Downwell achieves that Zen-like quality that only the best roguelikes invoke, striking that perfect balance between life and death where every run feels tense and taut as the last, but leaves no hesitation when it came to hitting the retry button and going through it all over again. In other words, the gaming equivalent of enlightenment — every playthrough is both significant and insignificant at the same time.

For those uninterested in finding the meaning of life in their games, good design is the less spiritual explanation for such a satisfying, borderline addictive experience. Downwell embodies verticality and that downward flow is what defines the experience. The game pushes and prods you to fall faster and faster with every passing stage, level and moment until respite lasts a beat or two at most. That feeling is bolstered by mechanics that feel precise and comfortable: the movement, shooting and aesthetics all feel just right.

Downwell Screen

Imagine a Megaman game then flip every single level on its side then take that Megabuster and strap it to your feet — now you you’ve got a good idea of what it’s like to play Downwell. Instead of running with the occasional pit to jump over, it’s an endless pit and a constant search for a viable foothold to break up the falling. The blaster serves a dual purpose in this regard becoming both reverse thrusters and your primary means of protection from the baddies floating around. The decision to fire is always interlaced with the need to slow down a bit to catch your breath, but it isn’t long before you’re dropping yet again. Stomping on a creature’s head Mario style also serves the same purpose and has the added benefit of reloading weapons, but that choice carries some risks as some enemies are invulnerable to death from above.

The game hits a breakneck pace in a flash but it hits a full stop just as quickly, affording chances to explore. There may be a section with a side cavern that contains a gem stack or weapons upgrades or it could be something as simple as a bunch of breakable blocks and enemies to maneuver around. The game has a near perfect sense of pacing, slowing down and speeding up when appropriate to create tension.

Downwell uses a Metal Slug style of weapon switching where powerups found in side cavern change the gunboots being used. Only one pair of gunboots can be used at a time so it can be a matter of preference whether to take the short ranged shot gun or the laser. The weapon types may be varied, but all feel good to play with. I have no qualms using any of the pickups, but hold a few of them in higher regard (Nothing beats the laser.)

Downwell Shop screen

Upgrades dished out at the end of each stage, combined with weapons, have a big say in how long a run may last. Some may bring shop discounts while others may add an explosion to your jump that will damage enemies. A certain combo of weapon and upgrade may change strategy, style of play or passive skills (a la Binding of Isaac) and those little tweaks add enough variations to each playthrough that the game never gets boring. The laser weapon paired with the laser sight usually portends a deep run, but throw in discounted shop upgrade and there’s potential to hit a personal best.

Upon death, Downwell does everything it can to coax you into hitting retry without getting pushy or annoying. There’s a progress bar that awards a certain amount of experience after each death. Every level brings a new palette or playstyle, awarding experienced players some variation to keep everything fresh. The game has a minimalist look, acknowledging it’s GameBoy-VirtualBoy aesthetics with two eponymous color palettes, but that’s a big part of the charm. It’s not so much bullet hell with a screen flooded with hordes of enemies on screen meant to overwhelm you, but more bullet heck throwing less enemies and affording more space to maneuver.

Downwell is right up there with the Spelunky, Rogue Legacy and other great games in this genre, but doesn’t hijack your life like the others do. The game doesn’t give a good reason to stop playing, but is okay to stop because it only takes but a few seconds of playing to find a rhythm with it. There are very few games out there as accomodating and inviting to play as this one and that subtle charm is worth paying a few bucks to play on Steam, mobile or any platform you can find it.  

About The Author

Editor In Chief

Jose is a straight shooter who always goes the paragon route. He joined the team at Indie Haven to spread the word about indie games all across the galaxy. When not aboard the Normandy, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area playing video games and plotting ways to rid the world of games like Colonial Marines.

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