Let’s make one thing abundantly clear from the get-go: I am absolutely fucking terrible at Downwell. I have thrown myself against its randomised, vertiginous drops again and again and again, all to no avail. It is hard, and I am awful, and the two combine to leave me endlessly cycling through the game’s early stages, forever denied access to its latter half.
Downwell is a essentially a vertical shmup in reverse – a shmdown, if you will. You are a man, falling down a well. There are assorted enemies, some of whom you kill by landing on, Mario-style, others who you must shoot with your gunboots (gunboots are cool).
As the game opens, you stand outside the top of the well. You can move around the small space, but ultimately there’s little you can do except jump in and begin your descent. This is likely a metaphor for something or other – I’ll let you know when I figure it out.
During my first descent, I feel comfortable. I know this. I jump on enemies, and they die. I shoot enemies, and they die. I land on platforms to reload, which is weird, but I can go with it. Hell, I’m falling down an endless well killing frogs, shit’s already gotten pretty strange.
It’s not long before my illusion of confidence is uncomfortably shattered, probably around the first time I encounter an enemy that I can’t kill by landing on, like one of the strange, prickly wall crabs, or perhaps one of the crawling creatures seemingly picked right out of Space Invaders. Before long I’m dead, bested by Level 1-1.
It’s my first time though, so perhaps such an early death is only to be expected? There’s always a learning curve after all, even to games with such pared down mechanics. No need to take it as a reflection on myself.
The next few deaths are increasingly difficult to rationalize away.
1-1 begins to feel like my personal, never-ending prison. I fall, I shoot, I die. Repeatedly. This is not doing wonders for my already shaky self-esteem.
Along the drop, side rooms offer alternate gun modules that promise the potential of increased firepower. The shotgun and machine gun are predictable enough, though the brutal, precision-straight laser offers the most impressive stopping power. There’s just one thing they all have in common: they can’t quite make up for my own inability to actually stay alive. The right weapon helps me last a bit longer, the laser quickly becoming my offensive tool of choice, but it can’t save me from my own ineptitude.
It’s a blessed relief when I first reach the bottom of the pit, stumbling my way, bleary-eyed, into 1-2. This feels like progress. My reward? A choice of three upgrades, and suddenly I’m thrown back into my fall, only this time there are a few more enemies around, and I die that much quicker.
Ultimately, 1-2 doesn’t hold me back for long. That worrying, delusional confidence creeps back in. I am the master of my gunboots, gracefully plummeting, jumping off turtles, shooting down wall crabs and dodging the weird, glowing eyeball things. I’m getting pretty good at this whole falling thing, I begin to think.
Of course, crushingly, inevitably, 1-3 quickly puts an end to this. It’s hard to put my finger on what exactly has changed between the two levels, but once again, I am painfully inept. Each death (and there are plenty of them) sends me rocketing back to the top of 1-1, ready to collapse down the pit once again.
Levels are randomly generated, ensuring that my descent (and demise) is unique each time. This also makes it impossible for me to learn from me failures, to remember patterns and positions, predict enemies and memorize routes. It’s just me and my reactions, grappling with a fresh challenge each time. This reduces repetition, but also leaves me reliant on my poor coordination and slow reflexes, doomed to certain defeat.
The other thing saving me from crushing recurrence is the RPG-lite upgrade system, which offers a choice of three character tweaks as I finish each level. Perhaps I want my bullet casings to deal damage, or a 10% discount in the shops scattered through the levels. More adventurous perks make enemies explode when I kill them, or cause blocks to shoot out bullets as they’re destroyed. If I’m feeling grizzly, there’s always the knife and fork, allowing me to consume the bodies of my fallen foes for a minor health boost.
Taken together, these upgrades offer lasting alterations to my character, ensuring each run through the well is distinct, slight variations building on each other to create more substantial change. No doubt for those who make it to the game’s latter stages, this allows the creation of powerful, one-of-a-kind character builds, layering power-ups to find unexpected combinations. I never made it that far.
My longest run, dispiritingly, took me to 2-2. This is not very good. The second world marks a tonal shift, as foes change from frogs and bats to ghosts and skeletons, while trap floors insist on attacking me with spikes – even the ground isn’t safe any more. I can only assume that the third world is literally hell itself, and the fourth whatever dark pit lies beyond that – Walmart on Black Friday, perhaps. I don’t expect to ever find out.
In keeping with Downwell’s punishing, roguelike appeal, the only permanent unlockable features are almost entirely cosmetic. Different styles offer slight gameplay tweaks along with animation changes. Boulder Style sees my pixelated avatar curl up into a ball to descend – his reward is more health, but at the cost of fewer upgrade paths. Others see me flail my arms as I descend or levitate inches off the ground, subtly changing the pace of the descent.
Palette unlocks are more frequent, and purely visual, tweaking the game’s color scheme. Some simply swap the original red for blue or green, while others emulate the distinctive palette of the Virtual Boy or Game Boy screens, doubling down on the retro aesthetic. At first, I regularly played with color schemes, trialling each I unlocked, hoping to find new visual cues to add to my adventure. Unfortunately, it turns out that green enemies kill me just as easily, and quickly, as red ones do.
Downwell’s inherent repetition allows lots of space for experimentation. I tried dropping through levels as quickly and haphazardly as possible, avoiding enemies at all costs. Other times I was meticulous, precise, slowly working down and killing everything in my path. Yet others I unleashed my inner capitalist, focusing on securing as many gems as possible. None of this mattered. No tactic or strategy found reliable success, none yielded predictable results. My own demise, and failure, became a sickening inevitability.
I am not good at Downwell. I will never be good at Downwell. It joins the long litany of my failures, a storied history of mounting non-accomplishments, raising the nagging spectre of my own inadequacy, the sense that maybe I’m just not good enough – at Downwell, at games, at writing, at life. Playing it has not been good for my sense of self-worth – struggle without reward, challenge without achievement. In many ways it’s left me the worse for crossing paths with it.
But, on the other hand, gunboots are cool.