Handhelds are the perfect timewasters, and the Switch embodies this philosophy. There are plenty of games that encourage play in short bursts, and Devolver Digital’s Downwell is no exception. With its addictively difficult and engaging gameplay mixed with wonderful pixel art and amazing designs, this is a game that you should plop down your $2.99 on the eShop right now.
To respect the countless others who have already made the “In Downwell, you go down a well” observation, I’m going to skip that and just go with the fact that there’s an excuse plot that causes your character to be intrigued to head down a menacing dungeon of randomly generated obstacles. Each of the four main stages are separated into three levels, with a slew of different enemies and obstacles to navigate. From the opening stages where you have to deal with bats and frogs to the end where you’re in literal Limbo and have to deal with otherworldly spikes, there’s no shortage of things to shoot and avoid. You guide your little character down the well to fulfill his purpose (there’s a definitive end that I won’t spoil), and are given one shot to head to the bottom.
This is easier said than done, however, as you only have four hitpoints and gunboots that you’ll need to use to defeat enemies and travel around. After you jump once or start to descend, you can activate your gunboots and start shooting downward. However, for one simple mechanic, this tool is versatile; you can use it to delay your fall, travel across a hole, or even destroy enemies that block your path. There are additional powerups within the stages where you can upgrade your bullet shots from a laser to a machine-gun to a triple burst, and each of these upgrade modules come with either more health (which can raise your max health capacity as well) or additional charge, which comes in handy when extending your gunboots’ reach. When you finish a level, you can also grab one upgrade that will help you for the rest of your run, from shop discounts to a jetpack for your gunboots once you run out of ammo. A lot of these are lifesavers, and while they’re different degrees of helpful, there will be a set of upgrades for whatever playstyle fits you best.
Aside from the final levels (as well as the boss), you can take your merry time going down, but the game encourages you to fall as fast you can, awarding you with gems and other rewards should you manage to keep jumping on enemies and not land on solid ground. This can be circumvented when you enter caves for upgrades or shops, as time voids around the openings will cause you to keep your combo and instantly defeat any enemies caught in them. The game does fashion itself as a roguelike, so don’t rely on memorization to do well in this game; you’ll need to adapt to any challenge that comes your way in a snap. The gameplay is so simple, yet so engaging and rich that you can grasp the core gameplay instantly and be on your way to master it in minutes.
This is Downwell’s greatest strength: As a roguelike action game, every move could definitely be your last as permadeath applies here. However, the full game is short enough that this is seen as a challenge rather than a hindrance, and while the game can get hectic, it’s forgiving enough that it rewards experimentation and even trial-and-error. In the catacomb portion of the game, for example, there are skull enemies that will become aggravated the moment you shoot them, and they’re much more resilient if you set off their anger. Jumping on them is easier, but you also face the risk of hitting an enemy that requires your gunboots, and thus you’ll need to maneuver away from getting hit with split-second decisions. It’s the moment-to-moment gunplay that’s excellent here, and I loved every minute of it. With practice, you’ll end up heading to the end of the well, encountering the boss… and perhaps unlocking hard mode for your troubles.
In terms of replay value, the fact that every run is unique means that a perfect 20-25 minute playthrough precedes a bunch of 5-10 minute ones where death is the outcome. During your results, you can also unlock different color palettes as well as different character playstyles, which have their own pros and cons. My favorite alternate playstyle is the Boulder, which grants you more starting HP at the cost of fewer upgrades between levels (which you can offset by obtaining the Youth upgrade early).
Related to presentation, I really enjoy the simplistic pixel art of Downwell’s characters, as they’re created to instantly show if they’re a threat (such as enemies on which you cannot jump, which are marked solid red in the default palette) or if they can be safely destroyed. You can also opt to use TATE mode, which causes the game to be viewed at a vertical aspect. This is usually used for bullet hell shooters, and thanks to the portability of the Switch, you can easily choose this mode and adjust your portable Switch screen accordingly. However, I didn’t utilize this due to the fact that I didn’t have a Flip Grip (a third party tool that allows you to play TATE games with a modified Joy Con grip), and found the regular mode more comfortable. It’s great that the developers chose to include this, however.
The only issues I can find within the Switch version itself is that Downwell seems to slow to a crawl when you get hit and a bunch of enemies are present on-screen. It’s not a dealbreaker, but it can throw off your rhythm when millisecond reaction times are necessary here. It also doesn’t help that the powerup that creates a time void when you get hit seems to be a bit annoying due to this oversight. Also, the music can get a bit grating during the early game, since you’ll have to replay the first stages over and over again. I wish there was a bit more music variety, but I’m nitpicking at this point.
Simple, sweet, and oh so stylish, Downwell is a perfect fit on the Switch. With its easy-to-learn controls, steep but fair difficulty, and some great looking pixel art, this is a must have for anybody wanting a little challenge on their handheld hybrid.