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Downwell (Switch) artwork

Downwell (Switch) review


"The perils of freefall"


Once upon a time, I was mucking around in Game Maker on a platforming game, and came up with an idea for a level in which the first half is jumping down a pit before climbing back up. There are lots of games with vertical climbing, but I thought that going down first was kinda cool. Of course, nothing came out of that, but some guy named Ojiro Fumoto decided to turn that simple idea, a platformer with a heavy emphasis on falling and constantly moving down, into an entire game.

The deep and emotionally riveting plot of Downwell is that there's a well and you're going down it. There is absolutely no time wasted here at all; you press start and you're already falling. I called it a platformer, but in reality the number of "platforms" is relatively low and you will be simply falling a lot. You can jump when you actually are standing on a ledge, but needless to say it isn't as integral to the game as in Mario. Instead, you have gunboots that shoot downward and slow your fall. These gunboots also naturally shoot the enemies below you, which can be floating around, walking on ledges, or hanging on the walls. Some, but not all, enemies can be killed by falling onto them as well, which is simply indicated by their color. Enemies that are red and white can be stomped on from the top, while pure red enemies are deadly all over. And did I mention that this is a three-palette game? It's black, white, and red, all with simplistic pixelated graphics. Meanwhile, the entire game is a whopping 12 stages (divided across 4 worlds) long, each one only taking a minute or so to complete.

So short, limited actions available, repetitive design (I mean, it's lots of falling...), basic presentation ... is this just a really simplistic game? Not in the slightest. It's amazing how much depth can be had for such a tiny concept. For starters, there's the gems. Collecting more gems through the game unlocks different color palettes or game modes or whatever. You can also buy health or ammo powerups with gems along the way. Pretty normal. But you gain gems through killing enemies rather than finding them (for the most part). And chaining together several kills before landing on a ledge nets you an exponential increase in gems. You will never get enough gems to afford more than the meager-est of health along the way if you don't start chaining, but chaining these kills is very difficult when you are in free fall. So playing it safe might make you survive a little longer, but perhaps make surviving to the bottom of the well impossible. Nice risk vs reward there.

Or take the weapons. They have two uses: killing stuff and slowing you down. But they all have limited ammo too. So do you use it to kill stuff or to slow you down? Depends on the situation, right? So we have a little bit more complexity from that interaction. Oh, and by the way, the way you recharge the ammo is by landing on a ledge... which kills your combo. So thecomplexity just increases exponentially. Except you can ALSO replenish ammo by falling on an enemy from above, which is obviously riskier than shooting from a distance. Or you can replenish it by hitting candles along the wall, which might force you to head out of your way to hit. Sure, it may not seem like much when written out, but remember that this is all happening while you are constantly falling. You don't have a safe ledge to hang out on and catch your breath if you want those combos, everything is happening while you are falling (and not in some leisurely floaty Moon-like gravity either). The only way to pause and get a sense of what's going on and give time to plan your actions is to fire your weapons... removing your resources. Creating an impressive combo means juggling all these decisions in only fractions of a second, all while only having four units of health to experiment with.

To put it simply, watching high level play of this game is insane, thanks to all these decisions from that single element (the gun). I say watching, because I certainly can't do that.

This leads to the other element of this game: it's a roguelike. As I said, there's only 12 stages, so to make up for it the game is devilishly hard. And random. Sure, there are standard elements, so each world has its own unique enemies and mechanics, and the number of enemies ramp up as you go through the world. But the locations of the enemies and the ledges and the like are totally random, so you can't learn a pattern and rely on muscle memory. Even worse, there is a shop and a different weapon (which you can swap out with your normal gun) in each level, but the items in the shop (health regeneration or ammo upgrades) and weapons are also random. Do you really like the laser and want to use that? Better hope the game decides to let you on this run. Likewise, at the end of each level you have a choice of one of three random upgrades you can keep for the rest of the run. Sometimes you're forced to choose between two upgrades you desperately want, or resigned to grabbing something you don't need. And of course, if you're near death, the difference between finding a full health recharge at the end of a level and finding nothing is the difference between moving forward and probably dying in the next level.

Penultimately, how you feel about that element of randomness and difficulty is going to be the basis for how you feel about the game (assuming the basic concept intrigues you). Thanks to the speed of falling, it's already pretty darn difficult as it is. So adding in the rogue-like elements just makes it harder. The random upgrades at the end of each level are supposed to make each run different (as is the random weapon exchange within each level), but because you can't rely on them you probably can't form strategies specific to them. The different weapons don't feel THAT much different; it's mostly a difference in strength vs ammo. Ironically, these random elements are meant to prolong the game and make it infinitely replayable, but had the opposite effect on me. I'd rather learn 12 finely tuned levels and complete that, even if it meant the overall experience is short. But that's just me, and perhaps you'll feel differently.

And ultimately, the fact remains that this is a $3 that is also occasionally on sale. So the question is less about if it's worth the money and more about if it's worth the time. I may not like the randomness, but that's a personal preference rather than a flaw in the game. And the gameplay concept is simply too unique, too well crafted to ignore. By turning a platformer upside down, you basically have to rethink all of its mechanics. And combining the enemy-killing with the gem collection and platforming elements gives the platforming itself an emergent, exciting feel. Yeah, maybe the randomness makes it too hard for little old me to actually win. But for the cost of some pocket change, it was worth checking out.

4/5

mariner's avatar
Community review by mariner (July 10, 2019)

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