I’m going to start with an anecdote.
As I glanced over at my pile of various PS4, Xbox One and Wii U games, an unopened Tearaway Unfolded caught my eye. I had received it as a Christmas present, but never got around to playing it due to the sheer size of my never-ending gaming backlog. I tore open the package and installed the game, eager to jump into a bright and happy environment that I’ve wanted to try for some time.
Artistic direction and style are big selling points for me. They can really make a game shine, and demonstrate the unique artistic potential that video games possess. One might call me a “sucker for a good art style”.
I jumped into a world that was bursting with creative vision and charm. The unique concept had my name written all over it, and I soon fell in love with some of the characters and the world. However, after about five hours of playing, I didn’t feel the urge to go back and play Tearaway. In fact, during my last session with the game, it almost felt like I was just going through the motions.
I was playing it just for the sake of playing it.
It wasn’t that it was a bad game or anything, but rather the gameplay wasn’t overly satisfying or addicting. I loved the world around me, but what I was doing in it wasn’t fulfilling my inner gamer. Even a unique, creative world that oozed with charm wasn’t enough to keep me invested. For most, a game needs to have an appealing or addictive gameplay hook to keep you coming back for more. Amazing artistic direction can initially draw you in, but there needs to be something beyond that to keep you there.
Now why am I telling you about Tearaway - a non-recent release – in an article that’s supposed to be about Downwell? Well, it’s because this anecdote further proves that when it comes to video games, gameplay is king. And that’s exactly what Downwell is all about.
In short, Downwell is a rogue-like with its own personal twist: instead of maneuvering from left to right or around certain dungeon rooms, you’re free-falling down a well (hence the name, Downwell). You control the unnamed protagonist and his gun boots as they dive deeper and deeper into the well in search of treasure. As you make it further down the procedurally generated sections, you’ll encounter a variety of enemies, most of which have to be dealt with in particular ways. Some are immune to weapon-fire, others are immune to physical contact from the player, while there are many who lie somewhere in between. Of course, you could just try and bypass enemies. However, this will deprive you of the many gems they drop, which could be of great service to you in your free-fall. See, these gems can be used to purchase health and charge (essentially your ammunition clip) bonuses from a jolly shopkeeper, but more on him later.
To combat these enemies, you'll have the aforementioned gun boots at your disposal. As you fall deeper into each section, you'll find rooms containing randomly generated gun modules. These modules can be anything from a shotgun to a three-shot blaster, each of which has their own set of strengths and shortcomings.
At the end of each section, you'll have the choice between a set of upgrades that you can apply to your character, and which one you choose is greatly influenced by how your current run is going. Are you low on health? Maybe you'll opt to choose the Apple (replenishes 4HP) or Knife and Fork (eat the bodies of slain enemies to partially reduce health; yum) upgrades. Maybe you want a little more firepower and you'll choose Drone (a little buddy that fires when you do) or Popping Gems (bullets shoot upward from every gem you collect. Quite handy in hectic situations). Add the different unlockable "styles" to the mix - which provide changes such as increased health or upgrade choices - and there really is something for every type of player.
More than just a Weapon
The arsenal of weapons not only changes how you attack, but also serves as a tool of maneuvering. This allows for different play-styles depending on the selected gun module and power-up combinations that you use.
Do you opt for a low round, high-damage weapon like a shotgun or laser that can quickly take out pockets of enemies, but at the expense of mid-air movement? Or do you opt for the machine-gun, which lacks power, but is made up for with its large clip-size and maneuvering possibilities. Of course, you don’t get to choose which weapon you’ll get every time (besides your generic starting gun boots). But, when you do stumble upon a gun module in one of the randomly generated caves, you will have to take the above into consideration if you want your weapon choice to complement your course of action.
Keep em' Coming Back for More
As with any good roguelike, Downwell’s addicting gameplay loop kept me coming back for more, spurring me to try and make it a little bit deeper with each free-fall down the well. Its success in accomplishing this starts with a simple, yet fundamental concept: easy to grasp, but tough to master.
At the beginning, I was just trying to keep up with my character and easily getting killed by barely moving turtles and deceptively dangerous frogs. However, with each descent, I learned something new that added to my skill-set. Whether it was to tackle certain enemies in certain ways, pick upgrades that complement each other, or to learn which type of firearm was for me, I was gradually improving. Fast forward to now, and my mind is moving a mile a minute while calculating my next jump and/or attack one or two steps in advance. My mind became accustomed to the sheer mass of enemies and movement. It became this beautiful, calculated mess that kept me coming back for more (Also finding out what was the hell was at the bottom of this well - and the pure frustration of dying just before you reach the end of a level, too).
Furthermore, Downwell's addictive nature is rooted within its accessibility. Whether you're looking to kill a few minutes on your commute, or want to have a lengthy sit down with the game, experiencing Downwell is great on mobile, Vita and PS4.
Aesthetically Simple, Pleasing and Effective
Lastly, Downwell may be all about gameplay, but its simple, pixelated aesthetic really pops on screen; thanks in part to great animations, which make your character's actions appear quite fluid. Additionally, you can alter the game's visuals through the use of different pallets. These pallets are unlocked as you play the game, with new ones being available at certain gem increments. Although a minor addition, these pallets allow the player to further customize their Downwell experience, both in terms of aesthetic and which one they find best to play the game with (later stages can get a little hectic on-screen sometimes, and I found some pallets better than others for keeping track of the action in these types of situations). In this sense, it accomplishes what Tearaway could not, for me. Its simplistic style was what initially caught my attention online, but it had the gameplay to keep its hooks in me.
Also, I need to give a shout-out to the game’s shopkeeper, who despite a minimal role in the game, has captured my heart through his appreciation of my patronage. Seriously, the dude has two, maybe three lines. Yet, he’s one of my favorite characters in video games this year, simply because of how jolly he looks when you buy something. I mean look at the guy; how can you not like him?!
My main takeaway from Downwell has been this: in a year where I have blockbuster titles and an endless backlog of games to get through, I still find myself picking this game up and saying "just one more".