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Downwell Review: Fall Safely

You’re in a park late at night when you stumble upon a large hole in the ground. Upon examining it, you realize that it is in fact a well – one that looks ominous in the darkness of the night. Of course, you wonder what lies in the well’s depths, but the echoes rising up from deep below send a shiver down your spine. What you’re hearing is not pleasant; it’s not human.

In this scenario, I’d venture to say that all of us would decide to ignore the well and move on with our night. But in Downwell, the protagonist must take a slightly different path. Instead of walking by, he straps on his gun boots and jumps into the hole, looking to defeat enemies and collect treasures.

And that’s where your action comes in – after guiding the character into the well, you’ll maneuver him to safety from stage to stage, hoping to minimize damage while capturing all the riches you can. All of this takes place in a retro-style, procedurally-generated game that’s incredibly addicting and one of my favorite iOS games I’ve played in a long time.

The Premise

In theory, Downwell is a simple game. Falling rapidly, your goal is to advance to the farthest stage you can while collecting gems defeating enemies, plundering caves, and navigating the ins and outs of the well below. The only thing that stands in your way is a set of enemies that can be easily defeated by shooting them with your gun boots or landing on them; even if you hit one, you have multiple lives with ample opportunities to make up for what you lost.

But don’t misinterpret what I just said – although Downwell should be easy, it’s one of the most challenging games I’ve ever purchased in the App Store. It’s brutally unforgiving, sending hordes of enemies your way, and blocking your path to slow you down. And when you finally run out of lives, the game takes you back to the beginning to run it back.

Let’s walk through what a typical game of Downwell may look like.

Cavern-1: After jumping into the well for the first time, you have nothing other than your gun boots and four lives. As blocks appear below you, you shoot them to fall farther down, landing on floating creatures reminiscent of jellyfish, shooting bats, and collecting the gems that pop out from their bodies. Eventually, you see a frog and it jumps into you, taking one of your lives. Then, you see a cave along the left side. You run into it and see a heart with an “S” in the middle – when you run into it, you regain your lost life and unlock a new gun type: the shotgun, a more burst-like gun than your previous pistol-esque weapon. You hit the rest of the enemies on the way out and fall into a red semicircle at the end of the level.

Before you advance, you’re greeted with an option to choose an upgrade. These vary in strength, but are always random. In this case, you got lucky: you get to choose a jetpack that slows your descent. Since this allows more time for you to think, you decide to pick it up and jump into the next level.

Cavern-2: You continue falling into the well, but the second cavern level is proving to be tougher than the last. Bats fly into you, taking you down to only one health. Even though you walk into a cave, all you receive are more gems. Eventually, you land on a spiked creature who rids you of your last life. A summary of your score flashes at the end and you have the option to restart, return to the surface, or change your character’s style.

As you get better at Downwell, you’ll make it farther down the hole. However, the premise outlined above stays the same. Although this may seem repetitive, the challenges brought to you make the game challenging enough to bring you back.

Weapons, Upgrades, and Styles

Three key factors to your success in Downwell are weapons, styles, and upgrades. While the former can directly influence you in the run of play, the latter is especially important to keep you continuing in the game.

The list of weapons spans seven total guns: burst, machine gun, laser, noppy, puncher, shotgun, and triple. Each offers its own pros and cons, and picking up one that you feel particularly strong about can alter the way you play the game. For example, the laser’s strength in destroying enemies is satisfying to me, despite it burning quickly through my charges (think of your charge meter as a magazine – it’s the total amount of shots you can take before you have to refill).

For upgrades, the list is much longer at a lengthy 20. I won’t go on listing them all, partly because the fun is discovering each throughout your runs. By finding a combination of upgrades that you like, you’re able to keep pushing through the game and reach new depths.

Starting out, your character assumes the “usual” style, a standard, default way of playing Downwell. However, as you progress through the game, you’ll unlock more styles that will tempt you with attributes like “starts with more HP.” But be careful – each style comes with a con that can come back to hurt you later in the game.

Aesthetics and Music

Downwell is retro in an in-your-face kind of way; from its chiptune music to its pixely art style, you’ll likely catch a wave of nostalgia when playing it. What’s great, though, is that it is distinctly its own, rather than being a ripoff of a previous game. The only thing I really don’t care for is the constant repetition of the same song, which plays in the background and is just set on a loop.

An unnecessary but cool addition is the ability to change the color scheme of the game. Unlocked by simply playing through rounds, these themes can be applied in the pause menu, which is accessed by tapping on the top half of the screen. Under “Palette,” you’ll find a list of all your available options, each changing the screen’s color to represent what it applies.

My Experience

Playing through Downwell has been exceptionally satisfying, providing me with a challenge while also drawing me back in once every hour or two. The majority of my games only last a couple of minutes, so I’m able to log a game or two between studying or go on a long binge streak of dozens of games.

One thing that I can’t stress enough is how difficult the game proves to be in its later stages. My personal best is level 4-1, an accomplishment that took me hours to achieve and one that will be incredibly tough to replicate. Even so, when I inevitably finish the game by passing through the fourth level, I know that I’ll want to come back, try out different combinations, and beat the game again.

Conclusion

Downwell has been out on iOS since October 2015, and I’m sad that I only got around to checking it out in early 2017. It’s a game that builds addiction and takes practice, but the feeling of getting through a tough maze of enemies is very, very rewarding.

There are a few other minor aspects to Downwell, but after roughly 1200 words, you’re probably tired of reading about a game you can download right now and experience for yourself. And I’d encourage you to do just that, because Downwell is a game that deserves attention and praise.

You can pick up Downwell in the App Store for $2.99 (Universal). Alternatively, you can find it on Steam as well.

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