When I first purchased The Binding of Isaac, I played it for hours and hours. Sure, the game itself is good, but there was also something about it that really hooked me. Something that compelled me to start a new game immediately after one ended, with the hopeful determination that this time will be better than the last.
Playing Downwell reminded me a lot of The Binding of Isaac. They are nothing alike in terms of story or appearance, but they both rely on randomization and have an addictive quality.
Downwell opens with the main character lounging on a bench in the park. Hopping up, you take a few steps and come to the mouth of a large well. You jump down into it, and the game begins.
This game is a platformer of sorts. Instead of traveling horizontally or vertically upward, you’re falling endlessly. The natural progression downward means there’s no fall damage to worry about, but it also makes gameplay really fast-paced. The difficulty continues to ramp up with every level.
There are four different areas, with a set of three levels in each. The types of monsters and obstacles you face change with each area. In the end, there’s a big boss to fight. The controls are shown in the beginning, so it’s all pretty straightforward. Downwell is pretty easy to get a grasp of, but challenging to play.
Your only weapon in the world is your trusty pair of gunboots. They help you control your fall, blast through some foes, and crush others under your feet. Some monster types are harder to kill than others, so you’re kept constantly on your toes, deciding whether you should dodge, shoot, or stomp.
The boots run on charges, so you can’t just shoot to your heart’s content. You have to land on a platform (or a midair enemy) for them to fully recharge. You’re able to bump up both your hit points and your charge capacity with items you discover or buy.
This game is a roguelike, with randomly generated levels and randomized end-of-level upgrades. There are offshoot rooms you can find in each level that may contain health, increases to your charge meter, stores, or gems to use at those stores. Your total hit points start out very low, and the bar cannot be substantially increased, adding to the game’s difficulty.
One unique design decision is the menu setup. You are literally unable to quit the game right after you die; the only options available are “Retry,” “Style Select,” and “Surface.” Retry restarts the game at the first level, and Surface takes you back to the park… where you jump down into the well and restart the game at the first level. It essentially forces you to begin a new game before you can close it. When you spawn again, it’s effortless to think “well, maybe just one more time.” It subconsciously encourages you to keep trying.
This may have factored into my marathon playing. However, besides the game’s enablement and the desire to progress, there were incentives. As you stack up playtime, you can unlock different play styles and color palettes. The play styles have features such as starting with more hit points, only finding certain item or powerup types, changing the shop availability, and so on. Some palettes are slight variations from the original, while others are blindingly bright. If you value your eyesight, I wouldn’t play on those for too long.
Downwell is fairly minimalistic. It has 2D pixel graphics, and though there are multiple palettes to choose from, each one has only three colors. The soundtrack has a retro vibe that fits well with the game’s aesthetic. There’s no real exposition in the beginning, or even explanatory cutscenes within the game. It isn’t until the very end, after you’ve defeated the boss, that you learn why you made the incredibly dangerous journey down the well to begin with.
I’ve enjoyed my time playing Downwell. Though its story is light and the only way to go is down, there are plenty of variables that keep it from becoming too repetitive. It isn’t outlandishly awesome, but with a price tag of only $3, I’d suggest that you go ahead and pick it up.