Downwell Review

Played on Windows.
Also available on Android, PlayStation 4, iOS, PlayStation Vita

Downwell is simply a game about a boy going down the well. It opens with a boy standing on the edge of the well ready to jump in. So from there eventually the boy has to jump into the well. Why? How? Who knows! This is Downwell, so let’s go down that well.

So the first thing here is that the graphics on this game are clean and clear and rather simplistic. I enjoyed looking at the art when I could in the game, and it’s clear what the game is representing.

In addition, the graphics assist the gameplay, this uses simplistic graphics but at the same time, I never felt like I was unsure of what something was. There have been a few points where I had to ask “can I die from that?” though it’s always due to an enemy not having a clear attack area, and some enemies actually do allow the player to walk into them.

The graphics, though, aren’t the problem and there’s some nice depth to them as you watch a player walk onto the edge of a ledge and he teeters on it almost daring you to press towards the edge and push him into another fall.

In fact, each style of gameplay in the game, has a different animation set, and it’s a minor piece of the game, but I do like seeing the movement and the styles of the characters when moving around.

However the graphics are simple, and from there the player is greeted with what seems like a simple game. As I mentioned earlier, the story is boy goes down well, boy falls, he’s trying to get to the bottom of the well, without outside reading material that’s the story of the game, the gameplay though is just getting started.

To start with this is a rogue-lite. Every time you restart the game you get a randomly generated level, and it feels like it’s actually random. There are similar enemies in each level, however, the path is different each time and exactly what will appear, or from where, is unique. The player’s only real goal is to get past everything, and reach the bottom of the level and eventually the well, I assume.

Though those enemies are going to be trouble, on just the first level, there’s bats, frogs, turtles, and jellyfish and they will all cause trouble for our hero. He has four hit points (HP) at the beginning of the game but there are only a few ways to get more, so avoidance of danger is the name of the game here. Enemies will move towards him but skilled players will be able to avoid most of it.

However for those he can’t simply avoid, or don’t want to, the hero has what is known in the game as “gunboots”. He’s able to shoot straight down with his gunboots giving him a small upwards push but also firing a deadly shot down. Enemies tend to only be able to stand one or two hits early on in the game, but the player is only given a limited number of charges (Shots can take more than one charge) so the player is only allowed to fire downwards a couple of times before succumbing to gravity once again. The charges are returned each time the player lands so it’s only a limit while in the air.

Or lasers… glorious lasers

That’s not the player’s only tactic though, the player can easily land on the head of any enemy that is white to get a bounce and an instant recharge to their charges. From there, the player has the ability to shoot downwards again creating a combo system that the game incentivizes with some rewards, such as gems, or additional health or charges.

There are a lot of different enemies in Downwell, I learned to hate them all, you’ll hear it in my First Look. Yeah, Turtles suck, Bats suck, Frogs suck, later on, I found out that Skulls suck, Skeletons suck… and the list goes on. Everything will give you a problem at least once and it’ll get on your hated list at least until something else kills you.

There are also a couple of side rooms that pop up as the player travels down the levels. There are usually two side rooms per vertical level. Each side room holds a gem cache, which is the game’s system of money, gun powerups, or a shop where the player can exchange gems for valuable items.

In the shop, there are a number of items to get that can restore your health, increase your charges, or even give you an additional HP, and the game doesn’t attempt to penalize you for using the shop so the shops are great. At the beginning of the game, I started to buy more charges so I could shoot more, but I see the game seems to really reward more HP, to the point that four HP gained while at max, will give you an additional point of HP. That’s just my current philosophy.

Those gun choices are interesting as well. I found that the laser was overpowered as hell, but still one of my favorites, there’s a machine gun, a burst fire and more. Each one has a use but the game is a little tricky with the gun powerups, because if you find a favorite weapon, you don’t pick up future powerups, and every powerup will give you an HP point back, or a couple of additional charges, so skipping powerups is a tradeoff. You lose potential power while keeping a favorite weapon.

At the end of each level, you earn an “upgrade”. These are different than the purchasable set or powerups and will have more of a change on the game. Some of them give an explosion that occurs when you jump or a bullet that fires upwards when you collect gems. Each one is a different upgrade/ability and they are all worth trying out. I don’t know which ones are the best, but I like that they allow you to build different flavors for the game. The fact you’re only offered 3 each level means you will have to make choices out of the cards you’re dealt. It’s a rather solid system.

Then there are the styles. As you play the game you’ll earn gems. Based on the number collected (so feel free to use them) you’ll “Level up” and as you do you’ll mostly earn palette swaps for your game, but infrequently you’ll earn “Styles” for the game. Each one changes the game quite a bit. There’s a style that allows you to only find weapons instead of gems inside rooms, but in the same style, you won’t see as many shops. Another gives you 6 HP and only 2 upgrades to choose from per level. Another allows you to be floaty. Each gives you a different look to your character, but the changes they have for the game really only affect playstyle. The game operates the same (Though floaty gives you more airtime) but it’s again a nice touch to add replayability.

The problem though is none make the game simple. Each “zone” has three levels, when you finish the last level you fall to the next zone. I only reached the third zone once and have never been able to get back. The fact is, I find Downwell to be rather hard. It’s not impossible in much the same way that Rogue Legacy isn’t impossible, but in Downwell, you don’t have access to the upgrades of Rogue Legacy that make the game easier or harder.

Sometimes the game is just crazy like this. Tons of pieces going on at one time, but it never feels as bad as it looks.

The styles change the game quite a bit, but overall it’s a very hard game to get through. Eventually, you’ll take damage, and then more and more until you run out of your HP, and die. You’ll start over and start to go down again.

I do find it a bit too hard. It’s a relatively short game, and I spent about 5 hours just grinding away at it. I stopped because I started to do significantly worse than in old runs. Yet I’m coming back to it one day and I’ll get better. The fact though is, this isn’t a game that you’re going to be able to run through easily, and it gets frustrating quite fast in my opinion.

I realize this review is brief but that’s part of the issue with Downwell, there’s a lot of gameplay in the game but most of it is replaying the same levels over and over, trying to beat them. A successful run takes less than a half hour. An unsuccessful run takes far less time. Still, it’s really hard to delve into a game that is over that fast.

At the same time, I spent a buck fifty on the game. I expect at least 90 minutes for that price. I already spent 5 hours on this game and I can see playing at least another five trying to beat this game. It’s good, it’s really freaking good. My one complaint about it is its the best feature, its ability to keep you coming back to do better each time isn’t perfect.

The flaw is when you start to fall apart. You lose that edge and you feel like nothing you can do will get you back in the zone. The game doesn’t help you in that situation and it’s a shame because I want to judge the whole game. Maybe one day I’ll get there, and I look forward to it.

Until then though I have to judge it by what I’ve seen, and honestly, there’s a lot about Downwell that’s really good. For the price, it’s a strong recommendation, but at the same time, I try not to make this about only value. As a game Downwell doesn’t stand out to me, I have some problems with how punishing the game can get, and the fact that the minute I thought I understood the game, I could no longer dive as deep as I had once before. I still have no clue if I lost my skills or just got incredibly lucky in a single run.

Overall I I give it a…


Final Thoughts: An inexpensive time waster, but a time waster nonetheless. Still, it’s enjoyable for the short time it’ll keep your attention and it makes me crave a win. Though I also doubt I ever will gain one.

Stats: 5.7 hours 6/20 achievements

Or maybe I should just rest on the bench for a little longer…

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