If you’re the kind of person that hates that faux retro aesthetic that has plagued indie games for the last number of years, look away now, this is your Halloween nightmare come to pass. Downwell doesn’t just wear its retro influence on its sleeve, it bathes in it. Downwell harkens back to an age where games didn’t fill their screens, where black bordered CRT monitors showed a blurry window into another world where the predominant color was black, as if every adventure took place in the silent, bleak expanse of space.
It also might be the best five dollars you spend this year. Put down that pumpkin spiced latte, and throw your hard-earned cash towards a game that might just have you playing all night until your eyes turn square like the pixels that have become burned into them. Downwell has a simple premise, rendered in super sharp, 8-bit glory, reminding us of the recent (and wonderful) Undertale, though Toby Fox’s title is similar only in graphical style.
You’re a young man, falling down a well, with rocket boots on. You can extrapolate some Joseph Campbell level hero myth from that simple premise all you want, but as it stands, this game isn’t about the story, it’s about jumping down a well to shoot bullets from your feet at monsters, get as deep as you can, then die, and repeat. It’s very much a rogue-like in that there is no persistent progress, save for unlocking new styles, and new skins for your window into this weird little world.
Your aim is to survive, dropping down the well, always falling, using your rocket boots as momentum control and a weapon against the denizens of the deep. Along the way, you’ll find strange shops on the left and right, reminiscent of the strange black markets of Spelunky, mixed with the style of the Metroid games of old. You find equipment and upgrades to help survive longer, and at the end of each floor, you can choose a new upgrade to tackle the next. Shops tend to carry extortionately expensive goods, making you wonder why anyone would ever pay 500 gems for meat some weirdo found in a well.
Downwell is all about twitch reflexes, about the moment to moment free fall. You see an enemy or an obstacle below, opting to shoot, head stomp, or dodge as is appropriate. Your weapon can switch from simple bullets through to lazer, shotgun, machine gun, or multi fire options, and a few others. Your rocket boots run out of ammo as you fire, and they’re recharged when you touch terra firma, or at least a block. Certain upgrades will affect your play style, as will unlocking new styles as you earn gems and hit targets.
An example is the boulder style, which gives you more health, but much less of a choice in terms of between floor upgrades. It’s essentially about mastering the fiendish game play, finding a style that works for you, and trying to get as far as you can, beating the end boss, and then finally hard mode.
The game is currently out on iOS as well as PC, and while I’ve only tried the game on Steam with a controller, the simple control scheme should translate very well to mobile formats too. All you need is left and right, and the jump button. It’s astounding that such an economic control scheme hides such a level of difficulty and depth.
We’ll lump these two together, as they’re both simple and stellar, in a way that belies the lo-fi trappings of the game. Downwell is smooth and elegant, never slowing despite upgrades and enemies turning the well into a bullet hell. The opening animation is fluid and gorgeous. It turns pixels into art, creating a world brimming with personality despite it’s three colour palate. What’s even more interesting is that you unlock a slew of different colour swaps for the game, which change everything.
The early filters essentially change the color of the lines from white to whatever else, but as you level up, you unlock a faux classic Gameboy filter, and even a Virtual Boy styled one too. While the V.B filter might make your eyes bleed, it’s a nice touch, a little something to work towards even as you struggle to beat your high score. They’re a neat homage to the types of games Downwell is so obviously inspired by, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery after all.
The sound is top-notch, too. Perfectly crafted 8 bit tunes are an excellent accompaniment to the action, and the switching enemy types and backgrounds for each new area are met by new music too. The catacombs music is a delightfully simple and spooky dirge, and the title screen music is the kind of tune that you’d love to have gently playing in the background while trying to get work done. It’s a level of craft that elevates a fantastic game to something truly special.
Downwell is a truly gorgeous little game. An addictive, indie gem that’ll steal hours from your day in the blink of an eye. It’s art style, music, and unlockable palette swaps show a true reverence for the 8-bit genre that it is so clearly inspired by. It’s another sterling counterpart to an industry that is increasingly moving towards open world epics, and it once again proves that there is always a new spin on an old idea in the world of video games. One man projects have been some of our favorite games of 2015 so far, and we’re pleased as punch to add Downwell to that list.