Review: Downwell for PSVita (PlayStation Vita)
- Release Date (NA): May 24, 2018
- Publisher: Devolver Digital
- Developer: Moppin
- Genres: Rogue-like
- ESRB Rating: Everyone
- Also For: Android, Computer, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Single playerLocal MultiplayerOnline MultiplayerCo-operative
This is part one in a series of posts highlighting some of the best games available on the PlayStation Vita. Stay tuned for further entries highlighting JRPGs, general indie titles, and some more the off-the-wall Vita titles out there coming soon. This time I am taking a look at Downwell, a charming, bite-sized roguelike released on the system in 2016. This is also my first blog entry on GBATemp! I have been utilizing Wordpress for blogs in the past, but it's hard to get traffic there. Posting to an established community where I am somewhat of a member makes more sense to me. Comments and constructive criticism are very welcome!
Luckily though, the Vita soon became a PC gamer's best friend. A massive effort on Sony's end to bring indie titles to the Vita, PS3 and eventually the PS4 turned the Vita into a cesspool of mixed-quality indie titles. Along with the very affectionate support of Japanese developers, the Vita had unintentionally became something Sony never intended on it becoming. It had gone from a triple A handheld to a pocket gateway into some of the PC's finest indie games, along with some of the quirkiest Japanese titles I've ever seen (I'm looking at you, Genkai Tokki series).
Some of the indie titles released on the system belong to the "Roguelike" genre; a genre inspired by the elements of the classic PC game, Rogue. Even though many of these titles were released on the PC first, they just feel right being on the Vita. The gorgeous QuarterHD OLED display that the Vita 1000 boasts lets roguelikes of all qualities shine, and the impressive specs of the system allow even more complex titles to be ported to the system.
Being a genre I have a particular soft spot for, I have purchased just about every roguelike for the system. Some of them are fantastic time sinks with game sessions lasting anywhere from two minutes to an hour in length, but some of them are also... pretty shitty. I've prepared a list and reviews for each of the titles I have tried in order to not only get an excuse to write for this damned blog again, but also highlight some of the best games the Vita has to offer.
Let's fall right on in, shall we?
Downwell is a simple game on the surface, with some hidden mechanics that will keep you coming back for more. The premise is that you are falling down a well. Equipped with only your gunboots, you must defend yourself against all kinds of baddies waiting for you in the well and reach the bottom.
The game, like many other roguelikes, is not story focused at all. So get any ideas of cutscenes and plot relevancy out of your mind right now.
No, Downwell is a game I can only describe as an upside down bullet-hell shooter. Gravity is working against you as you are constantly falling. Platforms, caves, and shops riddle the well, providing momentary relief from falling. But safety is a false illusion in this game as enemies are always creeping closer towards you. It is a simple game, only utilizing the joystick (or d-pad) and a single button for both jumping and shooting. While in a free-fall towards the bottom, randomly generated levels will appear before you. Enemies and barricades made out of blocks await you, but can be taken out via your handy, upgradeable gunboots. Jump on enemies, or shoot your way out of sticky situations; blast breakable blocks and break open crystal-like structures to obtain gems, the currency of the game. Inside caves will either be gun pickups, which change your gun's ammo type, or shops which will allow you to exchange crystals for food items that either restore or extend your health and can bolster your ammo capacity.
Falling isn't as simple as you'd expect as some enemies can be resistant to bullets and require you to jump on them instead as a way to kill them. The opposite kind of enemies also exist, which require you to exclusively shoot them, as jumping on them damages you instead.
Multiple bullet types for your gunboots include a powerful one-shot-KO laser, a spread shotgun, and a fast but slightly aimable machine gun. Additionally, there are a few different power-ups that you earn at the end of each level. Playing the game with the normal falling style will allow you to choose from three different power-ups, however different styles may either increase or decrease your choices. These choices range anywhere from simple food items that restore HP to more unique items like the cannibalism perk that will randomly earn you more HP if you fall on the corpses of fallen enemies and "eat" their remains. These power-ups are completely random each run and each floor, but there is a limited amount of them. By the end of the well, the number of choices to pick dwindles, but your overall abilities are radically increased compared to the first area you fall through.
Hidden behind the seemingly straightforward system of jumping and shooting your way to the end of each stage is a fun and sometimes frustrating combo system. This system is based on how many enemies you can successfully bounce on or shoot without landing on a single platform. It may seem simple at first, but considering that some enemies must be handled in ways other than shooting them or bopping them on the head, it can get complicated quickly. The amount of enemies on screen adds to the complexity, along with the varying types of enemies, ranging from simple enemies that are stationary to ones that will intentionally fly towards you in order to damage you. The health bar is unforgiving, only allowing you four hits until a game over. This can be upgraded, of course, through the purchase of items or the selection of a new "falling style."
