words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Moppin for PC, PS4, Vita, iOS, and Android, originally released in 2015.
In Downwell, you play the role of a man who has purposely flung himself into a well filled with monsters and deadly traps. But the place is also packed with treasure in the form of red gems that burst forth from defeated enemies and are occasionally found stacked in side rooms. Fortunately, our hero has equipped himself with “gunboots”, allowing him to deliver a steady stream of projectiles directly downward, blasting through enemies and smashing destructible blocks as he goes.

Downwell is a procedurally-generated action game, so level layouts and enemy placements are different on each attempt, but the overall structure is the same. The game has four themed areas, with three levels each… although you’ll be spending most of your time in the first few levels, as you are returned to the surface of the well each time you die. If you are skilled enough to survive the 12-level descent, a huge boss awaits you at the bottom.

Controls are simple, with only the ability to move to the left and right, jump, and shoot. The hero’s movements are very snappy, and he changes directions quickly. Pressing the JUMP button while in the air fires projectiles downward, and pressing away from a wall and jumping allows for a wall jump - which may only be performed once per jump - allowing the player to gain some additional height. This single-use ability prevents the player from ascending the well, and it’s rarely needed, but it does allow the player to get the drop on certain enemies or to backtrack just a bit if he overshoots a side room.

The player’s starting weapon can be fired in single shots or in a continuous stream, which depletes the Charge Meter on the right side of the screen. There is no RELOAD button; rather, weapons reload automatically whenever the player touches the ground or lands on an enemy’s head. Since firing the weapon also slows the hero’s descent, the entire game is a balancing act between managing the speed of your descent, blasting through enemies, and finding the right time to reload. And, since gems bounce and tumble downward, players can only reap the benefits of their destruction by dropping down and grabbing them before they disappear.

There are several additional weapon types to be found, each having a different range, rate of fire, and ammo consumption. For example, the shotgun blasts a powerful spray of bullets in a short range but uses five units of the Charge Meter, the machine gun is a faster-firing version of your regular weapon, and the laser is an extremely powerful weapon that penetrates enemies and destructible blocks.

The player regularly encounters side rooms containing weapon pickups (these pickups are random), so he may change up his playstyle frequently. In addition, picking up weapons awards the player additional units to his Charge Meter or life bar, so the player is rewarded for always changing weapons when he finds them, thus encouraging experimentation and adding some variety.

Downwell has a number of structural similarities to Probability 0, another procedurally generated descent-based game with a downward-firing hero, although Probability 0 has a much slower pace overall. In both games, reaching the end of the level presents the player with a number of upgrade choices which affect gameplay in the levels that follow, and these effects are stackable, rewarding players who complete multiple levels in succession.

In Downwell, there are more than a dozen upgrades, with a random selection of three available at the end of each level. These include the ability to draw in nearby gems, projectiles that burst upward when collecting gems or shooting blocks (which is handy since you can only shoot downward), a longer invincibility period after taking damage, and a drone that shoots projectiles whenever you do. One strange item allows players to regain health by consuming the corpses of defeated enemies – although not all enemies leave a body behind – which is incredibly useful considering the rarity and expense of health restoratives.

As this is a procedurally generated game with permadeath, weapons and powerups do not carry over between sessions. Once the hero is killed, he must start his descent again from the top of the well with his starting weapons and no additional abilities. The only persistent elements come in the form of unlockable color palettes (replacing the default white, black, and red palette) and “styles” that open as the player reaches certain gem thresholds.

Styles allow for a modification to basic gameplay by offering different types of player characters. These include a heavy character that begins the game with more health, and a floaty character who can hang in the air longer when firing his gunboots. Often, there are tradeoffs for selecting certain characters, such as limiting or removing the upgrade choices at the end of the level, restricting random drops, or making shops appear less frequently.

By destroying multiple enemies in succession without touching the ground, a combo meter begins to build. While the player’s descent speed may initially make it appear impossible to control any sort of continuous combo effort, watchful players will notice patterns in the frequency of certain enemy types, making it entirely possible to drop down quickly, fire a round or two to slow down, and then bop an enemy on the head to simultaneously kill it and reload. But you still have to be careful as red enemies can only be destroyed with bullets (and reward more gems) and landing on them causes you to take damage.

The longer the combo, the greater the rewards, with gems appearing as the first reward, followed by additional units in your Charge Meter, and eventually health bar increases. Building up combos early in the game can have a dramatic effect on the player’s later success, as a longer health meter and more bullets make it far easier to survive tougher challenges, particularly the final boss.

Along the length of the well are a number of side rooms, each surrounded by a time-stopping barrier that pauses the action in the well (and keeps the player’s combo active). These side rooms usually contain weapon pickups or piles of gems, but occasionally the player will encounter shops as well, as indicated by the “Inn” sign outside the doorway. Here, the player may select from a random assortment of items that add additional units to the player’s Charge Meter, offer health restoration, or even increase the player’s maximum health.

Building up health is done following the same rules as The Legend of Zelda, insofar as the player has a regular health meter, with a separate counter below it that contains four slots. Whenever additional health is gained, it is added to the secondary meter, and once the meter is filled, the primary life meter is extended by one unit. That said, health restoratives are both rare and expensive, so only the most skilled players will be able to survive the descent, even with several additional units of health to help them along.

As mentioned, there are four themed areas, and each adds its own quirks to the gameplay, as well as some unique enemy types. The first area has some basic enemies to get players accustomed to the mechanics, some requiring gunfire to kill and others that must be stomped on, but most can be killed in either way… or bypassed altogether. The second area introduces platforms that jut up spikes when you land on them, ghosts that can pass through solid objects, and some really nasty flying skulls that get incredibly angry when you damage them.

The third area takes place underwater, requiring that players not only deal with enemies – like squids that drop down from above if you don’t kill them – but also contend with an air meter that is constantly counting down, requiring players to break open pots and other objects to release some air bubbles. The final area leading up to the boss is packed with enemies and has no safe landing zones; rather, floating garbage and skulls allow players to reload while constantly falling downward at great speeds… although this level structure also makes it easier to build up longer combos.

The final boss mixes in elements from each of the four themed areas as the battle wages on, while also tossing out projectiles and enemies. Defeating the boss unlocks Hard Mode, which offers a denser population of enemies and a faster fall speed, as well as minor changes to each of the themed areas that make them each more difficult. Online leaderboards display rankings based on the most gems collected, highest combo achieved, and the fastest time to clear the game.

Downwell was developed by Ojiro Fumoto, based in Tokyo Japan, and released under his Moppin label. This was his first commercial release. Eirik Suhrke is credited with music and sound design and previously worked on Spelunky, Hotline Miami, Super Crate Box, Ridiculous Fishing, and Adventure Time: Secret of the Nameless Kingdom. Joonas Turner is credited with sound design and previously worked on Badland, Nuclear Throne, Broforce, Environmental Station Alpha, and Angry Birds Transformers.

The game was published by Devolver Digital, which has published a number of 2D indie games including Serious Sam: Double D XXL, Luftrausers, Broforce, Foul Play, Fork Parker's Holiday Profit Hike, Hotline Miami, Hotline Miami 2, Titan Souls, Not a Hero, Ronin, Enter the Gungeon, and Mother Russia Bleeds.