In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, Tom stomps, stomps, stomps in Downwell.
You've fallen down a hole—bad luck. Fortunately you had the foresight to leave the house in your shiny new gunboots. The kick-back momentarily halts your fall, and gives you a precious few microseconds to spot any animals—bats, wall-hedgehogs and floating blob monsters—that might take offense to your intrusion. All you can do is make the best of your situation as you fall further and further into the abyss.
Downwell is an arcade shmup in reverse, with procedurally generated levels and random weapon placement. It's perfectly paced, literally—the speed at which you fall is tuned to be just too quick to parse without great concentration. Your gun-boots are both a killing tool and a means to buy time, to better plot a route through the crisscrossing foes, destructible crates and rocky outcrops. As you fall you collect gems that you can spend on more health and weapon charges in the well's occasional convenience stores, which seem to thrive on the custom of clumsy gun-booted adventurers.
I'm fond of apparently simple games that hide layers of tactical depth. It's a trait shared by other Why I Love favourites, Ikaruga and Devil Daggers, and is true of Downwell. For its limited scope and tiny price tag it could easily just be a disposable score attack game that entertains for a few hours. I have played for many, many hours now across PC and iPad, and still enjoy the speed, the splatter of every impact, and the surprising variety it packs into its narrow arenas.
You can play cautiously, landing on every platform in a slow, methodical manner, or you can play a total-avoidance style by trying to fall from the top of the level through to the bottom without touching anything. Best of all, you can hop from enemy to enemy without touching platforms. It took a lot of runs for me to realise that the game counts every chained enemy stomp with a tiny number above your head. Pass ten kills in a row and you earn an instant bonus of 100 gems. Go further and you start earning health and extra charges for your gun. Extra charges give you greater air-time, which increases your ability to chain.
It's an absorbing cycle that makes death agonising and constant instant restarts inevitable. It's complicated further by side-caves containing new gun-boot variations. Grabbing one gives you a chance to earn health or a weapon charge along with the pickup, which means you have to regularly adapt to new rates of fire. Shotgun-boots give you a small number of powerful short-range blasts, which means you can clear a lot of blocks, but can't travel laterally easily without using most of the magazine. Rapid fire weapons offer the opposite compromise. There's a skill to understanding and exploiting each weapon's advantages across the changing levels—thankfully, time-bubbles at the entrance to each cave lets you preserve your combo between shopping trips.
I can't stop playing it. Thanks to a surprisingly responsive iPad version, Downwell now goes everywhere I go. On both versions I've done enough to unlock different main characters. Some can take more damage, others have different levels of access to gems and new weapons, but there's only one I need. He enjoys a more floaty falling model that lets him ping from one side of the cave to the other in graceful, somersaulting arcs. Maybe, as floaty-guy, I will make it to the bottom of this cave with a single, continuous mega-chain. Only then will I consider Downwell complete.