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Downwell review

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.