Devolver Digital bring the hit mobile game to Vita in brilliant fashion, providing some fantastically challenging platforming and high-score chasing.
World-building & Story
As an arcade-y, high-score chasing platform-shooter, Downwell doesn’t feature much in the way of plot. The main character, with gunboots strapped to his feet, falls down a well and it’s up to you to help him navigate to the bottom by dodging the variety of obstacles placed in his way. That’s it – there’s no story (aside from the very end); no dialogue and nothing else to it.
That said, there is an interesting little world here, with a variety of different themes presented as you travel deeper down the well. You’ll encounter a bat-filled cave; spooky castle and even underwater cavern and it’s fun to see how each of these are presented in the retro artstyle. It’s nothing mind-blowing, rather a trippy journey through each different area.
Presentation & Sound
Presented in retro 8-bit style, Downwell is a graphically modest game that does a lot within the confines of the style. At times I couldn’t help but wish for something a little flashier, but what is chosen works perfectly to ensure you’re always aware what’s happening on screen.
From the modestly-drawn main character, to the simple enemies who either come fully-drawn or merely as outlines, everything in Downwell is kept basic – which allows the frantic action to not get cluttered with on-screen objects. Despite this, everything is easily recognisable – you’ll be able to tell a turtle from a bat or a ghost from a jellyfish, which is impressive given the choice of presentation.
Environments are similarly simple, with items like boxes and candles layered to make different designs. The game does shift through a number of locales – from caves to castles to underwater etc., each using different objects to create a different feel. They’re nothing mind-blowing, but suitable for the presentation at hand.
One thing the game does well is allowing you variety in its colour pallette – as you play more you’ll unlock various schemes that give things a different tint, whether it’s simple blues and reds or more trippy psychedelic colours. Rotating between these can help stave off the stale feeling of repeating the same zones over and over, due to the title’s nature as a rogue-like that requires multiple playthroughs.
Sound is – as with everything in the package – basic, but fitting. Music is a quiet mix of 80’s game-synth that doesn’t do anything special, but is drowned out by the splatter of enemy explosions and bullets being fired anyway. And indeed effects are great – each gunboot has a unique noise; collecting gems give a satisfying level up noise etc.
Gameplay & Content
Taking place in a seemingly-never-ending well, Downwell tasks you to keep falling down until you reach the bottom (hence the name), taking out the enemies you find along the way. It’s a fast-paced, high-score-chasing arcade game and honestly was one of Vita’s biggest surprises for me – I didn’t expect to love it anywhere near as much as I did.
You’ll always be in charge of the main character, a little non-descript man with gunboots strapped to his feet. You’ll be able to move; jump and fire the gunboots at any time (the latter of which can give you extra air time from the recoil) but there’s a catch – your guns have limited ammo that can only be refilled by landing on something. Different types of gunboots fire differently, meaning as you collect upgrades you’ll have to adapt to how many bullets you’ll have and what the effect of firing will be.
As such you have to weigh up shooting your bullets or saving them for later, which creates a sort of manic feeling as you hurtle down the well desperately looking for places to land while taking out foes along the way. Such landing pads can be platforms – which provide brief moments of respite from the constant falling – but also includes enemies which is the quickest, yet most dangerous way to dispatch them. Doing so grants you gems which allows you to upgrade at shops, but you’re always running the risk of missing; getting hit and losing some health.
Thankfully enemy variety is plentiful – some can’t be shot and must be landed on; others the exact opposite. Some follow patterns; others wander erratically, meaning the game does rely on prior knowledge to challenge you as you have to adapt to the foe in front of you. Procedurally generated levels mean you can’t just rely on memory and have to constantly change your strategy based on the platforms appearing below you as well as adapting to the types of enemies in that zone.
Also forcing you to change your playstyle on the fly is the game’s upgrade system, that gives different types of attachment to the gunboots to allow them to fire differently. By landing on certain platforms and exploring the adjacent caves you’ll discover crystals that can bestow these upgrades, encouraging exploration of each zone. Of course, these crystals could just be ignored if you want to stick to the plain old gunboots, but doing so means also missing out on health and bullet capacity upgrades they contain – as such, the game almost forces you to take these and as such constantly change the way you approach the platforming and combat.
All of this comes together to create an incredibly addictive gameplay loop. The responsiveness and maneuverability of the playable character thanks to the gunboots makes him a joy to control; and the process of exploring deeper and deeper into the well as you discover enemy patterns and behaviours ensures there’s enough here to keep you coming back, even if it is just a handful of levels over four zones. The additions of upgrades; gem collection and pallette-unlocking is just the icing on the cake of an already great package.
Downwell‘s brilliance is in its simplicity – it’s such a basic yet masterfully executed idea, creating an addictive progression system to keep you pushing deeper and deeper into the well. Modest presentation and mild soundtrack aside, everything else about the game is stellar and is well worth the price of entry on Vita – this is a title I’m gonna keep coming back to for a long, long time.