We fell in love with Downwell back in 2015 when it first landed on mobile and PC, and since then the action-platformer has made an appearance on PlayStation too. Now, after creative lead Ojiro 'Moppin' Fumoto spent some time working at Nintendo, it'll come as no surprise to hear that the game is part of the wave of indies that is currently washing over the Switch (with the port handled by Red Phantom Games, we should add).
We happily jumped at the chance of trying it on a new platform because Downwell is one of those games that has stood the test of time and we still play it semi-regularly, either on the PS4 but most often on our iPhone, where it remains installed despite the handset upgrades that we've had since it first launched. That's not to say that we're much better at the game these days, as it's still genuinely hard, but its instant accessibility and razor-sharp challenge have managed to keep us hooked for years and we still like to boot it up from time to time.
If you're not familiar with the game, to save you reading the original review, we'll explain the basics for you now. You see, Downwell is a roguelike, which means that there's permadeath and - to make matters worse - no saved progression beyond the huge number of unlockable visual filters that keep popping up as you play and a handful of starting classes that you'll get access to relatively early on. The starting class gives you four measly health points to play with, and with that slender lifeline your little white friend jumps into a giant well in the ground and starts their adventure.
As the title suggests, you're heading straight down. Each of the levels is filled with strange creatures that must be either dodged, jumped on, or taken down with your gunboots. Apart from moving left and right, you can jump and fire, but that's really it, and Downwell is the very epitome of simple and elegant design. It helps that the controls are pretty much perfect, although looking back the touchscreen version doesn't quite stack up when compared to playing the game when using an analogue stick, even if we did love the accessibility and portability of the original. In fact, it's this marriage of control and on-the-go portability that we think makes the Switch version the pick of the bunch.
One option that we loved is the Tate mode which lets players turn the Switch on its side and play the game down the length of the console, giving you a much closer view of the action than the standard fixed camera. While it's true that the side-on Tate mode was also available in the Vita version, the Switch's versatility means that you can remove the Joy-cons and stand the console on its side and play without having to hold the whole thing in your hands (which works fine for a bit but can get tiring after a while).
Downwell boasts a striking monochromatic visual style that does so much with so little. The aforementioned filters allow you to change the basic colouring of the level (this being the Switch version we opted for the Game Boy colour scheme as soon as we unlocked it) and using nought but light and shade Fumoto is able to communicate the dangerous parts of an enemy to avoid, and the vulnerabilities that you'll need to either shoot with your gunboots or stomp on directly.
For the purposes of this review, we concentrated on building up our combos, throwing caution to the wind (and with it the chance of serious progression) so we could jump on and dispatch as many enemies as possible without our pixelated feet touching the ground. It's an exhilarating and fast-paced way to play the game, and it's certainly much more viable to chase combos with your thumb on an analogue stick than it was with touch controls. That said, those times we managed to push past the opening world and its three stages, the tension cranked up once again with new enemies and fresh environmental dangers to dodge.
Respite from the chaos can be found in little time bubbles where the action outside is paused while you grab what's inside. In these time-proof caves, you'll either find weapons that change your tactical options, or you'll find a stash of the jewels you need to buy health and batteries (one keeps you alive, the other keeps your gunboots charged) at stores found dotted around the levels. Grabbing a laser, a shotgun, or a minigun changes the functionality of your gunboots accordingly, and you'll have to weigh up the upgrade on offer as you may have already got a gun that you're happy with. You can further tweak your build by selecting one ability the start of each new level, such as having a drone accompany you or getting more choice at the shops, but as you might expect, the longer you play, the more enemies you'll encounter and the sterner the challenge.
Whether you're trying to build up combos or cautiously push down through the game's increasingly difficult levels, Downwell offers an exhilarating platform experience unlike any other. Procedurally generated levels mean that you won't be able to rest on your laurels and rely on muscle memory, and a mix of elegant design and less-is-more visuals come together to create a truly distinctive adventure that we think is still essential more than three years after we first got our hands on it.
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