Downwell, from developer Moppin and publisher Devolver Digital, centers on a character making his way down a well loaded with monsters and hazards in an attempt to reach the bottom. Accompanying him on this endeavor is his trusty pair of gun boots. These not only sound cool, bit they also allow for the momentum-filled combo-stomping gameplay that makes Downwell so much fun to play.
Each round of Downwell starts you at the top of the well and sees you traversing through four areas consisting of three stages each as well as a final boss stage. Every area introduces new monsters and hazards that force on-the-fly thinking in order to avoid being damaged. While the first area is easiest with monsters like slow-moving turtles and slimes, as you progress you will have to deal with floating eyes, spike floors, coral, rocket-like squids, and more. While some of these hurt you instantly with a single touch, others are able to be jumped on. This is where the combo system comes into play.
By jumping on monsters, walls, and certain parts of the environment, you will slowly accrue a combo that floats above your head. Touch the floor or get damaged, basically anything that kills your momentum, and your combo will end, granting you whatever bonuses you earned for your multiplier. These bonuses range from more gems to buy items in the store to an additional point of health if you do particularly well. The point of Downwell then isn’t just to get to the bottom of the well, but to do so by also maintaining a combo, collecting bonuses along the way that make your path easier.
At the end of each stage you are presented with three upgrades from which you can choose. These are random and some of these upgrades are more valuable than others. My personal favorite is the knife and fork, which lets you consume the fallen bodies of certain monsters and grants you one extra HP for every 10 bodies, but other upgrades allow for extra ways of dealing damage or avoiding it. Depending on the upgrades you are allowed to choose, your run could be much easier.
Death comes quickly and easily in the game, as in general you will only start the game with 4 HP. Four mistakes aren’t a lot, so thankfully weapon modules occasionally restore HP and shops will regularly carry onigiri to restore your health at the cost of the gems you accrue.
When you die, the gems you collected during the run are tallied up and pooled together in a running total that remains every time you play the game. No matter how early or late you die, your attempt was not meaningless at it contributes to unlocking two important things. The first is falling styles, which range from cannonball to handstand and have a big effect on your falling speed, how frequently weapon modules appear, and even how much HP you begin with. The second is palettes. If you don’t like the default black/white/red colors the game uses you will gradually unlock new color palettes for the game to customize it as you desire, making it easier on the eyes or garishly ugly.
Although the game has been released on cellphone platforms as well as Steam and PS4, the game seems to shine brightest on the Vita, where both the d-pad and analogue stick allow for fast, precise movements—a must for this game. Buying Downwell on PSN is cross-buy, entitling you to both the PS4 and Vita copies of the game and they share a trophy list. While a TATE mode is available on the Vita to play the game vertically on the system as a throwback to the golden age of shmups, it hinders the ease of control making the horizontal orientation preferred though I do highly recommend you try TATE mode at least once for the novelty of it.
The pixel graphics are simple and full of character. Everything from the way your character falls, to the way different bullets fly, to the movements of monsters are charming and unique. While the BGM present in the game is practically negligible, the sound design for your gun boots is great and offers up a satisfying crunch when you stomp monsters and fun laser and gunshots when you shoot with them.
Trophies for Downwell are very difficult. While there is a platinum trophy available, it requires you to beat the game twice, once regularly and once on hard, as well as achieve a 100-combo. For the record, I fell I have played the game extensively and have yet to beat the final boss on normal and my max combo is 31. It will take a lot of hours and practice to master the game, making the Platinum definitely doable but a significant challenge.
Downwell Final Verdict
Downwell is a crazy fun arcade-style game that will have you constantly coming back for just one more try at conquering the well. The pixel graphics are cute and the sound design is satisfying. This is the perfect game to have always installed on your Vita for a quick attempt at making it to the bottom of the well.