Downwell Review

How low can you go? It won’t be easy with all of the enemies and obstacles in your way, but the guns strapped to your feet sure do help. Downwell challenges you traverse through a series of randomly-generated tunnels with only the ability to walk, jump, and shoot directly below you.

At first, I was off-put by the game’s presentation. Played on a narrow field, most of the screen is empty. Since the game originated in mobile, this isn’t a surprise, but I always wish that mobile ports would do more to adapt to the widescreen format. I also wasn’t that into the game’s 8-bit inspired graphics or music. Many hours later, I still don’t like how it looks or sounds, even after unlocking a number of different palettes.

Where the game really snared me was with its gameplay. It’s core mechanics are simple enough, but they’re used to create a wildly addicting game. For starters, it moves very smoothly and quickly, forcing you to stay on your toes constantly.

Furthermore, there’s a delicate balance you must manage between jumping and shooting. You can blast most enemies, but some require you to jump on them in order to kill them. On top of that, every gun has a limited clip that only reloads when you hit the ground. Shotgun blasts are powerful and cover a wide area, but you’ll find yourself defenseless after only two shots. Being out of ammo in the air is particularly problematic when certain enemies can’t be killed by jumping on them. Attempt to do so and you lose a stock of health. On top of all that, you can only shoot downward, while enemies can attack from all angles. For such a simplistic game, there are a lot of interesting decisions you need to make from moment-to-moment.

Adding to the complexity is the game’s item system. Defeating enemies rewards you with gems, which can be spent at shops strewn about each stage. A myriad of items give you many ways of improving your situation, from different types of guns, food that will replenish your health, rocket boots that will help you jump higher, and much more. During one particular run, a combination of a power-up that let me reload in midair when I collect gems paired with another that absorbed distant gems seemingly let me float off of gunfire forever. Having that level of control makes it even easier to get invested.

Over the course of play, you’ll also unlock a number of different gameplay styles that adjust how the game works. Early on, you’ll unlock the Floaty mode, which gives your jumps a bit more hang time. Another one gives you more starting health, but less power-up options at the end of each stage. There are no penalties for playing one mode over another, so go with what you find most enjoyable.

Even though I don’t like how Downwell looks or sounds, it’s addictive gameplay keeps me coming back for more. From the immediate joy that comes with dive-bombing through each level, to managing the way your character improves over the course of each play through, there’s a lot to like while you’re playing it. If gameplay is king to you, I recommend giving this one a chance, even if you dislike its presentation like I do.

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