In Downwell [official site], there’s only one way to go. Equipped with a pair of gunboots, you’re making your way right down to the bottom of a well, blasting objects, terrain and monsters that block your path. You shoot straight from the soles and there are various powerups that change the spread or strength of your pedal-projectiles. I’ve been plumbing the depths for a couple of days and here’s wot I think.
Downwell is brilliant, that much was clear after fifteen minutes in its company. But why is it brilliant? The superb Spelunky is an obvious point of comparison. Both games are made up of randomised levels and involve a distinct downward trajectory. There are shopkeepers to agitate, bats frogs to dodge, and the underworld becomes weirder and weirder as you make your way through it.
Downwell’s similarities to Spelunky are superficial though. Where much of the joy in Derek Yu’s game comes from the various elements interacting with one another – you lob a rock at a bat and set off a chain reaction that ends with you bouncing onto some spikes – Downwell is a much tighter experience. At times it feels like a vertical shooter in reverse and at other times it becomes a mini-platformer, but the beauty of it is that everything feels just right. The overall effect is more like a Vlambeer game than Spelunky – shooting, jumping, smashing and dodging all feel weighty and juicy. By design, the game only takes place of a small vertical strip of your screen but it uses that space perfectly; if Downwell were a property developer, it’d be able to fit a swimming pool and home theatre onto a plot of land most people would struggle to cram a bedsit into.
It’s one of those games in which death is such a small obstacle that I find myself in a loop of failure and restart that threatens to last an entire day. While it’s frustrating when a skellington kills me during a decent run (or should that be drop?), the slot machine of pick-ups usually provides another good character build within the several fresh attempts spread across the following fifteen minutes. Downwell is fast, challenging and rewarding.
The limited number of power-ups is a slight concern. There are a few different modules for your gunboots, either spreading fire, concentrating it, or altering range and accuracy. Each of the modules is useful against specific enemy types, meaning that it’s handy to have some in the late-game (should you get that far) when certain critters appear, while others are handy in the early game, with its tortoises, frogs and bats.
Importantly, they’re not upgrades, they’re alterations. You might find the laser in the first treasure room you discover or you might not find it at all, and if you pick up a shotgun mod early on and then ditch it, you might come across it again later in the same playthrough. The handful of gun mods are fine – none of them are useless and any additional ones would be slight variations on what already exists.
It’s the other type of power-up I’d like to see more of, the ones that you receive at the end of a level. They’re the most Isaac-like part of the game – snappy little alterations to the main character that change the way the game plays and either help or hinder. None are explicitly harmful but the one that causes enemies that you stomp on to explode can be a double-edged boot-blade. It’s great for clearing an area of baddies but it will also knock out all of the nearby destructible blocks, often leaving you plummeting a fair way down, with no chance to pause and take stock.
And the genius of Downwell lies in the fact that sometimes you won’t want to pause and take stock. There’s no correct way to play and a speedy, stompy free-fall can be as effective as a tactical descent in which you harvest every enemy and break open every item. Every detail of the game works toward communicating an understanding of your situation, even when the pace becomes almost impossibly fast.
Two features stand out as evidence of the game’s intelligent design. The first relates to the randomised nature of the levels. There’s never a point at which you’re falling blind because whatever algorithm is at play ensures that at least one visible block or platform is always generated at the bottom of the screen. That means you can plan ahead if you want to, never having to rely entirely on reflexes.
As you move through the distinct areas, each with their own enemies, traps and possible layouts, the skills required shift slightly. The second area requires far more care and attention than the first because certain enemies are best avoided as attacking them causes them to become furious. Visually, the game does a fantastic job of letting you know how an enemy will behave and how you can kill it, and like the use of space, the graphics use their apparent simplicity to create a stylish, legible world. Just look at the way that time bubbles are used to create safe areas but also to pull off a slow-mo effect that Zack Snyder would die for.
The second feature that I’ll hold up as an aspect of Downwell’s genius is the satisfaction of combos. It tells you something about how bad I am at the game that I was disappointed by the lack of a combo system at first. Five kills in a row, without touching the floor, triggers a combo and doing so is one of the only ways to uncover health. But picking apart that system reveals far more than 1-2-3-4-5.
First of all, your gunboots only recharge when you touch the floor (unless you have specific power-ups) meaning that you’ll need to combine shooting and Marioesque head-stomping. But firing your boots is the only way to propel yourself back up the well, each blast pushing you upward slightly and allowing you to course-correct with ease.
The first time you manage to clear a level without touching the floor once (I’ve only managed it in the first area), you’re juggling all of the game’s systems simultaneously. And that’s the brilliance of Downwell – all of its systems are well-crafted enough to be understood and mastered quickly, and the game itself is lean enough that everything is on display at all times. It’s a perfect arcade game and I only wish there were more to it, even though adding anything else might well tip the beautiful balance of the whole structure.
As well as an actual ending, Downwell has several different playstyles to unlock, each of which slightly alters the behaviour of the player character and the path you’ll take through upgrades. One gives you extra HP but only provides two (rather than three) random upgrade options when you complete a level, and the others are similar, providing a benefit and a drawback. And then there are palettes that unlock fairly rapidly, allowing you to change the way the game looks, from gorgeous pastels to an eye-splintering Virtual Boy experience.
That I love the game even with a Virtual Boy palette is testament to how lovely it is. Very lovely. And very smart.
Downwell is out now.