Every dedicated gamer knows what it feels like to get absorbed in an experience. Whether it’s another battle, race, or mission, practically every genre has the power to hook us and keep us coming back for “just one more try.” Exactly what creates the irresistible urge to keep playing is hard to pinpoint, but Downwell attempts to tap into it. This retro-styled hybrid provides short and replayable bursts of action, but the well isn’t deep enough to swallow you up.
Though it borrows elements from platformers, top-down shooters, and roguelikes, Downwell has its own unique feel. You fall down vertical stages in a procedurally generated well, using multi-purpose gunboots to slow your descent and take out enemies. Even though you can fire bullets, your best offensive move is stomping on foes, since you get gem (i.e. score) and health bonuses for chaining kills together without touching the ground. The controls are simple and responsive, and striking a balance between speed and safety is entertaining. You plummet, weave, stomp, and shoot while collecting gems and avoiding hazards on your way to the bottom of each level.
My favorite part of Downwell is the early discovery phase. The game isn’t complicated, but it also doesn’t explain its intricacies. That’s okay, since I loved learning the mechanics and finding tricks (like the wall-jump) on my own. When does your ammo refill? Which gun types are the best? You find these answers over the course of your first few runs. When you die, you just start over at the beginning, but the trial-and-error does not feel punishing. Your attempts – especially the early ones – are brief, so bad runs can be over in moments, while good ones last 20 minutes or more. That makes it easy to play in short bursts, but it doesn’t hold up over the long haul.
The more time you sink into the experience, the less rewarding it becomes. Completing a stage presents you with a random selection of upgrades, which initially had me excited for all of the possible builds and combinations. However, the pool of options is ultimately disappointing. You are never deciding between several power-ups that you want; you’re crossing your fingers that one of the good ones shows up. The drone and gem attractor are great, but how many balloons and hot shell casings do you need to grab before they show up?
No matter what power-ups you gather, you lose them when you die. I expect to start fresh in games with roguelike elements, but Downwell doesn’t have enough persistence and progression in other areas to keep me excited about diving back in. The most common item you unlock is new color schemes, which usually make the game worse. The default visuals have a clear “red is bad, white is good” setup, but many of the additional palettes make that distinction much harder to read, muddying the action.
You also have access to different styles, which are the only permanent unlockables worth exploring. Selected at the beginning of a run, styles have different properties that impact your approach. For instance, boulder style has more health and a rapid descent, but gives you fewer upgrade options at the end of a stage. Your choice of style changes how aggressive you can be, how fast you fall, how many shops appear on your way down, and more. This lets you fine-tune your approach, but once you earn good ones (like levitation), the urge to experiment diminishes.
Downwell is at its best when you’re bounding from one enemy to the next, blasting through obstacles, and frantically scanning for a safe path through the chaos. This moment-to-moment challenge is fun, and the later levels (and final boss) put your skills to the test. Unfortunately, the journey to that level of proficiency feels like a grind. Though each run is technically different, they all start to feel the same.