Republished on Wednesday, 26th July 2017: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of August 2017's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
Well, well, well – if game juice were a real beverage, then Downwell would be the Um Bongo of the fruit flavoured sugar water world. This descend-'em-up by Japanese indie Moppin sees you – and we're quoting the official website here – assume the role of a "young man […] with gun-boots". The gelatinous protagonist looks more like a miniature Stay Puft if you ask us, but we won't dock points for the inaccurate description.
Ported to the PlayStation 4 and Vita after a successful stint on smartphones, this unashamedly old-school treat plays like a vertical endless runner in killer high-heels. Your objective is to fall down randomly generated shafts, stomping on the heads of all kinds of weird and wonderful enemies along the way. There's a roguelike-esque spin in that you can unlock power-ups and upgrades as you fall, but you'll lose them with each successive run.
There is a sense of persistent progress, however, as with each decline you'll collect gems. These can be frittered away in mid-stage shops, or added to your cumulative total each time that you die. Reaching certain gem quotas will unlock new "styles" which tweak the gameplay rules ever so slightly, as well as cosmetic alterations, such as palette swaps for the in-game art. Some of these are based upon "retro" games consoles like the Virtual Boy.
But much of this is periphery guff, included to flesh out the package and put a bit of meat on its bones. The real deal here is the gameplay loop, which is frankly fantastic. If you've ever combo stomped a couple of Goombas, then you'll know how good it feels when you maintain air time following a single attack – and this is Downwell's modus operandi. Falling down the well is one thing, but repeatedly squashing any enemies that you encounter without touching a platform is the true goal.
Combos are essential to collecting gems, increasing your charge, and replenishing health. Charge is important because it determines how many shots you can fire before needing to reload – and yes, the bullets come out of your feet. Firing from your size nines slows your descent, so it becomes both an offensive and levitation tool; Air Jordans ain't got nothing on these deadly dunks, we're afraid.
Really tight air control paired with the aforementioned game juice – screen shake, explosions, that kind of thing – makes the game incredibly satisfying, and because runs can last just a couple of minutes, it's morbidly moreish as well. Global leaderboards only add to the compulsion, which track a dozen or so different stats. Unfortunately, despite being cross-buy, it doesn't look like save data transfers between the PS4 and Vita, so you'll need to unlock everything one system at a time.
The other bummer is that, realistically, the title's designed for vertical displays. The loss of screen estate doesn't matter much on the big screen, where the release's ZX Spectrum-inspired presentation sparkles in high-definition, but you may find yourself reaching for a magnifying glass on Sony's handheld. There is an option to rotate the action on both systems, but there's no suitable control scheme to compensate on the portable, so it's a bit of a dead loss.
Unless Lassie's got our back, then we'd never normally want to get lost down a well – but Downwell is a strong exception. This fun little freefallin' title ties you up in its gun-boot antics, and is difficult to put down once you casually drop in. The premise is perhaps better suited to vertical screens, and it can be a bit obtuse – but for the price of a Big Mac, this is one deadly descent that deserves your tuppence.