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The RPS Advent Calendar – Dec 3rd: Downwell

The best shooter of 2015.

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What is the best shooter of 2015? The RPS Advent Calendar highlights our favourite games from throughout the year, and behind today’s door is…

Downwell!

Graham: Downwell is a game about falling down a well. The world is a layer cake, where each stage is progressively more difficult and every fourth stage introduces an entirely new world with new enemies and obstacles to learn and avoid. But the design of the game is layered in the same way.

At the base is its jumping and shooting. You leap between platforms, use air control to dodge and swerve while falling, and blast away obstacles and enemies with the gunboots strapped to your feet. But then the game neatly stacks new ideas on top.

As well as clearing a path, your gunboots can be used to slow your fall and hover slightly, giving you greater control. You can switch each kind of gunboot for a new weapon inside caves; each gun offers different benefits, but you’re incentivised to switch with bonus HP and ammo upgrades.

Blasting bullets isn’t your only way down, as you can also hop on the heads of most enemies to extinguish them. You reload every time your feet touch a surface, so you can use enemies as intermediate reload stations while maintaining your descent, which is important because if you kill enough enemies without your feet touching the ground you’ll be rewarded with gems, then gun charges, then health. Gems are the game’s icing: a currency which can be spent in shops in exchange for health, charges and other items, and if you collect enough on a single level you’ll achieve a ‘gem high’ which temporarily boosts the power and size of your gunboots’ projectiles.

What this makes for – aside from a laboured metaphor – is a game which is resolutely simple to play, but with a skill ceiling as high as the game’s well is deep. I say this, I stress, as someone who will never reach that ceiling, but what it offers even scrubs like me is variety between deaths. I can choose to play it safe, leaping from platform to platform, ignoring combos and gems entirely in favour of simply dodging and shooting, or if I’m in the mood I can go hell for leather into the pit, prioritising combos over progress, my feet never touching solid ground till the moment when I inevitably die.

I like the differing pace its systems affords me. I like the tactical considerations involved in deciding whether or not to use a laser gun – good for clearing a path, not so good for supporting combo-hopping – and I like that I can ignore tactics in order to revel in the wonderful bassy thump of the shotgun. I haven’t even mentioned the inter-stage unlocks, in which you select one powerup from three and can gain a droid that shoots when you shoot, blocks that fire bullets when exploding, corpses that explode when shot…

Downwell is good enough to eat.

John: I’m absolutely bemused by this one. It’s falling down a hole. It’s a platform game with all the fun taken out. Weirdos.

Adam: Downwell isn’t just a game about falling down a well. It’s also a game about falling down well.

The learning curve, as I experienced it, looks like a piece of wet spaghetti, turning first one way then the other. I learned how to play then discovered how much I enjoy stringing together combos and promptly forgot how to make actual progress because I was too busy bouncing off baddies to concentrate on my own survival.

It’s a game that encourages flair. I’ve never been particularly skillful or patient when it comes to the likes of Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, “stylish action games” that reward variety and splendour of execution as well as the simple act of winning a fight. I enjoy those games but I’ll never master them and always feel like I’m only seeing half of the experience, as I avoid higher difficult levels and rarely achieve the kind of in-the-zone flow that seems like the ultimate goal.

Downwell might not have giant bosses or ludicrous scenery-hopping fight scenes, but when I play it I feel close to that blissful flow that is such an integral part of the world’s Bayonettas. I make life harder for myself in trying to achieve perfection – and my notion of what perfection is shifts from one playthrough to the next – but when I manage to burn through four levels in a row without taking any damage, and without stopping to catch my breath, it’s the most satisfying feeling in the world.

Go here for more of our picks for the best PC games of 2015.

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

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