Downwell doesn’t look like much on the surface, but you don’t have to dig deep to unearth its myriad of pleasures. Its ZX Spectrum-inspired graphics may look a little retro-chic in the way so many indie darlings do these days, and I’ll be honest: when I first saw Downwell’s announcement trailer it didn’t inspire much more than a shrug in me. Its £2.29 price tag and choice of platform (iOS and PC) suggested it would be little more than a moderately entertaining time waster and lord knows there are enough of those already. So I wrote it off as a mediocre score-chasing mini-game. But appearances can be deceiving, and within minutes of getting my hands on Ojiro Fumoto’s debut commercial effort it was clear that this was something special indeed.
Downwell, as its title suggests, is a game about descending a well. What the title doesn’t tell you, for some reason, is that you have gun boots – a must for any would be spelunker. Unlike Bayonetta’s similarly weaponised wingtips, the fact that your armaments are on your feet isn’t just for show. You can only shoot downward. This has the added benefit of keeping you in the air for longer.
It quickly becomes clear that by making jump, shoot, and hover all tethered to one button creates a delicate balance between your various actions. Early on, you’ll instinctively want to frequently fire in order to hover, but then you often end up inadvertently breaking the ground you were intending to land on. Whoops! You may also find yourself firing a lot out of habit for how arcade sidescrollers generally work, but in Downwell running out of bullets is worse than just having to wait for a cool down meter to recharge as it significantly alters your momentum as you freefall into the abyss. Bullets and bounds are one in Downwell and the only way to recharge your ammo supply is to touch the ground or bounce on an enemy.
As such, you need to be constantly diligent about when and where you fire from your boots, though the developer also rewards you for risky play. The more foes you kill without touching the ground, the higher your combo count increases. This can reward you with added resources, a lengthier ammo clip, and even more health – though it’s just as likely you’ll take a beating from trying and it won’t be worth it. In this way I’m reminded of the shopkeepers in Spelunky; you’ll want to leave them alone if you’re new to the game, but once you’re an expert they provide an additional challenge and reward you handsomely for it.
On that note, there’s an ambiguous difficulty slider in the form of different modes with their own advantages and disadvantages. For example, Levitate Style manipulates gravity and acceleration, Arm Spin Style offers only gun upgrades at the expense of fewer shops, and Boulder Style spawns you with more HP but fewer upgrade options.
The game Downwell most resembles is Derek Yu’s action-roguelike classic Spelunky. Like Spelunky, Downwell’s stages are procedurally-generated and there are no continues. Fall victim to the beasts of the basin and you’ll respawn at the surface having lost all of your upgrades. This can be heartbreaking as even though the full campaign can be completed in roughly 20 minutes (though I’d reckon it will take upwards of 10 hours for most players to roll credits once, let alone conquering its frankly insane Hard Mode), you often feel like you’ve acquired a once-in-a-lifetime arsenal. One upgrade offers a jetpack for slower descents when out of ammo, another equips you with a drone as a second gunner, and my favourite, Knife and Fork, lets you replenish your health by feasting on the corpses of enemies. Each and every upgrade matters in a vital way that can hugely influence how you play.
While Downwell’s levels are thin funnels, there’s a lot of different ways to approach them. A more panicked player may make a mad dash towards the bottom, while a more careful character will methodically attempt to annihilate all foes, and a pro player will attempt to rack up their highest combo.
There’s a ton of room for player expression within Downwell’s narrow halls and what makes the game so great is how frequently it forces you to mix up your strategy. One minute you’re methodically murdering the sinister denizens of this cistern until you plummet past a ledge and find yourself being chased by those you were just hunting. Or maybe you’re trying to rake in a high combo, but find yourself with the aforementioned Knife and Fork power-up encouraging you to forego your combo in favour of scavenging for cadavers before they disappear.
One of Downwell’s most inspired tricks is its weapon system. Initially it resembles Contra wherein each upgrade replaces whatever came before. There’s even familiar classics like a Triple-Shot, Machine Gun, and Laser – each dealing different degrees of damage across a unique range with their own ammo count required per shot. What makes Downwell unique is that each time you pick up a new upgrade you’re rewarded with an extended ammo count or extra hit point (collect enough with full health for a longer life bar). This encourages you to make some tough calls as you may be presented with a gun option you don’t desire, but picking it up will improve your stats. Decisions, decisions.
Speaking of decisions, Downwell wisely places its power-ups and shops in siderooms quarantined off by a time-freezing barrier that vaporises any enemies that touch it. Entering these havens offers you refuge to stop and consider your next move. If you have a combo going, they even let you rest your tired, murderous feet by recharging your ammo while still allowing you to resume the chain once you’ve rested for a moment.
It’s this emphasis on challenging choices mixed with frenetic action and high stakes that make Downwell so much more than an amusing arcade jaunt. While at its most hectic Downwell recalls the mad scramble of a high score chaser like Woah Dave! or Luftrausers, but it doesn’t forget to let you catch your breath as you descend feet-first into the darkness. This mix of deliberate micro-decisions and relentless rumbles make Downwell a gem of minimalist game design. It’s the best £2.29 you’ll spend on a game all year.