgrades selection proposed to the player at the end of each level. Totally free of charge (no jewels required here) and designed to make your fall easier, those upgrades only last the time of one game. If you come across the game over screen, you will lose all your upgrades and start again with only four HP and a simple machine gun.
Because you have a limited number of “temporary permanent” upgrades (directly related to the number of levels), you need to choose wisely: would you rather go for the jetpack in case you’re out of ammo, or would you prefer to fire bullets upwards every time you gain a jewel? Is it better to get health while eating enemies’ corpses or should you eat the one and only apple to automatically win four HP? Those are tough decisions and their outcome can affect the way you’re playing. For example, I’ve died too many times because I was too busy focusing on building my HP eating corpses or feeling too confident with my ammo because of my security jetpack…
Besides all these strategic decisions and bad choices, Downwell features a combo system consisting of killing enemies without touching the ground. After a while, you understand that combos can be very important as they can upgrade your charger, your health, or both, depending on what combo you pull off.
After each descent, you get a score increasing your ‘XP.’ The apostrophes are necessary here as it doesn’t increase your power at all, but gives you instead different colour themes for the game. You also unlock different styles of gameplay (one where you fall a little bit slower, one where you get no upgrades at all, one where you start with six HP) suitable for every type of player, but once you have them all, it’s only about themes. It’s nice but it’s not really exciting: I don’t care about what colour I will unlock next. I could say that I was expecting, just like in most of rogue-like games out there, that my character would get stronger and stronger which would make the exploration of the well easier but that would be diminishing the whole point of Downwell. It’s not about getting virtually stronger, it’s about getting the necessary skills to beat the game. It feels like an old school hardcore game and it plays like it too. When you actually finish it, you unlock a hard mode that will make you cry. It wasn’t hard enough already guys? Seriously?
To conclude, I would say that I only have one regret: I would have loved to see an endless mode for this game. All the elements are here: the longer you fall, the bigger the score is, not to mention the combos and the fact that it’s on mobile… add a leaderboard and you got it! That’s the kind of little thing that could have made this game even better, but let’s not be too fussy about it: the replay value is phenomenal and the price is ridiculously small. What are you waiting for?