Into the darkness.
Sometimes, all you want to do during your lunch break is get a bit of gaming time in. But what exactly do you play? Let’s say you have half an hour to an hour, tops. You can’t exactly play something that potentially requires longer to play, like a MOBA, or something that likes to space out its save points like an RPG.
That’s why I’ve been enjoying the hell out of Downwell, a Steam release that’s cheaper than a Subway sandwich, and a whole lot tastier.
Don’t You Open That Trapdoor
Downwell is a procedurally generated action platformer with rogue-lite elements and a delightfully retro aesthetic. Now please, don’t go anywhere. I’m very aware you can apply the description to hundreds of games on Steam nowadays, but Downwell’s approach is both fresh and addictive. Oh, and it’s harder than diamond biceps.
In Downwell you play as a little guy who (voluntarily) leaps down a well. Whether he’s surprised or not to find a seemingly never-ending drop filled with hostile creatures is anyone’s guess, but in any case our stumpy hero is (quite literally) in too deep. Your objective in Downwell is ultimately to get to the bottom of the well. As such you’re constantly aiming to make your way downwards, dropping from platforms, bouncing off of enemies’ heads and using your gunboots to shoot more dangerous creatures and slow your descent. Wait, what?
Yep, to aid you in your spelunk are a pair of boots that shoot bullets downwards. These are required to kill red enemies that cannot be destroyed by jumping on them. By exploring side rooms along the way you can find power-ups that will change how your gunboots behave. My favourites include the shotgun, which is great at neutralising more powerful enemies, and the Noppy shot that gives you superb control over your descent. Be warned, though; you can’t shoot indefinitely.
Killing an enemy or simply landing on the ground will instantly recharge your ammo. By defeating enemies (or breaking background objects) you’ll also gain gems that can be redeemed in the occasional shop. Collecting enough in a row will also place you in the power boosting “Gem High” mode. While on a gem high the effectiveness of your weapon is increased, and all are given a nice glow to show their newfound power.
What’s unusual is that health and weapon power-ups are one and the same. This means you can’t replenish your health without changing your weapon type.
Ammo types vary in how they behave, including how many shots you’re allowed before you have to recharge, as well as their fire rate, power and spread. The usual stuff. What’s unusual is that health and weapon power-ups are one and the same. This means you can’t replenish your health without changing your weapon type. It’s a very interesting spin; you may be in desperate need of health but you also risk losing your favourite weapon. On the other hand, sticking with your weapon of choice puts you at greater risk of dying. The same goes for charge power-ups that increase your ammo allowance.
Downwell boasts a simple retro aesthetic making use of very few colours. However, the blacks and whites contrast well, making enemies easier to see and the platforms you’ll be landing on in plain sight at all times. Coupled with a lovely 8-bit soundtrack, I originally mistook the game as being created by Cave Story developer Studio Pixel. While my assumption was incorrect, I certainly get a Cave Story vibe from Downwell, as well as thoughts of Nuclear Throne in regards to the game’s simple HUD.
As you continuously get yourself killed in the well, you’ll rack up experience based on your score. Reaching experience thresholds will unlock alternative colour palettes, most of which look nice, though a few of them are headache inducing such as the strong reds of the retina-bursting “VBoy” palette. It’s also possible to unlock alternate “styles” for your character. These will alter various things about the game, including the drop rate of certain power-ups to how much health you start with. They’re quite humourously animated, too, with one style making your character flail his arms spectacularly.
If I had any complaints about Downwell it’s the way the side rooms are handled. For example, if you’ve dashed into one hoping to get away from some enemies, you’ll be granted a moment’s reprieve and hopefully a nice power-up, too. On the way out, however, it’s quite common to be bombarded with enemies and unavoidably take damage.
Downwell is a simple, addictive time waster with incredibly satisfying mechanics and a rather novel sense of progression. While I recommend it as a “lunch break” style game, it’s very easy to be absorbed for hours by the wonderfully simple-but-fun gameplay and delightful retro aesthetic. Be warned, though, this is not a game you’ll finish in a day.