Let’s Talk About Downwell

Happy new year! I’ve made another video for YouTube, this time about a roguelite game called Downwell. The script is after the break. If you don’t know what I mean by roguelite, check out my video RogueliKes, RogueliTes, and Procedural Death Labyrinths.

Hello, everyone. Crowbeak here. Welcome to the first video in my Let’s Talk about [GAME] series. Each episode will focus on a specific game — usually an indie game, since that’s mostly what I play — and things about the game that I think are worth talking about.

For this first video, I’m going to talk about Downwell, which is probably the most awesome game I completely missed in 2015. It has the soul of classic Contra coupled with the frantic falling pace of Pitfall in procedurally generated stages. The only controls are left, right, and what I am going to call “boots” because the third button jumps if the player is standing on solid ground and fires the player’s gunboots otherwise.

Movement is a joy in Downwell, with an amazing amount of depth thanks to the gunboots. From a standing start, the player can jump all the way from one side of the well to another. Rebounding off an enemy only lets the player go so far, but the gunboots have recoil. This allows the player to temporarily halt downward movement and travel a bit farther sideways if they need to. That comes at the cost of ammo, meaning that this tactic can only be used for so long, but ammo is recharged as soon as the player lands on anything (enemies included). Some enemies can’t be landed on safely, though. Using up ammo to hover makes the player more vulnerable to those enemies. However, choosing not to hover can leave enemies in the player’s wake that will follow them, coming at them from above… and the gunboots only shoot downwards.

It’s a lot to balance and only the fact that gravity naturally takes care of progression down the well frees the player up to enjoy the challenge with gleeful abandon. The game being a roguelite (with a T), having procedurally generated stages and limited, random powerup choices in between, means that players will have to make those decisions on the fly every time they play. Downwell has achieved an amazing balance in that regard, and the fact that they’ve done so using such simple controls is what makes the game work on mobile as well as PC.

Additionally, the audio and graphic designs of the game are stellar. Now, when I say that, I don’t mean, “I love this retro aesthetic.” It does have a very nice retro look, but I’m talking how the audio and graphics support the gameplay 100%.

The default color scheme is a stark monochrome plus red, and their use of red not only marks enemies as dangerous but also inherently conveys to the player how they are dangerous. If an enemy can be jumped on safely, it will have red shadows along the bottom of its parts. If an enemy can’t be touched, it will just primarily be red. This facilitates snap decision making on the part of the player even if they’ve never seen an enemy before. They might not know how the enemy moves or if it’s resistant to bullets, but they do know how they can safely approach defeating it. The player is therefore never completely clueless in the face of a new enemy.

Most of the game’s unlocks are different color schemes in a variety of flavors, and although most of them look very nice, I have so far found that the default scheme is the best to play with. None of the others, not even the stark monochrome plus blue or green varieties, make it so easy to see what’s going on quickly.

Also worth noting is the fact that the default color scheme is about as colorblind friendly as you can get. I can imagine someone with monochrome vision potentially having trouble discerning white from red and losing the aforementioned benefits it grants, but some of the unlockable color schemes are based on variations in saturation instead of hue. The rare colorblind person for whom the default color scheme doesn’t work could just fall down the well and die a few times until they unlock the Gameboy-inspired palette.

There are many other small visual cues that players might not even notice themselves noticing. When the player runs out of ammo, the word EMPTY! appears over the character’s head. Land on something and a curtain of light will flash up from toes to head to let the player know they’re full up again. These and other visual cues are accompanied by similarly subtle sound effects in a delicate weave designed to make sure the player always knows what’s going on. The only other game I can think of this year that pulls this off so well is Assault Android Cactus.

As for flaws… yeah. Good luck finding any. This game is so well crafted that I’ve got nothin’. The fact that it’s only $3 on Steam is batdren frelling crazy and there’s no excuse not to get it. It kills me that I had two chances to play Downwell at events last year and never made time for it. Don’t make the same mistake I did; go get it.

If you’ve already played Downwell, leave a comment to share your thoughts on it. And if you liked this video, please consider hitting that like button, subscribing to my channel, or sharing the video.

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