Downwell – PC
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Release Date: October 15th, 2015
Nerd Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Hanging out at my local arcade bar on a Saturday night, I find myself increasingly frustrated by the quality of the majority of the games. The main floor covered by coin-guzzling titles such as House of the Dead, Gauntlet III or whatever, and licensed titles such as Jurassic Park and Star Wars arcades, it seems to me as an outsider that these places serve as grim mausoleums, telling the story of how the arcade genre slowly lost its way over the years, relying more and more heavily on cheap thrills with the sole intention of robbing the player of as many coins in as little time possible.
In a small corner of this arcade bar are a handful of less flashy games; older, more seasoned games; games like Dig Dug, Donkey Kong, Asteroids, and 1942; games that don’t attract the casual player these days due to their relative lack of pomp and glitter. These are the games that require true grit, rewarding the well-practiced player while enticing the newbie with the exciting prospect of a game that’s hard but can be mastered. These games don’t steal the player’s money with cheap tricks; instead they offer the player a challenge to rise above the circumstances, offering their rewards only once their secrets have been laid bare.
Wedged between these titles, in the corners of my own imagination, rests Downwell. A fast-paced, unforgiving arcade-style action game where you fall down a well, shooting enemies with your gunboots and collecting gems and pickups along the way. Downwell is, simply put, an addicting game that is both immediately accessible and punishing in its ramping difficulty, requiring equal amounts of skill and practice from the player in order to master it.
The brainchild of Ojiro Fumoto, Downwell has flown under the radar for quite a while, but more people have been talking about it recently, as it has received acclaim from many different reviewers. So I picked it up for the PC, and have been having fun with it ever since. A rootsy arcade title that avoids slavishly imitating its predecessors, Downwell is a fun game that offers many interesting ideas for how the arcade genre can survive onward into this decade.
The gameplay in Downwell is nothing short of captivating and challenging. There are only a small handful of actions that the player can do: jump, move left to right, and fire their gunboots. These controls lead into quite a bit of complexity, as the gunboots can be used to levitate the player in the air, as well as to eradicate enemies. Designer Ojiro Fumoto has famously said that he wanted to craft a game that was as simple as possible, with no wasted parts. And it shows. For example, the action for jumping and firing your gunboots are mapped to the same button, meaning that Downwell only requires three buttons to play it proper. Interactions with enemies are pared down as well; they can either be stomped on or shot to death, and that’s about it.
And that’s where this game gets interesting. Some enemies are small and hard to hop on, while others are 100% dangerous and untouchable, creating an interesting cost-benefit analysis that goes on within the head of the player at all times. “Do I try to hop on this bat or shoot it and move on? Do I end my combo now or keep going and risk some damage? Should I empty my ammo at this group of enemies and hope for the best or dodge them altogether?” The mental calculations required for mastering Downwell create an insane amount of complexity, especially while trying to maintain a tricky combo.
Which brings us to combos. Downwell is, essentially, an arcade-style game, meaning that combos are a big part of how the game works. If a combo system didn’t exist, the player would have no incentive for taking risks, encouraged to move slowly and carefully, which would be pretty boring. Racking up a good combo by killing many enemies without touching the ground is a great way to reap rewards such as extra gems and increased ammo capacity for your gunboots. This is a very good inclusion, also serving as a testament to how arcade-style games can be improved and pushed forward into the 21st century; combos don’t just increase your score, they have real in-game consequences, improving your ability to keep going while giving you more gems to spend at shops. Not a lot of older arcade games did things like this, as scoring and combo systems simply helped keep track of who was the most skilled player. Perhaps the most stand-out example of in-game rewards would be the extremely prevalent 1-up system, which only gave you more lives to work with, not necessarily increased ability.
Unfortunately, this combo system only goes so far: in his review for for Downwell, Youtuber Matthewmatosis (he’s really insightful, check him out) points out that the combo system is actually rather stunted; with an 8 combo, you get extra gems; with a 15 combo, you get extra gems plus an extra ammo charge; with a 25 combo, you get extra gems with two extra charges, and, well, that’s it. Increasing your combo past 25 is actually a bad strategy, since it minimizes your benefit and doesn’t reward you any further, so the best option is to feel out your streak and end your combo at 8, 15, or 25. For the life of me, I have no idea why Downwell is set up this way. It got so many things so right, but for some reason the developers slapped a weird, restrictive rule on the combo system that discourages high-scoring. This is probably the biggest misstep in the entire game, and it doesn’t even make any sense. When making an arcade game, you want to encourage your players to take risks; it increases the tension and action while rewarding skillful play. As it stands, Downwell‘s combo system only rewards risk and skill to an extent.
There are also alternative gun modules to pick up along the way. Each module has its own unique feel while interacting with the player’s max gunboot charge in different and dynamic ways (20 charges will result in a different amount of uses for a shotgun than for a machine gun, and so on). This is all well and good, but that doesn’t require much skill or thought from the player, right? Well, that’s not exactly true. Instead of just offering the player a new way to fire their weapon and distribute ammo, the modules also come packaged with either an ammo boost or a health boost. If a player is low on health and they run into a heart-shaped weapon that they don’t really like, they may be more inclined to pick it up anyway for the health boost. A player who is doing well and wants to keep their advantage might take a gamble on a weapon that doesn’t suit their play style in order to rack up those ammo points. This relatively simple mechanic goes a long way toward creating more complex cost-benefit analyses within the mind of the player, constantly keeping them on their toes and encouraging more risky decisions.
