For a while I was into mountain biking, specifically the downhill side of it because actually having to peddle is just the worst. I say I was into mountain biking, but mostly what happened was that I pin balled from tree to tree in a generally downward direction. But the point is I’ve always wanted more games focused around mountain biking, and while Descenders might not be the more simulation focused game I was hoping for it sure is a whole lot of fun its own right.
So here’s the idea; you get handed a bike, shoved onto a randomly generated track that the game slaps together for you and then told to simply cross the finish line. Easy. Then you repeat until you either become a master of the trails or until you realise it’s 3AM and that you should probably go to sleep. There’s no ultimate objective to chase in Descenders, no championship to win or storyline to follow. Much like mountain biking in real life it’s all about enjoying yourself. And not hitting that tree over there. Yeah, that one.
Descenders nicely captures the feeling of being on the edge of control. You could always play it safe by riding the brakes hard, but where’s the fun in that? The game is undeniably at its very best when you’re on the limit, reacting to the randomly generated turns, hills and jumps. Sometimes that just means hoping that the hill you just bunny hopped off of won’t send you straight into a tree or off a cliff. Being randomly generated means that sometimes you’re going to crash because it’s impossible to know what’s coming. But the good news is that it’s still fun even when that happens. I rarely found myself complete frustrated.
The physics driving the game mostly feel great. I say mostly because there’s a sense of weight that’s lacking in your bike, almost like your gently floating above the ground. The tyres never bite into the various surfaces like you’d expect on a real bike. Other than that, though, the game controls fantastically and with surprising depth. It’s possible to pull off some cool stuff with a little experimentation, and once you get into the flow it can feel truly spectacular.
If I could change one thing, though, it’s that speed can be tough to judge on the bigger jumps. Descenders has a superb sense of speed, especially when using the first-person view (which I’d highly recommend) but when it comes to the larger jumps the different between barely making it half-way and flying waaaaaaaaaaaaay over the landing ramp seems to be about 1MPH.
Using the right stick and left bumper on a controller (A controller is certainly advised) in conjunction you can pull off a few basic tricks like no-handers and supermans, while combining them with flips or spins. It’s no exactly a wide array of tricks, but that’s fine because the focus is really on the feeling of momentum.
Right, now that the controls are out of the way let’s get down to the game’s structure. The way it works is that you kick off with a set number of lives, and when out of those your run is over. Every crash costs a life, but if you manage to complete a track’s secondary objective, such as doing two backflips, then you earn a life. This creates a nice risk vs reward mechanic where chasing the secondary objective can sometimes cause more harm than good.
When you complete a track you get to choose from a couple more, each of which has a set of stats informing the player of roughly how steep, curvy and full of jumps it will be. Eventually you’ll reach the Boss Jump stage which might involve you leaping over a canyon or trying to backflip a pyramid, both things which I highly advise not attempting in real life unless you’re looking to become dead AND famous on Youtube. Beat the Boss Jump and you get to move on to the next environment of which the game features eight. There’s the mellow sand dunes of the dessert to icy peaks and forests. Each packs its own small selection of specific obstacles that you’ll become familiar with over time.
There’s absolutely no rush to reach the Boss Jump. You can work your way through every track if you wish, completing secondary objectives in order to stockpile lives. There’s a couple of different event types that pop up from time to time, too, like one where the track gets removed entirely and instead you have a compass pointing to the finish line. There’s also medic camps that offer up a bonus life upon completion. The only catch to completing as many tracks as you can is that the nigh time will slowly creep up, obviously making it a bit harder to see.
By doing tricks, landing big drops and just going bloody fast you’ll earn rep that in turn unlocks new Crew Members to choose from. These guys only last as long as your run does, but they provide handy bonuses like reducing speed wobble or letting you take bigger impacts before bailing. Because tracks aren’t actually races as such there’s no time limit, so you can actually veer off track whenever you like or even ride back up the track in order to rack up more rep before moving on.
