RPS Verdict: Downwell

Adam returned from below yesterday with his review, but Downwell [official site] has also pulled Graham into its depths. The pair pulled on a gunboot each to discuss the down-scrolling platformer’s simplicity, its feels, and its flaws.

Graham: GUNBOOTS ON.

Adam: SAVE OUR SOLES. It’s a bit good this Downwell, isn’t it? I have a tendency to get a bit shirty when a small but perfectly formed game receives praise that seems to place it alongside The Witcher 3s and Phantom Pains of the world, but in my old age I am becoming very content with the idea of a varied diet that takes in and appreciates the likes of Downwell without feeling the need to make apologies for them.

Perhaps because I was never much of an arcade kid back in the day, my daily bread has long been big in-depth strategy games and RPGs that take weeks to master and months to play. I’m not really accustomed to picking apart this kind of razor-sharp game though, where everything is working to support that seemingly simple downward trajectory. What do you make of it all?

Graham: It’s a bit good, this Downwell! I like my expansive strategy games and RPGs too, but I’ve also spent a lot of time playing these small, focused experiences on various home computers over the years. I’d rate Dice Wars highly as I would Europa Universalis.

But I do think the smaller games can be harder to pick apart, because it’s the details that make the difference between something as great as Downwell and your typical My First Game Maker Project. The sound of every gunbootblast, the little pixel splashes that whip up from the ground with every footstep, or even design decisions like your gun only reloading when you touch the ground. These games make me sound like a fetishist, and worse, describing these details doesn’t convey the experience they combine to create: which is something fast and exciting and challenging.

Adam: Zooming in so close on specific work that the graphics or mechanics are doing makes me feel a bit like the guy who tells you that the reason a certain Miles Davis recording is so good is because you can hear Jean-Paul Sartre clearing his throat in the audience. I mean, that would be great and all, but the detail as to why something works can sound dry or over-exaggerated. The beauty of Downwell really is that every small part plugs into the overall feel and challenge of the game almost perfectly though.

Take the time bubbles. At first you encounter them as the entrance to side-rooms that contain treasure or shops. When you touch the outer edge of the bubble everything else in the area freezes – not coming to an immediate standstill but slowing, rapidly, and then hanging in the air. It’s a beautiful visual effect and it seems like it’s a way to offer invincibility while you pause to take stock. But it’s more than that.

Because time is frozen, your combo freezes as well. So within the bubble, and within the room behind it, you can touch the ground, run around and do whatever you like, and the combo still holds. Because you’re not really touching the floor because you’re still at the edge of the bubble, where time took a break. So you can use the bubbles as part of a combo, and then when you find the power-up that generates bubbles in mid-air, the possibilities as to how you can break your own personal best combo are blown wide open.

I just made Downwell sound like a fighting game. Point is, every little movement you can make is a gesture toward a new discovery.

Graham: That’s great! I didn’t know that about the time bubbles, I have not yet made that discovery – and I suspect many others, as I’ve only reached the second world a few times. Although I think the point is: Downwell contains some of the same appeal of a fighting game. I think that’s part of what makes it special: it’s taking up such a small part of your monitor, and has such a simple set of mechanics, yet it’s recreating part of the essence of fighting games, Vlambeer, elements of Spelunky and more in… in pocket size. “In pocket size” both in the sense that it’s a mobile game, but also that it’s conceptually small.

Adam: You’re not even told to collect anything. You just have to go down and how you do that is entirely your choice. Want to collect every gem along the way? Why the hell not. Want to kill every critter? Sure. Want to go as fast as possible, dodging and weaving? You can. I even like that the framing device – just a character who has nowt to do except jump down a well – doesn’t give any backstory. There’s a well: down you go.

Graham: We have been effusive with praise thus far, but I have criticisms, too. Mainly that it is trying to create a fast, simple game, but that its similarly simple art style sometimes gets in the way of it communicating clearly. It is possible, when blocks are exploding (and a powerup is making those blocks fire bullets of their own), your gun is running out of ammo, and three or four or five enemies are on screen at once, to lose sight of yourself among the clutter. It is easy while falling to also mistake “a character you can jump on to kill” for “a character that always hurts to touch.” The latter are a single colour – red, say, depending on your chosen palette – but the safe-to-bop enemies will sometimes be almost entirely red.

I wish your character was a different colour from the world and that so were those enemies, basically, because I think it’d make the art style ever so slightly more complicated but make the game simpler, clearer, as a result.

Adam: Yeah. I think the chaos is sometimes intentional, particularly with projectiles. There’s certainly an argument to be made for the fact that the confusion is the drawback to firing off multiple projectiles in every direction. But your comment about the colour-coding brings to mind something I’d been thinking about yesterday, while writing the review.

I’d been experimenting with all the palettes I’ve unlocked, trying to work out which I preferred for screenshots and which I preferred to play with. And I found myself wishing they made more of a difference to how I played; some making certain elements easier to read and others blurring distinctions. That’d give me a reason to cycle through them. I also wish there were a ‘random palette and style’ option when restarting but for all I know that’s something that unlocks really late on.

My biggest criticism is that as much as I’m enjoying the game – and that’s a hell of a lot – I’m enjoying it as a challenge. It’s not something I can load up, like Spelunky or Isaac, just to mess around for a bit. I want to improve and there’s no room for silly mistakes. The fun of the game is in the challenge and perhaps there’s no room for a mode that allows for a more exploratory, experimental type of play, but that’s what I’d like to see. It would, of course, be an entirely different proposition and I don’t feel the lack of it – but I might in a couple of weeks when I can gunboot my way through levels in a flash.

