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Downwell

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Downwell

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Downwell’s concept takes very few words to understand. It’s a game where a man falls down a well and shoots things with guns strapped to his feet. Truly Shakespearean.

Jest aside, this game is an exceptional demonstration of the old adage: “Less is more.” The game focuses around a man plummeting down a well with the implicit objective of getting to the bottom of it. Enemies lurk in the well and the main method of dispatching them is with bullets that can only be fired downwards. This game also has a permanent restart where if you die somewhere in your expedition down the well you restart at the top. The environments in the well change with every run however, so replayability is emphasized.

The main hook of the game is that it’s so simply stated in its presentation that it becomes addictive. This stems from the fact that there are only three buttons that serve as modes of input. These are the left/right directional buttons and the singular jump/shoot button. This allows for the player to grasp the basics of the game very easily and every other nuance of the game will come naturally past that. In the early stages of me playing it, I would often be cautious of dropping down the abyss as I was only just grasping the controls. After a few hours I was taking risks and trying to see how fast I could fall without touching the ground. This is because the game subtly incentivized me to take that risk.

Gems are a sort of treasure/currency element that you can get from killing enemies and breaking gem caches hidden in the levels. When you collect 100 gems you enter a ‘gem high’ state that is kept up as long as you’re collecting gems. Since gems can only be collected by progressing through the stage it incentivizes you to not stop and take a breather. It also incentivizes you to focus on falling rather than landing with its combo system. When you kill a certain number of enemies, a combo counter pops up and ends when you land on the ground. This in turn teaches you over time that constantly falling is the way to go.

This is further held up by its excellent level design. The first stage is very easy as there are few environmental obstacles. As you progress however, certain terrain will trap you if you linger on it for too long. Towards the latter half of the game all of the terrain is hazardous to step on leaving you no choice but to fall.

With the speed you sometimes go at, it is very important that the environment is readable. That is why everything of significance, enemies and gems for example, are lit up in a bright read. The game’s retro art style also helps this as it isn’t visually busy.

There are a variety of weapons in the well that you can switch into your gunboots (yes that is the official term.) They can be found in caves on the side of the well and they either come with a boost to your total health or your total ammo reserve. This prompts you to make a decision each time you get a weapon power up. If you are in dire straits and you need a pick me up should you take the possibly less useful gun power up for a health boost, or would you hvae been better off taking your chances?

Downwell’s beautiful simplicity is something to be studied. It’s stripping down a game to its bare essentials and building off of them. It also conveys those essentials in such a commendable way. It is truly one of the best games of 2018.

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