Rep also unlocks new gear for you to equip, all of which is purely cosmetic. New shirts, helmets, trousers, bikes and other bits and pieces can be earned in a variety of rarities. It’s normal to cycle around the little hub you enter when firing up the game and see players wearing pink mohawks or rocking neon wheels.
Speaking of other players, multiplayer is handled in interesting ways in Descenders. As I briefly mentioned when you fire up the game you’ll be dropped into a lobby with about five other people in a small area filled with jumps and obstacles to mess around on. It’s a place that looks weirdly cobbled together, but otherwise serves its purpose as a meeting point. However, you can’t directly challenge an opponent to a race or anything else from here, and there’re no options for text or voice communication.
To race people directly you can set up an online session by creating a room, selecting a few basic parameters and then deciding if you want to password protect your session. Sadly there’s no quickplay option. At the time of writing there aren’t heaps of sessions to be found, but generally speaking I was able to get at least a few people popping by whenever I made a room.
Anyway, when it comes to the racing itself everyone will set off at the same time and then…um, mayhem, mostly. Right now there’s a mixture of people who want to do the best stunts possible and people who want to get to the finish line as quickly as possible. Since there’s no voice or text communication I found it best to use the room name to describe which of the two you fall into. Anyway, rep and time are both tracked and just like the regular solo mode you’ll go from event to event and environment to environment until it just sort of ends.
Meanwhile, in the regular singleplayer mode you can randomly encounter other players on tracks, something which the game indicates to you when you’re choosing where to go next. But these people won’t start the track at the same time as you necessarily, so there’s no real competition as such. You can also opt to go offline entirely if you don’t fancy having random strangers gaze judgingly as you plough into a sand dune.
There’s a common theme in Descenders which is that it isn’t very big on competition as such. The game itself tells you that it isn’t a race, that you should take your time and do everything at your own pace. There are no penalties for heading off the track nor any time limit for reaching the finish, unless you’re in a multiplayer session in which case the first person to cross the line triggers a countdown. This more chilled vibe is best noted in the music which comes from a Dutch drum and bass label called Liquicity. On paper the hectic, on-the-edge action doesn’t match up with the rhythmic, mellow music but in action it works perfectly.
Descender’s biggest strength and ultimately its most frustrating element happens to be the same thing; random level generation. On the one hand it makes Descenders massively replayable. There are always more tracks to ride, more potential for the game to generate something special. But while you’re blasting through a career session there’s no way to save a fantastic track that you’d like to learn and get faster at. And with everything being put together by the game rather than a designer there are going to be plenty of times when things don’t line up very well. For every great layout there was usually another that didn’t flow well, perhaps because there was a jump placed where it was impossible to get speed up.
You can head into a freeride sessions and generate worlds using a seed key, which is currently the only way to replay a level over and over before challenging some mates to do better. I’d have liked an easier way of doing this as well as an option to save seeds for tracks in career sessions, but at least is possible and there are a good amount of people on the Steam forums sharing interesting seed keys. That leaves some room for some fun Steam forum leaderboard posts.
Graphically Descenders is probably best described as being exceptionally mediocre. Textures are flat and lifeless, there’s a general lack of detail and the levels look like they were slapped together with no sense of cohesion. The most notable is the Favela which in real life is a sort of slum/shantytown filled to the brim with people. In Descenders, though, it’s a life place filled with squares that vaguely resemble buildings.
The benefit to the graphical simplicity is that Descenders runs pretty much perfectly, at least based on my time with the game. To be fair, I’m throwing a 1080Ti at it and getting well over a 100FPS, but given how visually simple the game is and how little raw processing power it needs people with modest machines should still have no problem running Descenders. You’ll appreciate those high framerates when everything is whizzing by.
Descenders is an Early Access game done right. It spent its time in Early Access learning from the community while honing in on what it wanted to be. Developers RageSquid have done a damn fine job crafting this arcade rogue-lite mountain biking game, which might sound like a strange description but is fair, I reckon. There are things I wish had been done different but there’s absolutely no doubt that I’m having heaps of fun blasting down tracks, nailing tricks and searching for the ever elusive flow.
3.5 out of 5