PS Vita, PS4, PC | 2016 | ★★★★★
Despite still struggling to platinum the game, Downwell is one of the best I’ve played in recent memory and is one of the strongest pieces of evidence for a dedicated gaming handheld to exist.
Downwell is a 2015 vertically scrolling shooter roguelike platform video game developed by Japan-based indie developer Moppin, and published by Devolver Digital. The game was released on iOS, Microsoft Windows, Android, and on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita. Downwell centers around a “curious man”, who is at the local park one night when he decides to explore the depths of the well nearby. Knowing that monsters are waiting for him inside, he straps on his gunboots and starts his trip downwards, killing his enemies to proceed and collect treasure.
I’d heard mention of it a couple times on various gaming podcasts, but it sounded fairly basic in concept. I grabbed it on Vita for $5 (cross-buy with PS4) and dove in. After an hour of quick 2-5 minute runs, I could see the appeal for “fans of the genre”, but it felt like too much for me, too difficult, too twitchy, something.
But four or so hours of “just one more” later, I realized I was learning around the edges, progressing farther, getting better, all without consciously making a decision to change my tactics, approach, or strategy. The game pushes improvement and learning on you in a way I hadn’t felt since Spelunky (which is not a bad comparison for how this game bites into you).
Once you fall into this loop of learning and advancement, the game is just downright perfect. Between the rewarding combo system, the tough choices when presented with weapon swaps, the progressive character upgrades between each level, and the “play styles” that unlock over time, the game feels perfectly designed to ensure a consistent level of stress, engagement, and fun, despite everything being procedurally generated.
This game admittedly isn’t for everyone. It’s a fast, frantic, high-stress rogue-like that had my heart beating so fast at times I had to pause and put it down.
Upon first reaching the final boss, I had the temptation to look up strategies, thinking this was my one chance; my first trip to the bottom took probably 200 attempts. I stopped short, not wanting to rob myself of the same feeling I got from beating Olmec the first time in Spelunky. With a deep breath, I charged on, dying almost immediately. And I returned to beat the boss two attempts later.
The price of Downwell makes this a no-brainer. $5 on PS4/Vita, $3 ($1.50 as of writing) on Steam. Just make sure you play it with a controller.
It’s nice to be reminded occasionally how excellent games can be.