Game review: Downwell for PS4 and PS Vita

Downwell was the game I got while waiting for Mighty No. 9 to finally release in the European PS Store. At this point, Mighty No. 9 has finally “shipped” and I played it for a day and deleted it with no intentions of reviewing it. I’ll only say that the game has about as much to do with Mega Man as a Snape/Potter slashfic has anything to do with Harry Potter. Sure, there are surface details that seem similar, but once you scratch the surface, it’s all squick and nausea below.

But so this is my review for Downwell after a week of playing on both my Vita and my PS4, and while it has some interesting ideas, overall, I ended up deleting it as well.

Downwell is another indie retro title, but while most retro games pay tribute to Nintendo, the graphics in this feel like they’re reaching even farther back to the days of Atari or perhaps Amiga and Commodore. The controls remind me of those old days of imprecise joysticks with a single fire button, there’s only three colors in any palette, and any two objects occupying the same space will result in one dithering or vanishing entirely. The object of the game is summed up in the title. You fall down a well and use your “gunboots” to shoot enemies. Doing so will make them release gems of various sizes. Along the sides of the well are occasional pit stops with a force field around them. Once you hit that field, time stops. Your enemies freeze, and you get a chance to rest and collect extra gems or guns. After passing through the first well barrier at the bottom of level 1-1, another hole in the walls appears with shops holding three items for sale in exchange for the gems you collect. Also, completing each level gives you access to an upgrade item, some of which have very helpful qualities.

I’m sure for a lot of people, this game is great, and I can see a whole speed running community building around it. But I didn’t like it for a number of reasons, and the worst part for me was the controls. Maybe I’m just bad at the game, but I might press jump and tap the direction pad to one side or the other to jump on an enemy on the same platform, and my character went up and down in a straight line, leading to them taking damage. I might tap the pad to get my character to drop off the side of a ledge and head straight down, only to watch them veer across the screen and hit an enemy at a side angle, again taking damage. (In which case, my character would then fly off in a random direction, often pinging like a pinball into a clusterfuck of enemies just above him.) Nothing I did ever felt consistent, so anything I did that ended up being beneficial or looking cool was strictly blind luck.

The thing about most enemies is, they’re very simply coded to aim for the character. Anything below you is most likely going to run into your boots for you and commit suicide. Where the problem arises is when you fall past several enemies, because they will continue pursuit, and you will eventually land somewhere that allows them to catch up. Then the enemy below committing suicide will launch the character up into the other enemies, and it’s the pinball clusterfuck, time and time again.

This isn’t helped by the fact that you really have no idea what’s below you. Maybe there’s a platform just out of sight, and maybe there’s enough gaps to send you plummeting for a hundred feet. Add to this that certain enemies cannot be stepped on and must be shot, while others cannot be shot and must be stomped. All of this is made more confusing by the limited palette. Remember those gems I mentioned? Yeah, they have the same solid color as the enemies you need to avoid touching directly. So say a gem falls away from you and you jump after it. In the resulting blur, instead of collecting the gem, you step on an enemy you didn’t even see until the last possible second. Frustrating doesn’t even begin to cover it.

I can’t say I thought it was all bad. I liked the various weapons on offer for the gunboots, with the laser being my favorite. But the shotgun is also good, and so is the machine gun, puncher, and triple shot. I wasn’t so fond of the burst, but it’s because I frequently mistook it as the machine gun and failed to alter my button pressing pattern. So I fully admit that’s my bad.

I thought the music was okay, if a bit repetitive. It’s actually much better than any music from the era the game is aiming for, and I’ll take tinny, repetitive, but decent music over irritating beeps and squawks pretending to be music.

Playing for just a few sessions starts a series of unlocks of palettes and new playing styles. The style change offers some modifications to the base rules of the game, but nothing too major. One gives more health to start off with while giving one less upgrade option per level. Another makes shops rare and puts more guns in the random caves you pass. Each style is just different enough to be worth experimenting with, but not so different as to radically alter the game.

I liked the style unlocks, but not the palettes. This is due largely to the fact that even being nice, most of the variations are butt ugly and hurt my eyes. For every one color scheme that I said, “Oh, that’s not so bad,” there were five or six more that I shut off after just a few seconds. It’s worth noting that I sometimes said “not bad,” but I never once said, “Okay, that’s nice.”

And this is the main problem I have with the unlocks. It almost never feels like a reward to be given another three colors that all look like variations of babyshit green. What would have been much better is a palette editor in the options menu, allowing me to choose the three or four colors available. The unlocks system could have then doled out more weapons, upgrade options, and play styles. Then each unlock would have gotten me a bit more hyped. Instead, each new palette unlock made me sigh and wonder why I was even bothering.

I want to mention the sometimes odd choices in enemies for levels, with the first cavern world being the best example. Your enemies at first are all the stereotypical underground denizens you’d expect to find in old school games. You fight bats, snails, frogs, turtles, and snakes. (Or possibly worms. I’m not real clear on that.) But then there’s what looks like flying jelly beans, and another enemy is a big ball spouting what looks like some kind of smoke balls. Each level has at least one enemy like that, the one that makes me think of that old Sesame Street game, “one of these things is not like the others, one of these things is not the same…”

I also didn’t like how much of the game involved guessing how stuff worked, or what certain abilities did because there’s no manual. On the Vita, there is an option from the start screen to read a PDF manual, but that actually turns out to be ten pages explaining the ratings codes of various regions, and there’s nothing else there. I find it funny how so many indies want to emulate old games, but their selective memories leave out one of the best parts of that era of gaming. The designers probably think being obscure is hip, but there’s a certain point when a bit of explanation could make the games concepts easier to grasp, at least in my opinion. I know it took me forever to sort out what a “Gemhigh” did beyond adding a streaking trail behind my character. (It boosts damage and raises the rate of fire. One of these is helpful, while the other can lead to problems depending on the gun equipped.)

The game ends with one and only one boss encounter, and I swear to God, it looks to me like a giant penis spitting little bursts of semen at the character. When the head splits to reveal teeth and a single eye, I instantly think “Oh no, look out! The one-eyed willy is about to spit!”

I’m not saying Downwell is a bad game, but the wonky controls and limited palettes didn’t appeal to me. So I’ll give it 3 stars and suggest it for gamers who want to go real old school, back to the days when game makers had to stuff a fifteen minute game with cheap padding to make it seem longer. As the game was only 4.99, I don’t feel like I was ripped off. But it’s not something I want to play long term, and I think most people will drop it soon after completing their first run in with the giant trouser snake of doom.