Downwell takes the shoot-‘em-up genre and turns it around, quite literally. Instead of traveling upwards, the plain white pixelated protagonist makes his way down a well filled with perilous creatures and hazards. The objective of Downwell is to descend twelve randomly generated vertical sections. This task isn’t as easy as it seems. Your character cannot climb back up, so aside from a limited jump ability, you are mostly falling and landing on platforms. There are many enemies lurking in the cramped vertical space, ready to eat at your health.
Luckily, you are equipped with gunboots, a versatile weapon that lets you stomp and shoot foes. Jumping onto enemies recalls the classic Mario thrill of squishing Goombas. Landing on creature after creature in succession without touching a safe platform fills a combo meter, which generates rewards upon completion of the combo. Unlike in traditional sidescrollers, you never know what’s coming next while you are thrown downwards by gravity. Yet, that exhilarating sensation of freefalling while you chain consecutive kills is precisely what makes Downwell stand out from other experiences.
The aptly named gunboots let you shoot downwards from your feet. Every time you fire, you are sent upwards a little. This effectively doubles your weapon’s usefulness, allowing you to simultaneously kill enemies while slowing your descent. Your gunboots run on a limited charge, which can be instantly refilled by either landing on a platform or an enemy. If you run out of firepower while in midair, your gunboots spout out air until you can recharge. This balance between landing on enemies, keeping afloat with gunboots, and recharging efficiently kept me engaged.
As Downwell is a roguelike, it features randomly generated sections. Although I had to start over from the beginning and face entirely different sections per playthrough, I felt myself improving as I learned patterns and mastered handling platform configurations and enemy placements. Not all roguelikes promote this sense of progression well, but Downwell masters it to the point where you may not even realize the sections are different for every game.
There are quite a few upgrades and power-ups that can assist you during your descent. After you clear a section, you can choose one new upgrade between a set of three. Each set of upgrades is randomly selected from a collection of over a dozen, which unfortunately means that you won’t always have optimum upgrade configurations. They vary in usefulness, with powers such as converting breakable blocks to upward-shooting bullets, gaining a scope that helps aim your fire, and generating a drone companion that floats and shoots enemies alongside you.
The well also features special time void rooms off to the sides in which you can find weapon power-ups. For instance, the Triple shot shoots three bullets simultaneously, and the Shotgun lets out a massive spread with more power but less range. Each weapon is balanced according to how powerful they are and how much charge it uses up. Additionally, shops offer health and charge refills at the cost of gems, which you can collect after destroying blocks and enemies and landing combos. These items get pricey towards the end of the game, so I had to play aggressively to afford these helpful refills.
The action is fast-paced, and the game quickly gets difficult. Later levels introduce treacherous spikes and underwater segments. Enemies also become more dangerous, sporting spikes to prevent you from stomping on them. Some foes even start following you as you fall. The lowest part of the well presents a unique challenge that awaits anyone who can make it all the way down.
With only 12 sections, the game is short. Regardless, successfully making it to the end can take literally forever because losing all your health takes you back to the top of the well. This is admittedly frustrating, but Downwell does include permanent unlocks through the gems you collect. Upon reaching certain milestones, you gain rewards. Most of these gifts are stylistic, changing the color palette. But you can also unlock useful Styles, which slightly tweak your stats like increasing your max health or reducing your fall rate. Different play strategies motivated me to keep going and play “just one more time.”
Everything in the game is pixelated, evoking a simple, retro style. The issue lies with the color palette. At any one time, there are only three colors on the screen: a black background, white platforms, and red enemies. While the actual colors can be altered, there are always only three. This can make it difficult to discern different objects on the screen. You can sometimes get hurt by enemies, just because you couldn’t tell that they were spiked or otherwise untouchable. Additionally, the entire screen is vertical, matching the resolution of a mobile phone. This makes the well feel cramped even though there is so much unused empty space outside of the well. The music is similarly retro-themed, with a few chiptunes making up the entirety of the soundtrack. They’re nice to have in the background, but are neither catchy nor extraordinary. On the other hand, the sound effects emanating from each successful stomp and shot are gratifying.
Downwell takes the simple concept of falling down and executes it brilliantly. The thrill of chaining combos through stomping enemies, combined with the shoot-‘em-up nature of the gunboots, contributes to its exhilarating and addictive gameplay. Roguelike elements are used effectively, ensuring that each playthrough is different, but still providing an integral sense of progression. Downwell is a good time-waster, whether you have a few minutes or several hours to devote to getting down this well.
Note: A review copy was used for this article. This review was originally posted on DarkStation in June 2017 for the PlayStation 4 version of Downwell.