Downwell for Android Review: The Best Descent

One of the best procedural action games hits Android in all its glory.

Downwell Feature
Ojiro Fumoto

Downwell is the debut game from Ojiro Fumoto, a procedurally-generated action game that was one of my favorite games of 2015. But its Android port came well after the iOS and PC versions, a common occurrence. This situation is understandable since Fumoto did most of the primary game development by himself. As such, the game was one of my most anticipated games of 2016 for Android, and now that it's finally here, I give it my highest recommendation.

You play as a little fellow with gunboots, descending down a well, with only the ability to move left/right and jump/fire. The gunboots aren't powerful enough to launch you vertically, but you can use them to stay airborne and attack enemies below. You have limited ammo, which you refill by touching the ground, but this ends your enemy combo meter, with rewards for longer and longer combos. You kill some enemies by hitting them on the head, which will restore your ammo. Red enemies are untouchable. You must always adjust to your current situation and approach it with intelligence.

Downwell is all about tradeoffs: do you keep your combo going even if it might lead you into more dangerous situations? Enemies coming from above you are the ultimate danger, as it's difficult to get above them, unless you master the wall jump. The weapons you find in caves might help you with more health or ammo but might give you a weapon that you don't want right now. Plus, some weapons become more effective later in the game. The laser is powerful, but only when you can fire it multiple times without landing. You might need health from the shop right now, but the small refills get more expensive later in the game, with the permanent health upgrades being the most valuable items. Which of the end-of-level upgrades helps you now, or later? Some may give you more firepower, but at the cost of controlling the situations you're in. You are always making decisions, trying to play with intelligence through the game's 12 levels and eventual final boss fight. It's quite the complex action game with emergent gameplay.

And the more you play it and practice it, the more that its intricacies come into play. This is one of the most brilliant action games of recent vintage.

The Android port plays well but is a bit lacking in the feature department compared to iOS and PC.  On the Nvidia Shield K1 I played the game on, the game didn't support the PC and iPad's landscape mode. This means that for tablets, the buttons are a bit large and difficult to use. Tablets feel more comfortable for long-term gaming when in landscape mode, so this feels best on phones. The buttons are only adjustable for their position, not size. The other advantage of the landscape mode is that it means that you can get a clean display of what is happening on screen. There are advantages to playing in portrait, such as getting a larger display when propping the screen up, and I'd like portrait as an option on tablets. Regardless, the forced choice here hurts the game. As well, the game doesn't work on the ​Android TV when it should, because it has controller support. This support was buggy at launch, as there were minor issues with button presses. However, these features can be added and bugs can be fixed.

One of the interesting things about Downwell's pacing is that the game becomes a bit less mobile-friendly as time goes on. It takes about 15 minutes or so to beat the game for normal playthroughs. So while a few minutes per session is the norm at the start, it becomes something where you have to sit down and play this for longer periods of time. It's still a great game for on the go, but I'd love to see save states for where you could perhaps resume from the place you're at when you quit the game.

I will say that Downwell is the kind of game that gets more and more rewarding as you play it and get better at it. Part of this is literal, as you get unlocks both cosmetic and gameplay-effecting. Stick around until you get boulder and levitation modes because they are fantastic for novice players. Levitation, in particular, will teach you how the combo system works, and its lessons carry over well to other modes in the game.

This is mobile's Spelunky: this platform's brilliant action game. Game developer/Spelunky expert Douglas Wilson says as much and that it could lead to even greater things someday, and it rings true for me. I've sunk so much time into this game, and I know it can be punishing. Coming back to it after not playing it for a while reminded me how difficult it can be if you're not careful. You have to learn how the game's various sections work, but when you're dropping 25+ combos and racking up several extra HP bars through your health pickups, you'll see for yourself just how great Downwell can be. The Android port still needs a bit of work, but it's great.