The little blobby guy in Downwell is a little bit like Alice from Lewis Carroll's classic novels. He wakes up on a park bench resting under a peaceful tree, walks to the right, and stares down a giant hole in the ground. He teeters over the edge, glancing into the abyss, and at this point, the two of you are probably sharing similar questions: What's down this hole? What perils await me down there? And is the reward at the end worth it? Curiosity overcomes you - it wouldn't be much of a game if it didn't - and you leap, feet first, into the well.
Luckily, you've got a pair of gunboots to keep you safe. They're guns. On your shoes. Just go with it.
Playing Downwell is deceptively simple. You can move left and right, you can hop, and when you're in the air, you can shoot downward with your gunboots. That's it. Your objective is simple, too: Make it down the well as far as you can without dying, and defeat the boss at the bottom floor. You only have one life, though, and if you die, it's right back to the top of the well with you. The game has some rogue-like elements built in, with a small amount of randomization for each stage, and various weapon upgrades to find and abilities to earn in-between each stage, but it's far less involved than something like Spelunky or the recent Enter the Gungeon.
It is hard, though. Real hard. Even the best of runs can quickly go south if you're not playing at the top of your game at all times, but even at its most difficult, Downwell never feels unfair. And because individual runs last only a handful of minutes, it's really easy to get a few quick games in and still feel like you got something out of it, even when you inevitably lose all your health. The pixelated graphics and crunchy 8-bit sounds perfectly complement the arcadey action and precise controls, playing like the memories of your favorite retro classics.
If that's where it ended, Downwell would have been a satisfyingly challenging yet simplistic action game with a charming Game Boy-inspired aesthetic. Downwell's real depth comes from exploring its mechanics, figuring out how everything works together, and then executing on them to perfection. It's brilliant.
Downwell doesn't really explain its systems to you, but everything in the game is clearly defined so when you do see it, those 'a-ha' moments becomes game changers. Certain objects on screen make sense to anyone who's played a game before - the HP meter in the top left is your remaining health, the energy meter on the right determines how many shots you have left before you need to reload, and so on. Then, you realize you can hop on enemies in addition to shooting them - but only certain ones. You can use your gunboots to defeat enemies, but you can also use them to give you a little more air control while you fall - but your shots only reload when your feet hit something solid. Then you notice a number appearing over your head as you defeat enemies. You eventually learn what that number means. You begin to notice how different power-ups work together, how certain weapons are more effective than others, what you can do with the gems you pick up. And on, and on, and on.
Figuring out how all of its different pieces fit together is as much a part of the joy of playing Downwell as is conquering its increasingly difficult stages. Your first outing will resemble the uncontrolled flailings of a total novice, but with lots of practice and intuition, you'll easily sail past places you once had problems with, and you'll continue to learn more and more the further down you go. I thought I had Downwell figured out once I knew how to keep my combos going, but then I discovered what the meter under my health bar meant and what happened when it filled all the way up - and suddenly everything I thought I knew about how best to play Downwell changed in an instant.
Downwell takes the essence of discovery found in the best roguelikes and condenses it down into its purest form. It's the perfect game to bust out on your PS4 as a mid-game palate cleanser, or to play on your Vita while you're waiting in line at the DMV - a quick burst of arcade-inspired brilliance with more than enough depth to satisfy those who seek it out. The best part? It costs less than a cup of coffee; a pittance for pixelated perfection.