November 22, 2015 Leave a comment
No, I don’t hate punishers. I’m actually quite fond of them, when they’re done right. Where the point isn’t a high body count or angering the player with tedious trial and ERROR gameplay, but rather the possibility that, yes, the odds are against you, but you might live. Downwell mostly does it right. The idea is you’re falling down a randomized well. You have guns. Shoot the shit in your way so that you can fall further. You fall, you shoot. That’s less complex than “avoid missing ball for high score.” Which I always found confusing anyway. If the ball is missing, shouldn’t it be particularly easy to avoid it? Wait. Ohhhh, yea, I get it now. That makes more sense.
Where was I?
Downwell is a lot of fun. I played the Steam version with an Xbox One controller and I thought it worked just fine. I never felt the controls screwed me into taking damage. I never felt my actions weren‘t responsive. In a game like this, you can’t ask for better. There’s a nice variety of weapons and unlockable colors schemes and modes, and the random nature lends itself to addiction potential like a schedule II drug. This is a really good game.
The thing with procedurally generated games is that luck of the draw will always factor in to some degree. There’s two ways players can tackle the stages in Downwell. You can ignore finesse in favor of gunning your way to the bottom of the well. It’s not pretty but it’ll get the job done. The other way is to focus on racking up combos, and that’s where luck will factor in. The level lottery won’t always generate a layout that lends itself to high combos. Additionally, the random upgrades you can select from at the end of each stage, plus the random selection of guns, won’t always play to your favor. This is one of the reasons why I wish procedurally generated games with online leaderboards didn’t just list the top scores, but the next four highest scores achieved by those players. I want to know beyond a shadow of a doubt the people on top of the boards are genuinely skilled or if they got an extremely favorable layout one time. Otherwise, it would be like comparing the salaries of a blue-collar lumberjack with a Powerball jackpot winner and asking the lumberjack “Why aren’t you as successful as the jackpot winner?” Showing each player’s next four high scores, or their average high over the last 20 games, would minimize that.
And this is unquestionably a factor in Downwell. My highest combos (which are, frankly, not that noteworthy) came on stages that lent themselves to the combos better. Enemy placement, breakable block placement, relatively straight paths, the right guns, and the right upgrades. I put about 10 hours into Downwell, enough time to realize just how rare optimal conditions can be. Yes, being lucky is never enough, because it takes skill to take advantage of being lucky. Still, I wish the game were smarter about how it generates stages. While it never saps the fun out of, it can be frustrating to attempt combos and then hit randomly generated roadblocks that average or even above-average skilled players couldn’t reasonably be expected to clear. Never mind that some of the guns are dog shit. I’m looking at you, Nobby and Burst. There were times where I was trying to make progress, down to my last tick of health, and chose not to take those guns even though I would have gained health and presumably bought myself some extra time.
I still love Downwell quite a bit. It’s one of those throwbacks that mimics white-knuckle action of Golden Age arcade titles, but in a way that feels fresh and modern. Because of epilepsy concerns, I couldn’t finish Downwell. The last boss is apparently quite spongy and strobes when taking damage, making it off-limits for me to try. Disappointing to some degree, though my family was probably rejoicing that I wouldn’t lose weeks of productivity to it like I did Spelunky or Shutshimi before it. But, it doesn’t matter that I couldn’t finish it. I had a lot of fun right up until I had to quit. I think that’s what separates games like Downwell from other punishers: fun in the face of failure. It never feels tedious. It never feels like you’re being trolled. It’s exhilarating to be down to your final health point, barely dodge death, and make it to the end of a stage. Downwell isn’t fun because you die a lot. It’s fun because sometimes you survive, all on your own, and not through trial-and-error. Sadistic, but fun, like playing poker with Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.
Downwell was developed by Moppin
Point of Sale: Steam
$2.99 said IT’S MOPPIN TIME! like a douche in the making of this review. Sorry.
Downwell is Chick Approved (it’s been a while, cue the music) and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.