Developed by: Moppin, with porting assistance from Red Phantom Games (Minutes).
Published by: Devolver Digital
Available on: PS4 (cross-buy with Vita), PS Vita (reviewed, cross-buy with PS4), PC, iOS, Android
In a nutshell: It’s like those dreams where you’re falling, except you have shooty boots and die at the end.
Ojiro Fumoto’s vertical rogue-like platformer Downwell took the PC and mobile world by storm last year, winning a handful of Game of the Year awards from the likes of The Jimquisition and Destructoid (where it was awarded a perfect 10/10 score). Then toward the end of the year Downwell’s publisher Devolver Digital showed the game running on a PlayStation Vita and I about lost my shit.
Downwell is great, so let’s just get that out of the way immediately.
I really enjoyed the rogue-like on PC, but I always felt it wasn’t a game I was comfortable playing tethered to my bedroom. No, Downwell belonged on a handheld. It’s challenging, therefore I die a lot, and it was something I could see myself playing on the go in many, many short bursts. Downwell was already available on mobile devices, but touch controls just aren’t responsive enough when it comes to platformers. The thought of playing Downwell on my Vita though? I needed it. I needed it bad.
Fumoto, developing under the pseudonym Moppin, worked with Red Phantom Games in order to port Downwell to the PS4 and Vita handheld this past Tuesday, May 24th, for an affordable $4.99. Although it’s not mentioned anywhere in the product description over at the official PlayStation store (at least not yet), cross-buy is fully supported. I would have gone with the Vita version either way, but it’s nice to have Downwell readily available on the PS4 should I feel the need to play on the big screen. I probably won’t though, because it refuses to launch (temporarily, I hope).
I’m not sure what the exact issue is here, but I receive an error every time I attempt to launch the game on PS4. The error states that Downwell needs an update in order to launch, but according to the “check for updates” feature I’m already running the most recent version available. I’ve attempted to uninstall and reinstall the game in a variety different ways — remote downloading from Playstation.com, manually installing from my PS4 library, etc. — and nothing has fixed the issue. I’ve tweeted at Devolver Digital for help, and once I receive a reply (or the game magically works) I’ll update this review accordingly.
UPDATE 5/28/2016: According to Devolver Digital and the President of PlayStation, Shuhei Yoshida, Downwell is cross-buy between PS4 and Vita. However, PlayStation’s customer support swears it isn’t. I was advised by Devolver to contact PlayStation concerning the issue, and I was told via live chat that Downwell isn’t cross-buy (regardless of who’s saying it is — you know, the game’s publisher, the Official PlayStation Blog, and Shuhei fucking Yoshida) and the best they could do was offer me a $5 USD coupon. I’m not the only person having this issue, but there are those who bought one version or the other claiming to have no problem whatsoever. All I can say is “buyer beware.”
Without playing the PS4 version, I can briefly talk to you about a couple of differences between the two.
For starters, the PS4 version will change the color of your DualShock 4’s light bar according to which color palette you choose. A nice touch, but nothing major. Since Downwell initially started out as a mobile game, the Vita version supports tate mode, essentially allowing you to rotate your Vita 90 degrees and play with a display similar to that found on mobile devices. Also a nice touch, but I preferred playing it in standard mode zoomed out to compensate for the otherwise lack of vertical depth.
In its simplest form, Downwell is a vertical platformer where the objective is to make it to the bottom of a procedurally generated well using nothing but a bit of luck, a lot of skill, and a
concentrated power of will pair of gunboots.
It’s not as if you’re constantly falling downward, since there are platforms and enemies to land on, but Downwell’s rogue-like element of procedural generation forever prevents you from memorizing layouts and using that to your advantage on the next go. It also ensures every playthrough is unique, which significantly increases its replay value.
You also resemble Homestar Runner, if he were ass naked. So there’s that.
You can move left and right on your way down, using either the d-pad or analog stick, and pressing the X button doubles as a jump function and a trigger for your gunboots. The boots fire straight down, killing things and slowing your descent to the bottom, and their firing pattern can be altered with power-ups found in side rooms. There’s machine guns that rapidly fire bullets, and run out of them just as fast. There’s also lasers, spread shots, and certain perks that extend their range, but the catch is that they can only be reloaded when you land on solid ground — be it platforms or monsters.
You can probably see where this is going. If not, just imagine Spelunky if it were a vertical platformer.
Completing a stage allows you to choose from a few different passive benefits (randomly assorted, of course) like a combat drone that mimics your character’s actions, merchant discounts, and the ability to shoot corpses to cause an explosion. You can even cause destroyed objects in the environment to hurl bullets up toward the top of your screen and provide covering fire, which is just about always handy.
There’s a variety of enemies to encounter along the way, like floating eyeballs and bone-tossing skeletons, but not all of them can be stomped on Super Mario-style. Knowing which monsters to shoot or stomp is key, which clearly becomes easier with each subsequent playthrough. Good players rarely touch the ground (side note: I touch the ground a lot), instead hopping from monster to monster to extend their combo modifier. This increases the amount of gems earned that can then be spent in the in-game shops for health refills, ammo expansions, and more.
Knowing when to save your bullets for a safer fall, however, is exponentially more difficult thanks to the randomness of your level’s design.
The unpredictability of a rogue-like is a blessing and a curse, as I’ve said on multiple occasions. I’ve had great runs end in colossal failures, which caused me to set my Vita aside for a much needed time out. I’m an adult and I get frustrated at things. It happens.
It wasn’t always my fault though! I know, that excuse, but taking damage causes the game to slow down a tad and even that split second can mean life or death in Downwell. It wasn’t something that occurred often, but when it did I sure as hell paid the price. Well hello there, Mr. Turtle, let me just jump on your face to reload my gunboots an–OH FUCK SHIT FUCK WHY AM I HITTING THINGS THAT FEEL LIKE PISSING RAZORS!?–I’m dead.
In other news…
Downwell’s visuals are extremely tame, using nothing more than a three-tone approach in its retro aesthetic. The default palette uses black, white, and red to differentiate platforms, collectible gems, and things that hurt like hell if you step on them. Simply playing the game for a set period of time unlocks additional palettes, even ones that resemble the Game Boy’s spinach green and Virtual Boy’s deep red schemes. It felt odd paying tribute to Nintendo on a Sony platform, but I had a good laugh at the idea and went right back to the default layout.
Downwell isn’t winning any visual achievement awards, and it doesn’t need to because its deeply rooted in what matters most: fun. It’s just fun. I leap in to the well, I hum along with its now familiar theme songs, I probably die, but I have a blast in the process. If this were an arcade game in the 70’s and 80’s it would have been a quarter sponge, because every attempt makes you feel like you can do better next time. And the next time.
I failed my chubby little well diver more times than I care to count. Failure is a constant, but the rush of plummeting to my inevitable demise while slowly besting my personal… bests (shut up) deeply sunk its claws in to me. My ego may be a little shattered, since I always fancied myself “gud @ games,” but this is the exact type of game my 7 year-old self would have obsessed over on the NES. And actually, it’s the exact type of game my 34 year-old self will continue to obsess over on the Vita. Maybe the PS4. Someday.
*So where’s the final score? There isn’t one. I did spend a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores so I no longer use them. Read the review and judge for yourself if it’s worth playing.
Full disclosure: This review was done using a PlayStation Vita copy of Downwell that I purchased myself. While I’m sometimes given games to review, I pride myself on providing unbiased reviews to fellow consumers and constructive feedback to hard working developers. Whether or not I pay for the game is irrelevant.