Aside from gun modules, the player can also augment their experience and play style with power-ups that are granted in between each level. These power-ups do things like sucking in nearby gems, allowing the player to recharge their boots with gems, and a whole variety of other little things. This part of the game, aside from the stunted combo system, seems perhaps the biggest element that could have used more polish. The abilities that are there are interesting, and they can go a long way toward helping the player, but there is a relatively low number of them, with a very low level of synergy.
Take, for, example, The Binding of Isaac. In that game, the developers crammed in a ton of different items that changed the way the game played, each one capable of interacting with the others in a crazy variety of ways, so many that the developers couldn’t have possibly interpreted all the potential outcomes. Downwell is a similar game to The Binding of Isaac in a few ways, but it doesn’t seem to have placed the same emphasis on customization and interactivity with the in-game items. Perhaps this is a consequence of Downwell’s relatively small size, but it would have been cool to see what a more fleshed-out item system would have looked like. Which reminds me…
Downwell is actually a pretty small game. Developed primarily for mobile phones, the game consists of only four zones, with three levels each. That means that after beating twelve levels, each lasting somewhere between two and three minutes, the game’s finished. Of course, this is easier said than done, as it will likely take the average player at least an hour or two of playtime to master the game enough to beat it once, and a hard mode does unlock afterward. Perhaps if arcade games are going to survive anywhere, it would be in the realm of mobile device games. Sadly, it left me wanting more.
Still, something must be said for how effective Downwell’s procedural level design is. Either in an effort to make up for the relative shortness of the game or in an embrace of indie gaming’s trend toward procedural generation, Downwell sports a really awesome set of levels that change just enough in the right ways to keep each new playthrough challenging. The rules to the levels’ generation are set up in order to avoid being unfair toward the player while presenting a reasonable level of challenge at the same time. While almost invisible, it’s a testament to how the arcade genre can be pulled further into this decade.
Downwell is not the prettiest of games, in terms of visual polish. It is, in fact, extremely rudimentary, with simple animations, simple sprites, and a total of only three different colors. Utilizing a palette of red, white, and black with impressive precision and color coding, Downwell eliminates extraneous, distracting details while remaining clear enough for the player to read enemies at a glance while plunging furiously down the depths of the well. For example, each enemy is color-coded for the player to know whether or not they are safe to jump on. Enemies that are mostly white are safe to jump on, and enemies that are mostly red are dangerous and can only be shot. The environment works the same way; if a surface is dangerous, it is colored red. At the same time, this binary color-coding doesn’t limit the gameplay to a binary understanding of enemies; almost every enemy is potentially dangerous. Even the enemies that can be jumped on can be deadly from the sides or from above the player, and there is at least one enemy that is never dangerous to the player, serving only as fodder for combos. The degree of red found on an enemy often correlates really well with their degree of danger, and Fumoto uses this to build a quick sight-recognition within the player, which is absolutely essential to fast-paced gameplay.
Downwell even boasts a little bit about its deceptively simple color palette; once you’ve unlocked all the play styles, the game begins giving you a whole host of unique and sometimes strange color palettes to play with, each with their own neat little name.
I really like that this is in there, since it probably took a minimum amount of effort and gives the player a small reason to keep playing, aside from the game’s intrinsic value. I’ve even found a tidy handful of color palettes along the way that I prefer to the main palette, helping me to become a better player.
The music is pretty good. As with many of the elements of Downwell, the developers opted for an extremely minimalistic style, with 8-bit sounding chip tunes used with great efficiency that don’t slavishly imitate 8-bit games of the 80s. For example, while the music is extremely reminiscent of games from that era, the tunes are realized with a higher degree of complexity, with more layered instruments and bassier notes for the drums. The opening few notes when you start a new game are catchy to the point that they have already etched themselves in my memory, and I have only been playing for a couple weeks.
So, at the end of the day, what have we learned? Well, we’ve learned that Downwell is a viscerally exciting arcade-style game that uses focus of design and procedurally-generated levels to its benefit, showing us how arcade games can move forward as a genre while still being true to their roots. We have also learned that Downwell is not without its flaws; a stunted combo system and a relatively short length can sometimes rob the game of its fun, and while this game has a huge amount of replay-ability, the player will eventually get tired of seeing all the old areas over and over.
But that doesn’t mean that this game is without depth. For such a small game, I’m extremely impressed with how often Downwell is able to inspire meaningful cost-benefit choices within the player due to its streamlined focus on the mechanics of health, ammo, and gunboot pickups, as well as the relationship between the player and the enemies. This game truly serves as a testament to how good a game can be with a lot of focus on just a handful of elements. It would have been really cool to see what would have happened if Fumoto had designed this title for a PC release and given himself the space to really flesh out some of the concepts here, but perhaps that’s the beauty of Downwell; its deceptive simplicity draws us in, surprising us at every step with how raw and enjoyable its gameplay is.
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