Publisher: Devolver Digital
Genre: Arcade Platformer
Release Date: 10/15/2015
I always get a bit queasy when I am around large, deep holes in the ground, wells included. I can barely look down them, my knees get week, and I get a bit light headed. In Downwell, on the other hand, I don’t even bother to look down; I just jump in with reckless abandon. My subterranean adventure begins.
Downwell is a 2D action/arcade platformer game made by a team of three, and it is presented with retro, three-color, pixel graphics. Its look is simple, clean and very pleasant. As you progress through the game you earn new color palettes, so you can adjust the look to your choosing, many of which are tributes to retro consoles and games. The sound is all very well done and fits the game nicely. The soundtrack by Eirik Suhrke is fantastic. It is a very energetic chiptune song list. I may not be humming it after the game is done, but when I am playing it draws me in, and I have gone out of my way to listen to the tunes outside the game.
You start the game by jumping down a well, making this one of the most appropriately named games ever released. Your goal is to reach the bottom after clearing multi-stage levels with varying themes and enemies. The controls are simple: left, right, jump. What makes the game special is that, after you jump, you can press the button again and shoot frickin’ guns out of your frickin’ boots! The gunboots cause you to hover a bit to help you navigate as well.
You are not alone in the well however, as monsters abound. Your first instinct is “shoot it, make it die!” and it does. On the next enemy, you may run out of bullets and end up bopping that creature upside the head, and he dies! You try jumping on the next enemy and you get hurt! What gives? Then you see he is spiky, so you need to shoot that guy. This is what the game excels at, teaching by doing. It doesn’t hold your hand, and there is no tutorial; you just dive right in and learn as you go. It is a very old school approach to game design and also very effective.
The levels are all procedurally generated, so every time you play, the layouts are new. At the end of each stage you can pick a power-up to help you along your way; you may get a drone, extra health, exploding enemy corpses and more. Collecting gems allows you to visit shops to buy health and extra batteries (gunboot ammo). To gain more gems, you can build a combo meter by killing multiple monsters without touching the ground.
The design in Downwell is borderline immaculate, and few games feel this perfect. Everything is smooth and does what you want, when you want it to. It joins a class with games like Tetris, Super Mario Bros. and Pacman; games that are simple and as close to perfect as gameplay mechanics get. I cannot overstate how finely tuned it is. My only complaints about Downwell are that I am kind of terrible at it (but each time I play I get better), and the addictive qualities of the game can be disruptive to daily life at times. Some folks may not understand the hype, but for the people who feel it click, they are going to love this adventure.
Short Attention Span Summary
Downwell’s gameplay mechanics are about as close to perfect as a videogame can get. The game is expertly crafted, and if it gets its hooks in you, well, you will be saying “just one more run” a whole heck of a lot. At $2.99 this is an absolute steal. By the end of the year I fully expect Downwell to be in the running for my favorite game of 2015, and a game I continue to play for a long time.