In addition to just free falling, you can choose to fall in one out of five different styles that each have their own pros and cons. Utilizing these different falling styles is optional, but recommended as they all make your character control in such a different way that it can drastically change how the game plays for you. Boulder style, for example, gives you an extended health bar allowing six hits, at the cost of falling at a more accelerated pace and having less end-level upgrades to choose from. Floating style keeps the health bar at the default amount, but makes your character handle more "floatier," meaning that you will bounce a bit after hitting enemies or jumping off of platforms, making it easier to chain combos together and rack up more points.
After three floors of falling, the environment of the well will change along with the enemies. This repeats three more times until you reach the end of the well, and a final boss. Each area is unique, with their own different enemies, and their own visual style and musical choice. Each area amps up the difficulty as well, making it more challenging to rank up combos and shoot your way to victory by adding traps and more aggressive enemy behavior.
The musical and graphical style of the game is decidedly retro and simple. This isn't a bad thing though, as the game is wonderfully crafted with cute pixel art and a very, very catchy soundtrack.
Your maximum combo, gems acquired and distance fallen all attribute to a final score that you get either after completing the fall or after dying. This score will add to a grander score that unlocks new things after certain numerical milestones. New falling styles and graphical "palettes" that change the game's intentionally limited color scheme will be awarded to players who continue to fall down the well. This system makes your journey feel worthwhile, even if you died midway through a run. Some roguelikes don't have this visual display of simple accomplishment and would rather take the more hardcore approach of not rewarding you at all for your endeavors. Luckily, Downwell isn't like this, and I love it for that. Granted that late in the game, once you have unlocked all the falling styles, your awards are spread a lot thinner and get a lot less important and the sense of diminishing return begins to set in. Instead of new items or falling styles, you just unlock new palettes, which is still a nice addition, but will likely not encourage players to rank up their score since it is such an insignificant award to an otherwise challenging task.
Most runs in Downwell can range anywhere from a minute or two to around a fifteen minutes or so as you fall deeper and deeper into the well. At the end of the well you will fight a final boss and then be prompted to fall again, if you so choose. Looping is a pseudo-new-game-plus that essentially lets you keep gaining a higher and higher score. There are no benefits or special unlocks that are only usable during subsequent loops, which is ultimately fine.
Whilst there are online leaderboards to compare your scores against, I never bothered to check them. Random, daily or otherwise special challenges aren't available in the game, but the amount of fun I have just in the base game alone is enough to keep me coming back for more.
Overall, Downwell has solidified itself as one of my favorite roguelikes. It is deceivingly simple and incredibly charming, but complex and brutal at the same time. It is truly a special experience that feels extremely "at home" on the Vita, aided by the fact it is the best feeling platform to play Downwell on. The addition of physical controls and the ability to hold the Vita on vertically in "tate" mode lets you experience Downwell differently than on any of the other platforms it is available on.
Downwell is a fantastic game for newcomers to the roguelike genre and veterans alike. There is a lot to love in such a simple game and it is absolutely worth giving a go if you are looking for something quick and comfortable to get into on your Vita. Give it some time and you might find yourself falling for it over and over again.
+ Fantastic music
+ Charming visuals
+ Addicting, varied gameplay
- Sense of overall progress is pretty limited
- Once you've unlocked all the good stuff, everything else is just aesthetics
Retro aesthetics, a multitude of various color palettes to play in (featuring ones that make the game appear as if it was being played on a Virtual Boy or Gameboy) and a cute art style all combine fantastically. The ability to play the game in the "tate" position is something not many games utilize, but that this game does perfectly.
Remappable controls on the Vita coupled with multiple falling options makes this game a breeze to play. Gameplay is sublimely charming and addictive with systems that are rewarding for casual playthroughs and combo-chasers alike.
Sense of progress becomes lacking once you've unlocked all the important things like falling styles. High scores effectively become moot, but can be compared to an online leaderboard. Daily special runs or challenges aren't available, but gameplay this addictive is enough reason for me to keep playing.
out of 10
(not an average)
Downwell is a fantastic game for newcomers to the roguelike genre and veterans alike. There is a lot to love in such a simple game and it is absolutely worth giving a go if you are looking for something quick and comfortable to get into on your Vita