In the Design Review series, I try to take game systems apart and see what is great about them. And also come up with ideas about the not so great parts.
Downwell is a rogue-like vertical scroller where you use your gunboots to kill enemies, collect gems and get to the bottom of the well.
Note: This review will probably spoil part of the fun of the game – so I would recommend just go and play it first.
At a first glance, Downwell is too simplistic in its appearance and mechanics: you just jump, shoot while in the air and can glide/walk left or right.
But the game is not as simple as it seems. Let’s start with weapons. Even the shooting itself has a lot of uses:
- Slow down
- Open passage
But also there are a bunch of different weapons that change up the gameplay during the run. The next neat system of this game is the ammo system. When you start, you have a machinegun and 8 bullets that are refilled when you touch the ground or stomp enemies. Every shot of this gun spends one ammo and shoots one bullet.
But to help with weapons different feel, other weapons spend another amount of ammo and shoot different types of shots. There are guns like a shotgun or a laser that spend a lot of ammo but mostly one-shot enemies. There are situations where you may not want that – I will go into that a bit later.
But maybe you don’t want another weapon – why change it?
Well, the creator of the game though about it and used a mechanic similar to Super Crate Box where you are “forced” to take new weapons. In SCB, you only get points for changing your weapons but here the game still leaves a place for choice. When you pick up a weapon, you know what weapon will it be (unlike Super Crate Box) and for changing your current one you will get either a +1hp or +2 ammo that can be worth it.
There are a couple of things that motivate the player to go faster – “gem high” and the combo system in particular. When you understand those systems and want to take use of them – it will increase the difficulty of the game (which is your choice by the way) because of the increased requirements for your reaction and dexterity.
This is a system where after getting gems your “gems bar” fills up to 100 gems. After that, you become “gem high” and all gems you get in that state are doubled. But the bar slowly decreases, and when it reaches 0 you will have to collect 100 gems again to enter this state so this mechanic definitely motivates you to go faster and not just take your time with each and every enemy.
But for more advanced play there is also a combo system in place. Because of it, you will get +100 gems for 8 kills in a row without touching the ground. Because you get refilled after stomping on enemies, you can kill a bunch of enemies without touching the ground – building up your combo. (This is not explained anywhere, though, except if you get 5 or higher it is displayed over you, but it is easy to miss)
Getting higher combo gives you more different stuff like energy or extra health. But going for those high combos you will probably be completing less of the game and losing more health per floor at first. But after getting better and better – it will pay off.
This is probably was the main intended fun way to play the game, but it surely needed some motivations for the players to get better at this skill and those big rewards definitely help with that.
In my current understanding, to make sustaining combos easier for yourself you are good to go with the first gun and don’t want to change it – but taking damage and the need for more ammo may change your decision.
Take a break
To get all the benefits of the things I listed above you need to sustain a fast tempo for some time. But the games caverns on the sides (that have those weapons pickups) allow you to visit them without breaking the combo or depleting the time on the “gem high” and take a deep breath. Going into shops also doesn’t reset your combo. And in my opinion is a very smart thing.
After ending the run (dying probably) for all the gems you’ve collected (even spent ones) you get points that go towards unlocking new things. So, for example, for getting 1000 gems you will unlock something. You don’t know what it will be, only when it will happen.
This type of progression (aside from you getting further and further) can potentially improve players session length. That is because when you see that the next unlock is quite close – it adds to the feeling of “one more game”.
There are two types of unlocks you can get (but you don’t know that when you start). First one is color pallets. So by default there are 3 colors (red, white and black for background) but you unlock options to change those colors with other pallets – like changing red to blue or even 1bit graphics where everything is black and white.
Unlocking color schemes isn’t much, but it is something you unlock and feel rewarded for your efforts. And also it allows for unlocks to happen more often even though some of the don’t change as much (but the player doesn’t know when the unlock will be a pallet or when something else, that he is more interested in).
It doesn’t change gameplay, but it’s fun to change them sometimes. Aside from the just visual upgrades you can also unlock character playing styles that I’m going to cover next.
Variety of gameplay
The second type of unlocks you can get is your character styles. You can choose one of those before the run, and they do change up the gameplay. For example “floaty” is probably better for the combo making while others can provide more survivability but have some other downsides.
Another thing that brings more variety and choices to each run is the perks. After completing each floor, you have a choice out of three options, each one of those can give you some benefits but are mostly situational. For example maybe you don’t want to blow up all enemies because you need them alive to sustain combos, and so on. There are a bunch of them and sometimes you need to experiment to figure out what it does exactly.
Aside from the different weapons and combo, “gem high” systems that also change how you play there is more stuff I wanted to mention.
In Downwell, you start seeing new enemies one stage before their floor and that allows you to get more familiar with them. Next floors also add new environmental mechanics. For example, the 7-9 are underwater levels. There you have a set amount of oxygen that you need to refill by opening a chest or killing enemies I think. And this brings a new dynamic to the game that separates this levels from the rest. This point also helps with the feel of curiosity (because you know there will be something new when you are able to reach it)
Starting enemies behavior is predictable because of the references to the real world with a thing like bats or frogs. (even though later this rule is broken, but it still helps to introduce a player to the game). For example, after first seeing turtles you quickly get why exactly this enemy cannot be shot from above. Or things with spikes on them cannot be stomped.
As a side note – the first drop, when you spawn on the floor, is always safe (if you press nothing you will just land on a ledge without enemies around). But seeing other people play – they try to move immediately after the start. And because there is sometimes a frog right underneath you – they just get hit by it, and that feels a bit unfair.
The last thing I haven’t figured out for some time was the bar underneath the health. But as I later understood – it was filling up with each extra hp you get over your maximum. And when you get 4 of them – your hp will increase by one. There are a lot of hints that actually will guide you into understanding its meaning. Things like:
1) It is connected with hp in a single block
2) you are allowed to buy hp even if you are at full
This allows the +1hp things you get from combos or weapon pickup still remain relevant and maybe make them even more valuable.
As a game, Downwell grows over time with your skill level – at first you are just trying not to get killed super fast then you start to go faster not to miss your “gem high” and after that you start doing and improving your combos. Because of that increase of difficulty (that you make for yourself) even the first zone still doesn’t feel like a chore.
Awesome risk-reward mechanics – mainly because of a combo system.
The only regret I have is that there is not a whole lot of unlocks (without pallets). Only styles, they surely do change up the gameplay but if you would also unlock new items to be purchased both in the stores and maybe perks it would be even more awesome.
Also wanted to mention that It feels weird to see both good (gems) and bad things (enemies) in red. He also uses more red on enemies to show that you can’t land on them and surprisingly in Downwell it is not a big deal at all.
This post turned out to be a lot longer than I thought (even with skipped things like the shop, etc.) but there are just a lot of awesome interconnected systems.
Downwell has a very elegant and clever design that you learn playing again and again.
Verdict: Buy it and recommend to all your friends.