Looking back at Downwell, a masterpiece in action game design

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I first got Downwell during the Steam Winter Sale at the very end of 2015. I’ve played it regularly since then, often in between my daily errands or if I just need a quick 15 to 30 minute break when I’m working. I was playing it a lot, but often in small intervals, and I realized that this game would’ve worked perfectly on the mobile phone. At that time it was only available on iOS devices, which I don’t own, so I waited. Fast forward to the Android release in February. I purchased it right away and proceeded to play it on my phone with ever-increasing frequency. I play it during lunch breaks and while waiting for my laundry. I play it before my food arrives at restaurants. I even play it in between the chest rewards of Clash Royale. Then it hit me: I’ve been playing Downwell for almost five months, across two platforms, and I am still not bored of it.

I want to talk about Downwell in detail because I think it a rare piece of work that manages to introduce some amazingly deep gameplay with seemingly simple mechanics. I mean, you jump and shoot, collect gems, rinse and repeat, that’s all you do. On the surface, people might pass it off as “just another shooter” or “a shooter with a cool twist.” I know I did at first. But in reality, it is a masterpiece in game design that I believe should be used as a benchmark for anyone looking to build an action-based game. One of the reasons I think this is because Downwell manages to appeal to new players and expert players without ever compromising its mechanics. Everything is available to the player right from the start, where the experience of playing the game will grow according to the player’s skill. Let me elaborate.

Learning to Play

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At this stage, let’s say you have been introduced to Downwell for the first time. You just bought the game and you are fiddling around the mechanics. This game has no detailed tutorials, but through careful design, they manage to teach you how to play without holding your hand. At this point, you will probably learn about the gun boots, where pressing a button will make you jump, and pressing it again will make you shoot in mid-air, while simultaneously slowing down your fall. As you do this you see your bullets deplete, and reload again upon landing.

Here you will also learn about monster behaviors and their various forms. The floating blobs are slow while the bats are fast and nimble. The turtles can be destroyed from above so you will have to step on them to kill them. The red monsters can’t be stepped on, so you will have to learn to shoot them. Gems will drop when an enemy dies. Here you will also learn about shops, where you can buy upgrades to your health and charge (bullet capacity) with said gems. There are also bonus caves where there they might reward you with free gems, life regen, or additional charge along with new weapons. Everytime you move on to a new level, you will also be rewarded with a random selection of upgrades to your character.

At this stage, figuring everything out is pretty fun. You will die a lot during this period, but it never feels frustrating. Gems you collect, regardless of whether you spend them or not, will add towards your progression. If you collect enough gems you will be rewarded with new game skins Downwell calls “palettes.” The palette will change the color scheme and are rewarded quite frequently, so it doesn’t feel so awful even though you die a lot. You might be blasting through everything you see and it is a great feeling to feel powerful, even though it might not be as optimal as it will be later in your playthrough. You are enjoying the game at face value, and with the randomly generated levels, it still feels new every time you play. After a while, you will start to notice some patterns, and you will begin to experiment with the mechanics a little more.

Playing Better

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At this stage, you will probably (accidentally) unlock the “styles.” Styles are new modes which will present you some pros and cons. Some will give you more HP while reducing upgrades. Another will make you find only new guns with fewer shop encounters. This introduces different levels of gameplay where the decisions you make are more customized towards your style of gameplay.

This stage of the game also encourages you to go faster. While learning the game, you might take your time to observe the enemy behavior before progressing, but there are two mechanics that will encourage you to take more chances. Collecting 100 gems will put you in “gem high” mode, where all collected gems are doubled. This mode will remain active as long as you keep collecting gems. While frantically trying to maintain your “gem high” you might stumble upon another new mechanic called combo, which is exactly what you think it is. Killing multiple enemies in a row without landing on the ground will rank up your combo count, and if you reach a certain number, you are rewarded with more gems and even an extra life if you’re good enough. Trying to sustain a fast tempo can be pretty exhausting, so you might succumb to the temptation of going into a cave or a shop. However, doing so will not deplete your “gem high” or your combo, so you can continue to wreak havoc as soon as you are done with your upgrades.

This “gem high” and combo system suddenly becomes a game changer where the newer players are starting to maximise all the mechanics at the same time. This is when you discover you can reload while stepping on an enemy. Doing so will keep “gem high”, build combo and reload. Players will then try to play more efficiently and optimally, where the enemy types becomes a key in keeping the fast tempo. Blobs and turtles now feels like floating platforms because they are easy to step on for a reload. Bats and frogs become a new challenge because they can jump and fly, respectively, so timing is critical. Going fast now becomes a higher priority as collecting more gems means getting your character strong enough to go deeper into the level.

Mastering

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Finally, once you figure out everything you need to know about the game, you can start to make more subtle but impactful decisions that will further optimize your experience. At this stage you will probably figure out your favorite style if you haven’t already. Here you will also realize that shop items become much more expensive after you buy them again and again, so you will learn to treat them as precious commodities and only use them when deemed absolutely necessary. Choices that were invisible or meaningless before now become relevant, and choices that seems like the most intuitive might not be the best one. Collecting weapons will award you with charges or life, but it might not be suitable for the level you are trying to beat. The laser and the shotgun are extremely powerful and great at clearing your path, but terrible at maneuverability. Taking damage will also give you a slight boost upward and will reload your gun, so there are actually moments where it is the right thing to do to take a hit.

(See Also: Greatness fades: the slow death of Super Monday Night Combat.)

Everything that I have mentioned before this is also repeated when you encounter a new level. New enemies to figure out, new level layouts to navigate, and new mechanics to learn. At level 3 you will reach an underwater area where you need to collect bubbles to keep breathing on top of everything else. All the skills that you’ve learned before must now be applied to a new environment, and this keeps going deeper and deeper.

Downwell has been a real surprise for me and it’s easily one of the best games I’ve played in recent times because it is a true achievement in game design. I’m very stingy when it comes to buying games, so the fact that I don’t regret buying this on two separate platforms should speak volumes. I think there is a lot devs can learn from games like this, and it helps prove that there is still plenty of room to innovate when it comes to action titles. Ojiro Fumoto is a very young developer and still has a lot to offer the indie game dev scene. Having said that, I will be playing Downwell again and again till I finally beat level 3.

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