The concept of tight, exciting action games which don't overreach is something I'm a big fan of... in theory. Add in well thought out random elements, incremental or unlockable character customization options, and some nice art, and I'm there. But for some reason I keep finding myself disappointed by these sorts of games (Spelunky being the most notable exception).
Downwell is the latest one I've tried, and while I want to like it, so far I've felt more frustration than enjoyment. Part of it is probably the fact I haven't really clicked with how it works yet, and I don't feel fully in control of events. The controls are all very solid, with the kickback from firing your gunboots, bouncing off enemies, and so on, but I just keep falling into combinations of enemies that lead to a crazy bouncing/shooting mess that costs me health and feels random. The various destructible blocks throughout the levels don't help here, since you can't even rely on the terrain. Sometimes it'll block you 100%, sometimes it'll evaporate when something explodes nearby - it's clear which type of block is which, but in the middle of trying to identify and evade/destroy several different enemy types, it's just one more thing to mess up.
Constantly falling doesn't lend itself to offering much breathing space, and while you can aim for a more controlled descent, there's always going to be moments of panic. It's the same in Spelunky, but I felt the balance of cautious advance and planning vs. panicky chaos was better there. Plus you had more space in Spelunky, while Downwell packs a lot of enemies and terrain into a small area. I think this might be why I also enjoyed Luftrausers, where the open sky always gives you room to manoeuvre or at least try to run away, even when it's filled with bullets - and when you yourself aren't shooting for a time, you begin to regenerate your health. Downwell isn't as forgiving - it's more like Spelunky in giving you four hearts and limited options to refresh them. While Downwell offers more healing opportunities than the Spelunky damsels (which give +1 heart, but there's only one per level, and they're not always easy to rescue), it also seems much easier to get hit in the first place.
I might just be bad at the game, but the early areas don't seem to be getting appreciably easier no matter how many times I replay the, in sharp contrast to Spelunky where I really felt I was learning how to recognize and overcome the different threats. For instance, bats in Spelunky were annoying, but with a bit of forethought or just good whip usage, they stopped being seriously dangerous. In Downwell, I don't feel like I have a strategy to deal with them. Hoping to land on them and kill them before they take off is unreliable, and often ends with me hitting some other enemy or slightly missing, offering the bat a perfect bite of my ass. Shooting at them involves increasing the overall chaos level by adding bullets to the mix, and who knows if I'll have ammo left when the latest bat appears? I can try and evade them, if I don't get caught on a platform or bounce into them from other enemies I couldn't dodge in time. If I get stuck between a bat and an enemy below, I can't even shoot because the recoil will push me into the bat as well. There was nothing in Spelunky so annoying that I could write a paragraph about it, but I could probably go on a bit more about Downwell's bats.
The real issue is that while I probably can learn to overcome the bats, I'm not sure I'm having enough fun in the meantime to actually want to. I had a similar issue with Binding of Isaac, which I really liked the idea of, but I just got bored doing the early stages repeatedly, and even the random powerups didn't help - the base gameplay didn't grab me enough. I don't get a feeling that I'm making obvious mistakes which I could correct, just that I'm not fast enough, or not dextrous enough, or something equally hard to pinpoint, or improve. Obviously in random games you have to accept that sometimes you'll get unfortunate situations that can be near impossible to escape from unscathed, but they don't feel well signposted in Downwell, and are happening too much for my liking. Perhaps I just don't have the drive needed to really focus and get the most out of these sorts of games. I'm sure I'll keep trying them though.
What's All this then?
I like making and writing about PC games - mostly strategy games. Expect after action reports, thoughts about design and gameplay, and maybe even a few prototypes.