Downwell PS Vita Review: Turn on, Tune in, Drop Down

The highly addictive mobile phone (and Steam) game heads to PS Vita, and loses none of its charm.

Originally starting out as a mobile phone release, Downwell is an interesting mash-up of games that combines elements of platforming and shooting while you fall into an abyss.

Yes indeed. As the name might suggest, Downwell follows the adventures of a tiny little man who's decided to jump into a hole in the ground. Yet, this is no ordinary hole: It's packed full of hazards and denizens that you have to avoid to prevent the loss of one of your four precious hit points. Fortunately you're equipped with a pair of downward-firing gunboots that you can use to blast things out of your way. However, each clip of your gunboots fires a limited number of shots, and it takes a few moments to reload, so you have to be judicious about exactly when to use them.

Adding an additional strategic element to the action is that the recoil of the gunboots causes your descent to slow somewhat, meaning you can also use your offensive footwear as a temporary means to arrest your fall. This is ideal for getting your bearings briefly, or to control your drop so that you can land on one of the many platforms that are found in the well.

Plenty of enemies inhabit Downwell's inky black environment, and they're a varied bunch. Some can be shot and killed, while you can fall onto others with your gunboots to stomp them to death. However, some are invulnerable to bullets, or are hazardous to your health if you touch them, even if you're falling at speed. Learning the characteristics of each enemy is important so you can quickly recognize them in the oftentimes split second you have to make a decision on whether to shoot, drop onto, or avoid them.

Occasionally while falling, you'll see a small platform jutting out from the side of the well with a little arc over it. That signifies a cave, which you can enter. Sometimes it contains a power-up that boosts your gunboots' ability, such as turning their shots into a powerful laser, or enabling them to shoot three bullets at a time. Very rarely it'll contain a shop that sells useful items, like an extra hit point that you can buy using the gems that are dropped by dispatched enemies.

Gems are also useful for a couple of different reasons. Firstly, they give you a score, which, when a game has ended, is added to your overall gem total. This is almost like xp, and as you level up, you unlock new color palettes for the game, as well as new "styles" of gameplay. These are basically different game modes that offer their own perks and drawbacks. For example, boulder style starts you with more hit points, but gives less upgrade options, while arm spin style has you only finding gun modules, but makes shops pop up even less than they normally do.

The other reason for collecting gems is to get a "gem high". When you've collected 100 of them, you enter this state, and every gem you collect while the timer ticks down counts as double. It's a useful mechanic that motivates you to move faster so that you can seriously boost your score.

Downwell's gameplay is broken up into levels that are quite short, and reaching the end of each one results in you being given a choice of one of three random perks. These include things like being able to consume dead bodies to regain health, destructible platforms shooting out bullets when destroyed, or activating a drone that follows you as you fall, shooting additional bullets downwards. In some respects it makes the game feel akin to a roguelike. It has the same basic premise of starting you out at the same spot with the objective of getting as far as you can in one life, while being able to power-up your character as you progress.

Adding subtle complexity to Downwell's action is a combo system that advances if you stomp on repeated enemies without landing on any surface. Doing so successfully delivers rewards, such as replenishing of one of your hit points and, if you manage a combo of eight hits, granting you 100 gems. It's a neat idea, and one that helps make the easier early levels more fun, since once you begin to master the game, you can concentrate on racking up combos to really juice your gem total.

Although it starts out fairly easy, Downwell swiftly becomes extremely challenging. In some repsects it's a super-twitchy twist on a shoot 'em up that's all about making split-second decisions as you fall. Early monsters are easy to blast and stomp on, but as you progress, the action soon intensifies, and your reflexes are given a particularly demanding workout as you drop deeper into the well.

Fortunately, the game is built around quick restarts, and this gives it a high "one more go" appeal. However, I did find the very demanding nature of the gameplay meant that it was best suited for shorter sessions: Once my attention began to flag, it was time to take a rest, because if you can't give the game your utmost concentration you'll die in short order.

With its ZX Spectrum-style retro graphics (or Game Boy-style if you progress far enough to unlock that palette) and chiptune music, Downwell is a really addictive little number that's perfect for those who love oldschool arcade games. Its premise is simple, but its roguelike sensibilities add sufficient depth to the gameplay to keep it feeling fresh and fun – and it's priced right at just $4.99.

Lasting appeal
The game is straightforward, but very challenging. It does have an end - but good luck getting to that point!

The chiptune soundtrack is appealing, but gets somewhat repetitive after a while.

Downwell's super-simple graphics look like something you'd see on a ZX Spectrum.

A weird hybrid of downward-scrolling shoot 'em up and platformer, Downwell is a challenging, but highly addictive arcade game that's a great test of your concentration and reflexes. Its gameplay does lack variety, but when played in short bursts, it's a lot of fun.


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