The following review for Downwell will show the entire game, although it’s a simplistic affair with minimal story, so unless you want to learn its mechanics first hand you probably won’t lose out on much by watching anyway. Although it released simultaneously for iOS and windows, the vertical orientation of the play field gives the impression that Downwell was primarily designed with phones and other touch screen devices in mind. That might also be one reason why the controls are so simplistic requiring only three buttons total. After getting started with the console version and playing entirely with the controller, it came as a surprise when I saw that the iOS and Android versions are played using virtual buttons. It seems to me as though the gyroscope would have been used to move left or right, theoretically giving a larger degree of precision over the character’s movement. Instead, directional inputs are purely digital in all versions even when using an analog stick, so the only downside of playing on one platform compared to another is the mismatch between the orientation of the screen and the game. Those with rotating monitors can even resolve that by using the built in function on the settings screen. Fortunately the same amount of space is displayed either way so apart from the actual size of the display all things seem equal across all platforms. Many of us have a bias against phone games but hopefully I’ve established that Downwell doesn’t suffer for it. While I would have liked to see how the game might play out with a wider area, the narrow stages make a lot of sense given the premise. Many old arcade games had a vertical orientation too. If Downwell being a phone game doesn’t turn you off, the simplistic pixel art might do the trick instead. There are some visual details worth praising, like the way the left and right walls of the first stage are lit unevenly which lends the scene a little depth. The tops and bottoms of surfaces also have a similar effect. In spite of that I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the graphics would have looked outdated even thirty years ago, but rather than dwell on that I’d rather point out how it attempts to turn that weakness into a strength. The three toned colour palette clearly communicates enemy positions as well as whether or not it’s safe to touch them, so even if you’re seeing something for the first time, you can quickly make an informed decision about it. The background is uncluttered and the platforms are well defined which gives you a nice clear picture of the play field. This is the greatest merit of Downwell’s visuals, they help to facilitate smooth gameplay. That said, even though the tri-colour style is mostly beneficial, there are times when it doesn’t make much sense. For a little while I assumed that the candles in the second area were dangerous when actually you’re supposed to bounce on them. It wouldn’t even be unreasonable for a new player to think that time-voids should be avoided until they learn better. Many of the palettes break their colouring convention in stage 3 anyway, so stylistic concerns aren’t really a valid excuse for sticking so rigidly to 3 colours everywhere else. Using that extra complimentary colour for important but harmless objects like time-voids and gems would have clarified the action on screen even more. As it is now, gems often end up blending into the chaos. While there are seemingly endless amount of colour unlocks might be dissappointing for some people, since they don’t impact the gameplay, I appreciate that the game sticks to a purely skill based approach, rather than grinding out persistent upgrades. Given how lucrative micro-transactions can be on mobile devices, it might have been tempting to go down that route, but instead the value has been placed on providing a consistent experience for all players. It’s kind of sad that such a thing even needs to be said but that’s the reality we live in. There are a few unlockable characters but the gem requirements to get them are all very reasonable and each comes with different pros and cons anyway. The only questionable inclusion is the floaty character which makes it much easier to land combos but there are sometimes when it can be detrimental to fall so slowly. I tend to stick with the default character anyway and I’ve beaten the game several times with that one so theoretically anybody could get to the end on their first attempt if they were good enough. Even so breezing through on one shot seems unlikely because the premise takes some adapting to get used to, upward mobility is extremely limited so the focus is entirely on speedy but controlled descent from one area to the next. Not the kind of direction platformers tend to go, but of course that’s what makes it so novel. Fortunately it’s not sustained by novelty alone. Lateral movement is lightning fast and perfectly responsive to the point where it might even feel too sensitive at first. After a little time it becomes second nature while retaining just enough difficulty to make landing on smaller enemies a dangerous proposition. The way gunshots reset downward momentum is intuitive and bouncing off enemies happens as seamlessly as possible leading to nice fluid movement arcs. To compliment the excellent controls there’s a surprising amount of well considered mechanics in place that help flesh out the core concept. The way weapon pickups are presented is particularly clever. Having several distinct guns is obviously a way to inject some variety into the gameplay and whilst this might work at first, Many players will gravitate towards whichever ones they prefer even if they’re all equally useful. Rather than relying on players to swap just for the sheer fun of it, weapon switching is incentivised by being combined with health and energy pickups. This makes the choice more difficult and thus more engaging. If you’re low on health you might pick up a weapon you don’t like just for that extra hit point. Conversely if you’re on full health you might avoid certain weapons instead. Even if your HP is maxed out you’re still incentivised thanks to the equally clever health upgrade system which rewards you with an extra point if you manage to overheal yourself four times. That also ties in to the shop, giving you a reason to consider buying food even if you haven’t taken any damage yet. All these interlocking systems ensure that players don’t just fall into an optimal routine for every run. At least some consideration is required along the way. Downwell’s greatest strength are these pros and cons associated with every decision. Landing on enemies is more dangerous than shooting them but it’s essential for combos since it reloads and then it’s also incentivised by giving the gems directly to the player rather than scattering them across the well. This pushes you towards playing the game the most exciting way; barrelling downwards and destroying everything in your path as efficiently as possible. It seems as though this is the way Downwell wants to be played but it also happens to be where the biggest issue crops up. The combo system. At eight consecutive kills you’re granted a one hundred gem bonus, rack it up to fifteen and you also get a max ammo boost, continue all the way to twenty five and you even get a piece of health as well. On the surface this seems like a great set up, again encouraging the player to push themselves further by dangling some juicy incentives in front of them. The problem is that the rewards cap out at twenty five and aren’t granted until the combo ends. Once you’ve figured that out the optimal