Review: Downwell

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I’m pretty sure you can make a retro platformer out of literally any concept, but only the best ones fully marry their concept to the gameplay. Downwell is just such a gem, a simple-looking jaunt down a shockingly deep well that adds just enough complexity and surprise to keep it fresh. It’s a very tight package, from the lo-res graphics to the interactions between your combat options all the way to the small variety of enemies that form a wide spread of threats. Add to that some excellent controls and unlockables, and you have a recipe for a true classic.

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Downwell is exactly what it says on the tin. Your tiny nondescript fellow wakes up from a nap next to a well and decides he might as well jump the hell in. This sends him on an odyssy through four distinct worlds of three levels each, full of platforms to rest on and enemies to scare you off of them. All you have to do is get to the end of each level which is easily achieved by falling, but the monsters and traps in your way mean you might want to take your time. There are also gems to collect and new guns to load into your gunboots, which are indeed boots that shoot downward. It almost plays like a vertical shmup at times, if not for the platforming mechanics woven through everything.

You have two options in dispatching an enemy, shooting or stomping. You can take out most enemies by shooting, though a few of the white ones like turtles and big skulls don’t take kindly to being shot. Stomping will take out any white enemies but red ones hurt if you touch them, so mixing up your attacks is key. Your gunboots have ammo divided into charges, and different weapons take different amounts of charges so ten charges might mean ten machine gun bullets, or just two shotgun blasts. Landing on the ground or stomping an enemy reloads your weapon, and you can build combos that reward you with gems the more things you kill before touching the ground.

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See how well all that ties together? Coupled with the tight controls, Downwell allows you to perform acts of acrobatic mayhem, bouncing off one enemy to shotgun two more, hop off a candle and bounce across a fourth to shotgun three more. It’s quite fast-paced and the simple graphics can make it hard to pick out where you are in the chaos, but there’s a cadence to it that you can expect to pick up after just a few rounds. At the end of each level you also get to pick one of three perks, all of which are useful in some way like floatier jumps or stomps causing burst attacks or a helpful drone to shoot with you. There are also stores to spend gems and side caves with new weapons, both of which are key to progression because weapons come packed with extra health or charges, and collecting enough health past your maximum extends your maximum by one.

You’ll need to do plenty of strategizing every time you pick a perk or hit a shop, and by the end of the game you can make quite the beefy little spelunker. You’ll need all the help you can get, though, because the latter two worlds have some brutal gimmicks to them and the final boss is a surprising challenge to say the least. It’s all worth it for an absolutely adorable ending though, and your gems (in addition to being store currency and a trigger for many perks) unlock meta-progression in the form of new playstyles and 2-bit palettes for the game. As if the high-flying combat wasn’t enough reason to keep jumping down the damn well, there’s plenty of other neat stuff to unlock and experience.

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Downwell is the best kind of platformer, the kind built just big enough to fully realize its gimmick. It’s just the right length and just the right complexity for a few rounds here and there, and the mechanics make it an absolute joy to master. Making progress to new levels and worlds is extremely satisfying, and if you can make it to the bottom of the well you’ll unlock a hard mode to keep you at it. I can’t recommend this one highly enough, both to fans of platformers and roguelikes, because I guarantee you’ll be spending more time than you’d ever expect to mastering its clever moves.

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