Downwell (Switch) Review
Sometimes for me, a game needs to find the perfect platform before it really clicks. I played and enjoyed Downwell, a vertically scrolling platformer-shooter, originally on mobile where it was first released. It’s controls were simple enough to fit mobile and a vertically oriented screen worked perfectly with the type of character motion in the game – yet I never really found myself vibing with the game. I constantly felt that as well implemented as they were, the touch screen controls felt clumsy in my hands. Downwell’s challenging and precise nature leaves little room for inaccurate input – which is precisely why I found that playing it on Switch has finally allowed me to appreciate just how compelling this game is.
Downwell is a game about a man who goes down a well. The man has gunboots, and uses these to jump and defeat enemies in the well, and uncovers treasure on the way down. His descent into the well is split up into a series of areas with three levels each, gradually ratcheting up the difficulty and introducing new sets of obstacles and enemies to deal with the further down you manage to go. As you get to the bottom of each level, you’re able to choose an upgrade that sticks with you for the rest of this run. These can be things like extra health, or my favourite – the ability to eat the corpses of defeated enemies to restore health.
Downwell presents an immense challenge, no matter how many times you go down the well you won’t permanently unlock anything that makes your descent easier. The only reasons you might get further next time are luck (rarely) or the fact that through playing, you’ve gained a greater understanding of how to play and overcome the obstacles in your path. Some may be put off by a lack of obvious, in-game ‘progression’, but I found that the feeling of progress felt more meaningful when I could measure it in how far I got in each new run, or how much damage I didn’t take compared to last time. A progress bar is a nice passive reward, but knowing you’ve beaten a personal best is fulfilling in a totally different way.
While they’re not difficulty altering, there are some persistent unlockables you’ll get as you continue to play. You collect gems for use in the in-game shops, but you’ll find these same gems are used to fill a progress meter when you end a run. As you meet milestones of gem collection, you can unlock palettes which change the way the game looks (long time Nintendo fans might appreciate the GBOY and VBOY palettes) as well as alternative playstyles. These styles never make the game easier to play overall, as while they each come with a change to how you play the game they always come with a concession. There’s the Boulder style which I’ve found myself gravitating towards which gives you 2 extra HP to begin with, but has the downside of giving you one fewer upgrade option at the end of each level. Levitate is another option which gives you a more floaty jump style that itself has positive and negative aspects – but you might find the fact you get the extra air time helps you build combos easier outweighs the floatiness.
Totally on the other end of the spectrum, weapon pickups are about as impermanent as can be. You’ll find these pickups in little side rooms as you descend into the well, and collecting them gives you either ammo or health upgrades along with changing the behaviour of your gunboots. You might find one or two that you prefer, but you’ll need to juggle that preference with the fact that if you decide not to pick up a gun collectible you miss out on the ammo/health upgrade that comes with it. There’s a lot of depth to decision making in Downwell, far more than I expected initially. Choosing a weapon you’re familiar with might reward you with easier handling which could yield higher combos (you’re rewarded for defeating as many enemies as possible without touching the ground), choosing a different style to begin with could change the way you handle or give you more flexibility in whether you want to use these pickups, and choosing the upgrades at the end of each level can massively change the way you play the remainder of the run. Gradually learning the handling of weapons, the utility of upgrades, patterns in environment types and enemy movement and dynamics of different playstyle options makes Downwell super rewarding to play, and keeps it compelling.
It’s that compelling nature that I suspect will keep me coming back to Downwell for some time to come. Its systems are each simple enough to grasp quickly, but provide enough depth when taken together that each play feels unique and exciting. Just getting through the levels is a challenge in itself, but you can decide to pursue fast descents, combo chains or a more considered and slow pace – each method is valid, and if you’re like me you’ll probably switch between these mindsets all the time. Downwell is at it’s best on Switch. The game’s pick up and play nature is at home on a portable machine, and comfortable, button-based control options make it easy to play for as long or short a session as you feel like while bringing precision I couldn’t manage on mobile platforms. If you have the patience and desire to fail often and learn from your mistakes, Downwell is well worth falling into.
- Rewarding challenge
- Dynamic gameplay
- Some may not enjoy the failure loop