strategy becomes clear. Build up exactly eight, fifteen, or twenty five kills and then intentionally land to reset the combo. In a way this is interesting because you could say that choosing when and where to end your combo takes some skill and strategy itself. It can be advantageous to do three, eight hit combos instead of a single twenty five hit one, that way you’ll get three hundred gems instead of one hundred. If you’re confident in your ability to avoid damage then stopping at fifteen is often better than going to twenty five. This is another layer of decision making you’ll have to do as you descend the well, but unfortunately it doesn’t make up for how dissatisfying it is to end combos early. When you’re in the middle of a streak you naturally want to see how long you can keep it going, Many games build their entire premise on how compulsive that can feel, it’s even what initially hooked me about Downwell, but in the end you’re effectively punished for trying to do so. The only incentive to keep a combo going past twenty five is to compete on the ingame leaderboard, which is better than nothing but unless you specifically set out for that purpose it’s usually not worth it. Statistically you’re not likely to regularly beat your own highscore, the more likely scenario is that you’ll plough into some hazard first. In those majority cases you won’t have accomplished anything, and thanks to the reward system you’ll also have robbed yourself of numerous useful goodies. Of course you have no way of knowing whether you’ll succeed or fail beforehand so once you’ve killed your twentyfifth enemy you’re left with the decision to cut yourself off from a potentially record breaking combo or miss out on the rewards. For such a skill focused game there should be more overlap between the most pragmatic way to play, and the most satisfying way to play. Instead they’re mutually detrimental to each other. I think there’s several better ways the combo incentives could have been handled, but the simplest fix would just to be instantly grant the rewards once the counter hits twenty five. that’d be almost functionally identical to what most players would end up doing once they reach twenty five anyway. The only difference being it would also allow you to combo to your heart’s content without being punished for it. This thought comes back to me every single time I force myself to end a combo at twenty five, which is bit of a mood killer to put it lightly. Maybe if the random elements had been more impactful they might have been able to reignite my interest but unfortunately they tend not to make a big enough difference for each run to feel unique. It seems as though that procedural generation that decides enemy numbers and placements tends to favour fairness above all else, because certain elements will recur time and again. Playing on normal, the first stage is guaranteed to continually spawn bubble enemies so that it’s possible to maintain combos. The underwater stage obviously has to spawn air cannisters at set distances so players don’t die for no reason. It’s hard to find fault in this, relying solely on randomness to decide enemy patterns would be pure madness but it does result in a certain amount of sameyness. Powerups offer more variety but in terms of pure numbers it’s easier to see a problem with them. There’s twenty possible upgrades to choose from but a successful run ends with twelve of those being acquired. That means even if you go out of your way to intentionally choose different ones from last time, you’ll still end up with an overlap of four. Some aren’t even worth taking in the first place like “Gem Sick”, which is practically useless since “Gem High” almost never runs out by itself anyway. Once you start culling those less useful ones from your selection, every run ends up more or less the same. The first few stages can play out differently because you’ll have a limited selection of upgrades at that point, but even then there’s a severe lack of synergies that make each run feel distinct. The only really interesting combination is Gem Attractor plus Gem Powered. If you collect them both you’ll pull gems towards you which then refuel your ammo, allowing you to go for long stretches without a proper reload. Even the way upgrades are acquired helps to mitigate how negatively they can impact a run. Rather than forcing a specific powerup at the end of each stage, you get to choose from a set of three, which allows for a certain amount of randomisation whilst also giving you some control of the situation. Again this places emphasis on providing a fair experience, which is a great thing by itself but it also calls in to question how much value the random elements actually add. Four of the six possible shop items restore health which means one of those four will always be available. The selection changes everytime but it’s also weirdly consistent. Technically every run is different from the last but rather than getting some massive change each time, you end up getting little changes that barely make an impact. Overall it’s stuck in a middle ground, where the randomisation doesn’t feel detrimental but anyone hoping for a totally different experience every time will likely be disappointed and quickly lose interest. I suppose what I’m saying is I’d like to see most of the random elements ditched all together or made more impactful. EIther way it could have been more focused. With a crippled scoring system and a lack of meaningful randomisation there’s not much reason to keep playing once you’ve seen the end. Hard mode introduces some fairly significant changes but even so it probably won’t be long until you’ve hit the bottom again. You can also compete for the best time on a leaderboard which is another nice little addition but it’s hard to justify in a game with such heavy randomisation. For two players of equal skill, luck would almost certainly be the deciding factor in who gets the better time. An endless mode wouldn’t entirely fix that problem but it seems like a more natural fit for a game like this. Scoring players on depth, combo, or some mixture of the two would tap into the most enjoyable aspects of the gameplay and probably do a better job at fostering competition. Admittingly an endless mode would need a few extra considerations to stop players from going forever. Difficulty would need to ramp up and maybe healing would need to be disabled but most of the work would already be in place since the levels are procedurally generated anyway. Clearly a lot of effort was spent getting the fundamentals to feel as good as they do. It seems like a shame not to take a few extra steps which would greatly increase the replay value. Downwell may not capitalise very well on its random elements but it’s a novel premise with core gameplay so satisfying that it’s very easy to get pulled in regardless. Bouncing from one enemy to the next is smooth and the guns feel appropriately punchy. For the most part it’s a very smartly put together system with a single glaring problem. Combos. I think if that one issue had been sorted out, and an endless mode was available, I’d probably keep playing periodically to see if I could beat my highscore. As it is now that “one more go” feeling isn’t quite there. It could be worse though, getting to the bottom will take the average player a short but respectable amount of playtime. The ending sequence itself is simple and satisfying. When you really get down to it the biggest problem with the game is that it doesn’t encourage you to play it forever. It’s worth taking the plunge… but it’s not a bottomless well.