“The point is, not to resist the flow. You go up when you’re supposed to go up and down when you’re supposed to go down. When you’re supposed to go up, find the highest tower and climb to the top. When you’re supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom.” – Haruki Murakami
I picked up Revolver Digital’s Downwell during a flash sale fully expecting to pick it up for 15-20 minutes and put it down forever. Instead, I was treated to a masterful take in minimalist direction that I couldn’t put down for hours.
The rundown on Downwell is simple. It’s essentially a three-button game(and Murakami simulator) in which your goal is to make it to the bottom (or as far down as you can) of a randomly generated well, while dodging and defeating a multitude of creatures.
Toru Okada’s Your character’s sole means of defense in the game are these novel gunboots, the centerpiece of the game. When your character is in mid-air, the jump button becomes the shoot button. This allows them to fire bullets out of their heels below them which serves three major functions. One, it destroy blocks. Two, it destroys (most) enemies. Last and perhaps most important, the recoil slows your downward momentum. So your objective is simple enough, fall from platform to platform, blast anything that gets in your way and survive.
It was around my fifth time down the well where I started seeing how nuanced Downwell becomes due to the interplay between three mechanics: charge, gems, and upgrades. First, charge, is essentially ammo, or however many rounds you can fire before reloading. Reloading is accomplished by landing in one of two ways: landing on a stable platform or bouncing of an enemy’s head. While there is plenty of safe ground to land on early in the game, it becomes scarcer the deeper you get. There’s also an audible indicator to let you know you’re running out of bullet which helps you plan your next move. So the perfect flow of the game becomes shooting obstacles and bouncing off heads to keep your gunboots firing and progress moving. The game rewards those who bounce from monster to monster without touching the ground with a satisfying combo system that, depending on how many kills you string together before landing, rewards you with gems and health which brings us to the next part.
Gems. Your reward for beating enemies or breaking specially colored blocks, gems are part-currency, and part-powerup. There are respites along your descent where you can spend your accrued gems to regain health or improve your charge. And collecting 100 gems in a brief window of time grants your character with the “Gem High” buff, which increases range and damage from your gunboots. You keep the buff so long as your keep collecting gems. But gems aren’t the only means of upgrading your character.
Each gun feels unique and has its own strengths and weaknesses
Upgrades are available in two varieties in either in brief pit-stops along your path, or in-between levels. The upgrades you encounter in the middle of levels change the type of gun your boots operate as such as “shotgun, machinegun,” and so on, but also either restore health or permanently extend your charge meter. The types of gun you use can heavily change your approach to how you descend. For example, your base gun has eight shots before it needs to reload, but if you switch to a shotgun, you only have two shots before you’re empty. Each gun feels unique and has its own strengths and weaknesses. The second type of upgrades come between levels and applies to the rest of your playthrough. You’re given a selection of three randomized power-ups of which you choose one. These can range from simple “regain health” boosts to more drastic things like “collecting gems recharges your gun” that, again, change how you approach the rest of your playthrough.
Not only is the pallet visually clever but it’s informative to gameplay.
Downwell’s aesthetic also embraces the minimal motif with a swappable pallet of 3-colors max. Not only is the pallet visually clever but it’s informative to gameplay. On the base White/Red palette, white is safe, red is not. So enemies you can jump on are white on top and red on the sides and bottom. Find a fully red enemy and be prepared to shoot or dodge. Meanwhile there are plenty of novel palette swaps you unlock as you play the game that range from one color changes to a recreation of the classic Game Boy green/grey. Once you’ve got the core gameplay down, there are further “style” unlocks that change how your character plays from the start, such as starting with more health or falling slower. The whole look and feel, from colors, sound and animation lend this game the vibe of a forgotten Game Boy classic.
The flow of the game is sharpened to such a fine edge
So how does it play? The whole experience combines to create an incredibly satisfying “just one more round” experience that compels you to delve deeper down the well. The flow of the game is sharpened to such a fine edge that once you begin seeing the optimal patterns and start racking up longer combos, the game begins to feel like a strange inverted platformer where you strive to not land, spending shots just for positioning, taking in some of the chaos on screen to figure out your next best move. The “Gem High” and combo systems are especially effective channels into “flow” psychology seen in twitch arcade games like Geometry Wars, and Ikaruga
Some minor inconveniences are the common ones that come with randomization. Sometimes you start a journey down the well and just don’t get the upgrades you want or come across particularly tricky enemy layouts. Luckily you’re never too deeply invested as a life (in my experience) never really stretched over the 10 minute mark. All-in-all Downwell provides a unique arcade joy not easily found today where, win or lose, there’s always time for another trip down the well.
Downwell is a game published by Devolver Digital, designed by Ojiro Fumoto and developed by Moppin. It is available on iOS, Android, Windows, PS4 and PS Vita. This review is based on the PS4 experience and was purchased by the reviewer. The not so veiled references the author is making are to Japanese author, Haruki Murakami’s masterpiece “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” He is sorry.