In this era of games like Red Dead Redemption 2 and God of War it’s easy to forget just how simple a game needs to be to be entertaining. While Downwell has very little to its mechanics, it has enough depth to keep players engaged for quite awhile.
The game’s premise is all in the name. The official Downwell web page says it best when it calls it “a game about a young man going down a well with gun-boots.” That’s all there is to it, no complex motivations or deep character studies. The deepest thing about this game happens to be the well itself.
Simple isn’t inherently bad, however, as the biggest strength of Downwell is its simplicity. Using three buttons, players can move left, right and jump/shoot. With only these actions, the goal is to make it as far down the well as possible, and dying means starting back at the top. The game definitely gives off an endless-runner vibe, but in a good way. It’s always tempting to play just one more round to see how much deeper you can descend on your next run.
It isn’t all fall and games, however, as there are many threats lurking in the deep. Bats, frogs, ghosts, eyeballs and many traps make the player’s journey a perilous one. The well is split into multiple areas and each area is divided into sections, with each section having its own dangers to deal with. Not only that, but each playthrough is randomized so the player is forced to adapt to new situations after each death.
Luckily, the game provides you with some nifty gun-boots to provide much needed protection. Pressing the jump button in midair fires bullets from the player’s feet. These bullets can be used to take care of threats as well as to slow your descent. The guns have a nice punch to them and feel satisfying to fire. Of course, it’s not as simple as holding the fire button down and counting yourself safe, as the boots have a limited ammo supply and can only be reloaded by landing on something, be it a platform or an enemy.
Enemies come up fast, and taking a hit from above or the side will result in the player losing a bit of life and throwing off the player’s rhythm, which could result in the end of their run. The quick pace of the game may be a bit frustrating at first, but players will adjust in no time.
Risk is the name of the game, as you are encouraged to rack up large combos by killing as many enemies as you can without landing on a platform. The player falls at a quick pace, so quick thinking is important to racking up high combos. Mastery of the game requires effective use of the gun-boots to kill enemies and using that brief moment of hang time to decide your next move, be it falling further down, landing on an enemy to keep the combo going, or dropping onto a platform for safety.
Thinking quickly is important when faced with obstacles, as certain enemies hurt you if you land on them, some enemies leave bodies that can be used in conjunction with some upgrades, and some platforms have traps, so focus and adaptability becomes essential. Playing well is also incentivized in that combos over 20 refill a bit of health, give you an extra bullet and provide extra gems.
Gems are the game’s currency and are usually found in caves, blocks and from enemies. They can be used to purchase power-ups from any shops you may find on your way down. The shops really only carry health refills, extra health and ammo boosts. Still, these aren’t the only power-ups you’ll find in the game.
In many caves you’ll find different gun types, from shotguns and triple shots to lasers and burst rounds. The different ammo types change the dynamic of shooting and add another thing players need to keep in mind when scoring big.
The game also features upgrades. After each section, the player is given a choice from a list of upgrades to pick from, from options like pulling in nearby gems and eating the corpses of enemies for health, to a drone that fires bullets with you and having bullets fly up from destroyed blocks. Each upgrade provides a bonus to help you along without providing too much of a crutch to rely on; since dying means losing everything, they’re not something that one can become heavily reliant on.
Nonetheless, it’s satisfying having a plethora of power-ups while racking up large combos in the deepest parts of the well, and it’s terribly frustrating losing it all. But with the game’s simple design and tight controls, I always felt at fault when faced with a game over.
The simplicity of Downwell is its biggest strength. It’s fast, fun, frantic and a little frustrating. But that’s what makes it a good time waster, something to sit down with and have no feelings of investment, complexity or time sinking. But for $2.99 on the Nintendo Switch – it’s also available for PlayStation 4 and PC and on iOS and Android devices – this game is one I’m more than willing to make time to waste with.