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RPS Verdict: Downwell

Well down

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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.

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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.

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