I think we’ve established by now that I like racing games, so my initial thoughts when I saw tweets regarding RageSquid’s Descenders was “oo that looks like a great racing game”, so once it hit Game Pass on XBox One I gave it a download and have spent the last week playing it and I was wrong, its not a “great racing game”.
I was however to use the term “great” because Descenders is really, really good, but its not a racing game. It’s also not a Tony Hawks style game, which is another assumption it is easy to make when you look at screenshots or watch videos. It actually has both elements, there is a race to the bottom of the hill and you can do tricks, but overall, at least in single player where I’ve spent all of my time, there’s no right way to play Descenders. There’s no position markers, so its not about beating your “opponents” (who, depending on if you’re connected to the internet or not) are all humans, thing is, “opponents” is the wrong term, they all occupy the same space as you, but you’re not pitched against them and people drop in and out of your instance on a consistent basis. Likewise, your Rep score isn’t compared to these players whilst your in a particular event (which are all procedurally generated based upon stats set when you choose an event).
Which makes Descenders difficult to describe to others, but I keep returning to it. Why? Well, aside from it being really good fun, its cathartic too. There’s something to be said about just throwing a Mountain Bike down the side of a hill, popping off tricks whilst the excellent EDM soundtrack plays, its incredibly cathartic and thanks to the fact its only a ragdoll physics based representation of human who’s bones are at stake I don’t have to worry about being rushed to the hospital or being left to die (which is one of a few reasons I’m unlikely to really get into mountain biking as a real world hobby even if I could do with some excercise thats less damaging to my knees than jogging would be).
I mentioned before that the game was instanced, it has a similar kind of structure to RICO that I reviewed a couple of months back in that theres branching paths for each of the games four locations. Each branch leads to a new event that is randomly generated and the map gives you an idea of what kind of terrain to expect using gauges that show you the routes steepness, how twisty it is and whether it is trick intensive or not. You’re given a pool of attempts to get as far through all four environments as you can and you can increase that pool by completing the (also randomly generated) bonus objective for each event. As you progress and also gain more rep (earned via doing tricks) you’ll also build a Team, these are essentially stat buffs that allow you to land from greater heights, loose less life points when you’re bailing, make you spin faster when doing tricks and a whole host of others than you can pick from to tailor the game to your own abilities. Each environment finishes up in a “Boss Jump”, an almost Evel Knievel style jump (i.e. over a viaduct with a steam train going over it) that you need to land in order to move onto the next environment.
What makes all this work though is just how great the game is to control, the weight and momentum of your bike as you hurtle downhill and the speed with which the game can shift along is exhilarating and its rare that the frame rate begins to struggle. It all feels incredibly simple to begin with, RT gets your guy peddaling, LT is your break, left stick steers whilst the right stick allows you to pump and bunny hob the bike in a similar manner to EA’s old SKATE games. Personally I feel that having to hold the left bumper button and then use the right stick to perform tricks is a bit cumbersome but you soon get used to it, although I’ll admit that I was less focused on doing tricks and more on riding as fast as I could down the hills.
Circuits are lined by tape with checkpoints as you go, but you’re never forced to stick to the route, the checkpoints are merely there to give you a new starting point if you crash, and in fact some events do away with a route completely and merely ask you to head in the direction of the finish line as told to you by a compass at the top of the screen, and its this level of freedom that gives the game its almost meditative feel.
Its not perfect though, the load times can sometimes feel a little too long and theres an argument to be made regarding to its repetition, but on that last point, in a medium where far too many games can feel overblown and bulked out Descenders offers a nice counter in that its unlikely you’ll ride the same series of corners more than once and just setting out to “get to the next environment” offers a great 20 minute play thats perfect for just unwinding. I’ll happily admit that I was worried during my first play of Descenders that me getting the wrong impression of the game from its trailers would damage how I felt about the game, but further time with it as shown it to be a hidden gem of a game that I’ve grown to want to recommend to everyone that states there aren’t enough console exclusives on the XBox One, that its (at the time of writing) available on Games Pass means that everyone subscribed to that service, in my opinion, owes it to themselves to give it their time.
Formats: PC, XBox One (Version tested)
Release Date: 9 February 2018 (PC), 15 May 2018 (XBox One)
Publisher: No More Robots