Graham: I know what you mean, although I’ve been choosing different powerups and sticking with different weapons through every session I’ve had with it thus far. I want to progress and get better because there is nothing else, but it’s generous enough – levels are short, powerups come every level with a choice of three, there’s infinite ammo, and an unlockable mode that starts you with more health – that I still feel comfortable saying, “For these three minutes, I’m going to try this.”

Spelunky gives me stories, which this doesn’t, but instead it’s taken the position in my day that Trackmania and N once held. It’s the thing I boot up after completing a task for a celebratory three minutes with. Although those three minutes do often turn into 15 minutes.

Adam: On a more serious note, is it my imagination or did games used to be about going up or to the right? What do you make of all this downward stuff? Is it a Sign O’ The Times? And will games make a Corbyn-like move toward the left anytime soon? WHAT IS HAPPENING

Graham: The game was made in Japan. Everyone knows that in Japan they write from right to left and platform from top to bottom.

Downwell is out now.

14 Comments

  1. ButteringSundays says:

    I’ve really enjoyed the few hours I’ve spent with it, I can kind of sometimes mostly get to the second zone, and have gotten to 2-3 a fair few times.

    It’s a lot of fun to play on a fighting stick in front of a tated monitor, but i don’t think it’s easier. I’ve gotten on best with a controller+TV type scenario! I think the scale is better (more analogous to the mobile experience I guess).

    I’m conflicted with the limited palette discussion. Being 2-bit, at times it’s inherently chaotic, and having more colours might help*… but I don’t know if that would make it better. And sometimes even having something as an option is enough to tarnish the concept. Getting through those moments feels more like an adventure into madness, rather than a prescribed puzzler, and I like that.

    The two things I’d love from an update:

    – Daily challenge (maybe the runs are too short, but something similar anyway)
    – A death chart like in Towerclimb. Every roguelike should have one it’s amazing

    * DOTA2 has all the colours and when things kick off it’s just a fireworks party as far as I’m concerned.

  2. ButteringSundays says:

    Ooh, so what’s everyone’s favourite gunboot?

    I think mine’s the puncher. The shotgun and laser are amazing if you’ve got your charge up, but buttock clenching early on.

    • anHorse says:

      Probably just machine gun so I can use it to navigate

      I HATE burst so much, at least with the low ammo ones I usually luck into a combo

      • ashjxx says:

        Ah, I love burst so much! Not quite as much as laser, though. But burst with 15ish charge is really nice. It’s noppy that I loathe. I’ve got enough on my plate controlling my fall without worrying about the direction my boots shoot.

        And to argue with a person one thread down, Aqua is the best palette.

        And to argue with a hypothetical person, Levitation style is the obvious choice.

        • Nixitur says:

          I actually really love Noppy because you get a lot of shots, it shoots fairly quickly and the recoil is exceptionally high, meaning that you can almost float horizontally, even on Standard mode. And the ability to shoot around a corner when there’s an enemy just below a piece of terrain is so useful.

          • ButteringSundays says:

            I also find that I don’t need to ‘manage’ where it’s pointing, because I tend to be heading toward an enemy anyway – with the Noppy I get an extra couple bullets in before I get there.

  3. renner says:

    The best palette is clearly Grandma.

  4. ffordesoon says:

    “…the guy who tells you that the reason a certain Miles Davis recording is so good is because you can hear Jean-Paul Sartre clearing his throat in the audience.”

    Not to ignore the rest of the (really quite good) piece, but this is a perfect capsule description of a certain kind of person and I love it. I say that as someone who freely admits to being exactly this sort of fetishist about certain works, and who likes to read critical analyses of said works by fellow fetishists. But there absolutely is a forest-for-the-trees issue that crops up when you go that deep –

    I’m reminded of Tony Zhou saying most modern comedy films are lame because they aren’t visually interesting. I love Every Frame A Painting, and that statement does have a lot of truth in it from a technical/craft perspective – I do wish more comedy filmmakers took a page from Edgar Wright and company. But speaking only as a viewer, I don’t know that I would view the Apatovian “point the camera at the funny people and let them be funny” method of comedy filmmaking as an inherently worse one just because it’s more aesthetically simplistic. At the end of the day, the audience is there to laugh, and the first priority of the comedy director is to facilitate laughter. Sometimes that means adding visual gags to the mix. Other times, it means making yourself invisible and trusting your hires to do the job.

    Anyway. Good piece.

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      teije says:

      Well, Glenn Gould’s re-recording of the Goldberg Variations is given a certain something by his audible humming throughout.

      Just saying.

    • Person of Interest says:

      So you’re telling me that this piece about Downwell is so good because it contains one of Adam Smith’s best analogies in recent memory?

  5. CurseYouAll says:

    This resembles Super House of Dead Ninjas

  6. Josh W says:

    Funny thing about this article; you’re so in agreement that it’s like Adam is writing Graham’s parts as well, or at least have his own thoughts echo back at him like some kind of reformatting editor-loch.

    • Josh W says:

      Anyway, the n reference is something that sounds very good, I am always in the lookout for “casual” games that are casual in the sense of being accessible and full of immediate joy of motion or something, some raw simple interactivity tied to a small loop.

      Interestingly, they’re often games I loose at quickly, because a game people often loose at needs to put a lot of work into it’s first few seconds, minutes and on, the fact that it’s easy to die and come back to means it’s also easy to come back to it after doing something else.

      The danger with these things is pulling them out for some small section and finding that your accidentally on your way to your highest ever score, or your furthest progress, and slowly getting sucked in to playing them well when you only wanted to be creating some break or space from something else. So you come out of your little break wired and exhausted in some small and particular sense, restricted to the particular mental muscles that game relies on. Still, if you pick the game right, then whatever spreadsheet you come back to somehow feels like a rest, which basically means you’ve won.