Downwell Review

December 5, 2015 by Mathew Kumar

A new Roguelike-like-like for you to like-like

As English footballer and television personality Jimmy Greaves ones said, “it’s a funny old game.” Of course, he was talking about football. Whereas what I consider “a funny old game” has to be the indie video game industry.

Because here’s Downwell, the latest indie darling. A Rogue-like-like (or perhaps more specifically, a Spelunky-like) where the player controls a tiny hero with unexplained machine gun boots falling down a procedurally-generated well and unlocking upgrades at the end of each short level. Seems fair enough! And you’ve got the likes of Douglas Wilson (designer of Johann Sebastian Joust) praising it in Polygonat length.

The question I have is: isn’t Downwell basically just Probability 0?

Released in late 2012 by Droqen, Probability 0 is a Rogue-like-like where the player controls a tiny hero who can, unexplained, fire stars beneath him falling down a procedurally-generated pit and unlocking upgrades at the end of each short level. Sounds familiar! Yet, at the time, no one really noticed it. And few people have mentioned Probability 0 in the same breath as Downwell, outside of some rumblings onTwitter.

Now, to be fair, Probability 0 was released at the same time as Droqen’s Starseed Pilgrim, which was absolutely an indie darling in its time (Braid’s Jonathan Blow was a vocal fan.) So I’m definitely not out to say that Droqen has been cheated of any success. It’s just… weird to see a game get released that—parallel evolution or not—has been discussed and praised so widely when there’s a game out there that has all the same bits in a slightly different order and was released nearly three years earlier.

So the first thing I’ll say about Downwell is that if you’re already familiar with Probability 0—and you are now—it’s not going to blow you away at first glance. Faster paced and with a tighter play space than its genetic forefather, it feels messy to begin with. Even from the first level the screen can fill up with explosions and bullets and at any point you can feel like you’ve taken a hit that you just couldn’t avoid. Indeed, Downwell feels more like an iPhone title like Doodle Jump than it does something more sober and controlled like Spelunky, which does make some sense as it has been released on both PC and iOS and Android.

However, Downwell does reward persistence. A great deal of joy in the game comes from using the upgrades you get at the end of each level—they allow you to shape your play-style, allowing you a sense of growth not just in your character’s abilities, but your ability to combine and use them in interesting ways. There’s a slight wrinkle in that they’re doled out randomly rather than via a skill-tree progression, like 0, which means that you often have to react to the options (and it’s easy to feel like you’ve been screwed over when you need one kind of upgrade but don’t see it).  Oh, and not to forget the game’s wide range of machine gun boot modifications—you can find yourself shooting lasers or blasting an amazingly crunchy shotgun—or the shops that occasionally pop up in levels, Spelunky-style, and allow you to refill your health or upgrade your ammo reserves.

The game also has a rudimentary system of unlockables to reward continual play (the player collects gems in each game, and they’re tallied up at the end even if they’ve been spent). At first this seems to mostly consist of palette swaps for Downwell’s mostly monochomatic (if acceptably charming) graphics, but it also adds new “styles” of falling that mix the game up in interesting ways and can make it more or less challenging. I’ll admit, for example, that I tend to play in the extra-survivable “boulder” style, where the wee hero tumbles his way down the well but has extra hit points.

These things should keep you coming back, and as you become more and more comfortable with the game, the initial messiness—while it’s never fully cleaned up—does come under more control until you’re breezing through the first world and can start to concentrate on the game’s real differences from Probability 0.

You see, Downwell is mostly a game about air control. Like something like Doodle Jump, where you’re trying to keep your character in the air by hitting often small targets, Downwell is about keeping the wee hero bouncing off enemies heads while collecting gems and firing to reach large combos of hot death without ever touching solid ground. Enemies and the like are never quite as interestingly designed as those of Probability 0, but in Downwell, the enemies are just an obstacle—you want to use them, farm them, to make sure you’re always reaching that next combo (the aim being to repeatedly chain combos of 25 and reap the sweet reward of some free health.) It’s incredibly challenging and adds a whole layer to the game beyond survival and progression, similar to the layers found in games like Geometry Wars.

Despite all that, however, Downwell does still feel a bit slight when compared to other Rogue-like-likes. Enemies are, as previously noted, rather mundane, the procedurally generated levels really don’t have very much going on. And sinfully for a Rogue-like-like, there aren’t too many unexpected moments that will have you gasping (don’t expect to kill any shopkeepers, or see enemies causing hilarious chain reactions, or anything like that.)

Downwell is still a great little arcade game, though. Probability 0 got there first—and is arguably the more interesting design—but Downwell unarguably feels great to play even if it doesn’t inspire marathon sessions. Released at a shockingly low price—just $2.99—there’s really no excuse not to pick it up if the idea of falling down a well with a pair of machine guns strapped to your legs sound like your cup of tea at all. It’s a funny old game.