‘What’s that Skippy? Another Indie gem has fallen down the Vita well? Lead the way boy!’
As Kinda Funny’s Colin Moriarty is fond of saying; ‘Gameplay is King’ – and it’s fair to say this statement is never truer than when talking about Downwell. It may not have the system pushing graphics of say Uncharted: Golden Abyss or Killzone: Mercenary, and it may not have the complex and rewarding storytelling exhibited by games such as Danganronpa or Persona, but what Downwell has in spades is pure, unadulterated, no nonsense gameplay.
A quick visit to the game’s official website will tell you that ‘Downwell is a curious game about a young person, falling down a well, battling enemies with gun boots and sometimes visiting shops’. That pretty much sums up this title perfectly, as there is very little more to it than that. However, the addictive and rewarding gameplay hook is completely on point here as two trips down the well will very rarely offer the same experience, and the ever present tease of unlocking new visual palettes and gameplay styles will have you telling yourself ‘just one more go.’
Downwell is a procedurally-generated downward-scrolling shooter of sorts, consisting of four areas and a final boss fight. Before you begin each run you get the choice of what palette you would like slapped on the screen, and also what style you want the ‘young person’ (just think of it as the result of Bayonetta and Baymax having a baby) to use.
Styles are a very well incorporated risk/reward mechanic that can drastically alter how your run will pan out. For example, the Boulder style allows you to start your descent with an increased HP pool – however, it also means that when it comes to choosing an upgrade at the end of a level your options will be limited.
Although there are some minor platforming elements thrown in, the main meat of the game comes from trying to get to the end of each stage, whilst quickly dispatching enemies to keep your combo up, and collecting as many gems as possible.
Often on your adventure downwards you will come across the odd passage, either on the left or to the right of the screen. Having quick reflexes and an eagle eye pays off, as these will offer one of three things. You’ll either find a shop in which you can purchase more health and/or more space for ammo, a nice big pile of red rocks which when shot will spout out a massive fountain of gems, or a new weapon for you to slap on to your feet.
Gunplay in the game works as follows; on the right of the screen is your ammo meter – you can shoot ’til your heart’s content as you plummet downwards through the well, however you will only be able to reload (which I should point out is automatic) whenever your feet touch solid ground. This adds a real element of strategy and tactical thinking to what could have otherwise been a mindless shooter. Instead of just hammering the fire button, you’ll want to keep at least a few bullets in your clip – as anyone who has played a round will know; you never want to be free-falling with no bullets left in case you need to avoid an obstacle (or an enemy) that can damage you.
The weapons are also a real joy to experiment with, as they all feel so unique and different. Furthermore, experimentation is encouraged – as picking up some new guns for your feet will also reward you with 1HP (which you will most likely be needing by the time you find one).
The whole arsenal feels quite varied, and incredibly satisfying to mix up, as each gun feels like it offers an entirely different strategy of play. For instance, the incredibly powerful laser can dispatch most foes with a well placed shot, however the sparse amount of ammo it can hold means that not only does your accuracy need to perfect, but you’re sacrificing basic character maneuverability (extra shots being a part of that).
The constant switching up of gameplay styles is not only limited to your weapon choice, but also to what stage you are playing on. Although the opening areas of the game are quite simple and straightforward, they quickly ratchet up in difficulty as you start having to negotiate spikes, fire and, even a timer on the underwater stages. The underwater stages seem to pump up the panic more so than the others, as your oxygen is constantly ticking down – forcing a more fast-paced style of play as you desperately try and reach the end of the level.
At the end of each stage you are then treated to a choice of upgrades that offer permanent buffs of sorts. These are really fun to mix and match as they range from options such as having a drone accompany you (who will shoot when you do), to having your guns automatically reload whenever you collect a gem, to even having destructible platforms shoot bullets upwards whenever they are destroyed (crucial when dealing with those pesky bats!).
If I had one criticism with Downwell it’s that the display options feel a tiny bit limited. What I mean is that because this game was originally designed for iOS, the Vita version feels like it has been squished into the centre of the screen to maintain a presentable ratio. This isn’t so much of an issue in the opening sections of the game, however in later levels there can be so much happening at once that it can become difficult to keep track of what’s going on, and where your character is.
Now before you start hammering away at the keyboard telling me that there is a Tate mode that allows you to play the game with the Vita held sideways; I know. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep it in Tate mode for very long at all as I found controlling the game this way to be counter-intuitive.
When all is said and done, the display option “issue” is literally my only complaint; and it’s a very minor one at that. In my opinion, it shouldn’t even really affect your choice when deciding whether or not to buy this game. Downwell is one of the best games I have played this year. Everything just feels like it completely fell into place for this title! The price is so cheap (I would gladly have paid double), the music is spot on (and perfectly compliments the 8-bit graphical style), and the gameplay does what any great arcade game should do; it makes you come back for more and more, time after time. This is a video game, a proper, old-school, hard, rewarding video game – and it deserves your attention!