“Ah I see, so you go down instead of left or right.” The thought popped into my head as though someone had stomped a bloody great big gunboot to my temple and pulled the trigger (with their toes I would assume). It’s a concept I couldn’t pinpoint to conventional platforming tropes or another game really except for that one sequence of levels in Super Mario Bros 2 where you have to constantly dig up sand to progress and god damn, did that get annoying. Downwell (official webiste) is not without its little nuisances but I believe I see light at the bottom of this hole.
I am a product of the 90’s and as such, platformers are the foundation of my gaming experience. Because of this, I do expect a little more refinement and pizzazz in modern platform games, something that can feed my urge for a new challenge and that keep at bay my growing cynicism which has developed over the years due to my aging natural hatred of anything that was made after I turned 21.
The game starts off with our main character, sitting solemnly on a bench under a tree. It’s a beautiful day (depending on which palette you have on but more on that later) until suddenly, he decides to scarper off to a nearby well to test out his new Gunboots on anything in there that might be living, breathing, swimming, floating, reading, knitting or just about resembling a shape. I may be reading subtext that isn’t there but perhaps this a comment about the dangers of boredom. I’m sure this is how hate groups get started.
Once the game begins however, all traces of care and compassion quickly fade, as you fight for your life against a myriad of monsters and gravity. The game comprises of set locations but with randomly generated levels where the further you go down, the more difficult the game gets. This is where I would say I hit my first little snag. The difficulty curve for this game can sometimes show its true, frustrating colours. The very first level can pretty much be bypassed by falling through it, chances are you may not even need to shoot however when you move onto the next location, all of a sudden the enemy set changes and it’s as though they have been passing around shots of your blood, necking them with lime and salt and now, they have a taste for it. They are coming for you.
You see when you die, you have to restart the game. So that means doing the same three easy stages again before hitting the catacombs (Dark Souls anyone?) where you will most likely die once more. You do get upgrades after each level but you only get a random choice of three for your picking and whereas this may have an element of strategy for longer play, it can’t be the same every time when starting off.
I found it to be a little off putting and yes, I hear you saying “But what was all that stuff about being a 90s kid eh?” Well that still stands, and in fact is the only reason I persisted in order to learn more of the nuances Downwell had hidden but even then these were only minuscule traits such as jumping on torches held on the side of the wall for sustained air time. It just becomes tiring having to do those first three levels over and over to progress.
Don’t let that discourage you though. It is a game about learning, even if it is a bit of a sharp hill to climb. The enemies are self-explanatory: it moves, you shoot it, and they will reward you by spewing precious gems from their cold, damp carcasses. Gems are the commodity of Downwell, the only currency which is found and traded in this tubular world. They can also be found in the checkpoints scattered non-specifically throughout each stage where sometimes it will either be a gem stack, or a new set of gunboots.
The range of guns is something I found extremely well balanced here, each unique and having its own benefits and strategic use against certain enemies. It’s an encouraging aspect of the game, making you seek out these side caves in order to switch up your playstyle on the fly. Want to shoot a bat fifteen or twenty times in the face? Or how about using a laser beam to dissect a frog? The choice is yours!
You can also visit the shop, a rarer sight to behold but when you do, you had better hope you grabbed enough gems. The whole operation is ran by a single man-ghost where I’m sure he’s taking me for a ride with some of these prices. 600 gems for just one bit of health? This guy has a monopoly on the well market! Only problem is you won’t find any other shops down here. I doubt there was anyone as psychotic to do so as this fella and he doesn’t let you forget it. Staring at you with his shit-eating grin while you peruse his wares, the look on your face becoming more sour with each flick to the next item. Then after selecting one that is currently too expensive, he kindly screams in your face “TOO POOR!” at which point you say “I’m not going to be spoken to like that, I’m a potential customer! I’ll go and find some health and upgrades elsewhere!” So you leave through the door you came in little realising a frog has aligned itself perfectly with your face whereupon it hits you. You then die. You start the game again. You kill more enemies this time. You get more gems this time. You go back to the shop, sheepishly approach the counter and mumble, timidly “One health please”.
The only other thing worth coming back for apart from gems it seems is your progress bar. I haven’t quite figured out whether your gems add to it but I know for certain it does increase with the distance you have travelled. It gets added on to your current progress after each time you die and depending on how far you have gotten you may unlock one of two things: a colour palette or a playstyle. Colour palettes are exactly how they sound and don’t add any benefit gameplay wise excepet perhaps if you have been playing it for twelve straight hours and your eyes need replacing then yes, a pastel shade might best suit your ocular needs. My god, please avoid the VR Boy palette. It’s the same painful hellish red from the Virtual Boy and the novelty wears off quickly once you start to feel that twenty year old ache in your retinas.
Play styles on the other hand do affect your gameplay, sometimes for the better or sometimes with marginal differences which make you choose another one the next time. I have opted for the boulder playstyle which gives an additional two health but at the cost of seeing fewer shops on playthrough. Good. The less I see of that overpriced ghostly git’s shop, the better.
All in all I really enjoyed Downwell for the time it lasted. It is short. Like really short. Yes you will play it repeatedly but the focus of “progress” in this game seems represented mainly by a number and a meter. It would have been nice to see some more variation in the levels, but then again this does appear to be more proof of concept than fully fledged game. At £1.99 though, it’s worth a look for both platforming veterans and newcomers alike. In either case, prepare to try and try again.