Descenders taught me two important lessons: It’s possible to be terrible at a game and still have a blast, and I should never attempt downhill mountain biking. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about the second lesson because Descenders is so good that I’m perfectly content taking my thrills and spills in the virtual world.
Dutch developer RageSquid took a number of game design concepts and tuned them to blend together seamlessly. To start, every level in Descenders is procedurally generated, giving the game near infinite replayability while simultaneously adding depth and challenge, even in the early levels. You may learn what tricks the game has up its sleeve, but you’re never aware what combination it’s going to throw at you.
Every session starts off on a relatively easy course, and from there, different nodes open with varying degrees of steepness, curves and stunts. More difficult courses offer greater risks but also the chance to build a larger amount of “rep,” a score-based system that rewards you for everything from going fast, sliding turns and, of course, performing tricks. After building enough rep, you choose one of four crew members who can do everything from letting you survive harder landings to adding extra stunts to a level.
The rewards crew members offer are only one side of the coin, though. The risk part of that equation comes in the form of bails, or the number of lives you have. Descenders starts you out with four at the beginning of each session, and every time you crash, you lose at least one, and in the case of particularly hard crashes, two. After you’ve lost all of them, you have a “last stand,” meaning a bad crash with one life left won’t end your run immediately.
Each level also gives you a chance to gain an extra life by completing a bonus mission, which is randomly selected by the game based on the type of level you’ve chosen. For instance, a level with more stunts may have a bonus objective to land two backflips, whereas a steep course may require you to hit a certain speed. Completing the objective gives you the extra life, but Descenders forces you to weigh whether the challenge of getting that is worth possibly losing one or more.
The goal of each area is to get to the boss node and complete the boss jump, a death-defying leap that looks like something Evel Knievel would have drawn up after a night of heavy drinking. Completing that moves you on to the next area, which offers a noticeable spike in difficulty.
Procedurally generated levels, temporary, unlockable boosts, a set number of lives and bosses are all features of an increasingly popular genre: roguelikes. And effectively, that’s exactly what Descenders is, but it’s in the form of downhill mountain biking. The reason it works so well is because all the complexity lies in the aforementioned elements while the gameplay itself is elegantly simple.
Controlling the bike feels fantastic. There’s a defined weight and force to every motion, with the game blurring the line between realistic physics and a touch of utter insanity. Gravity, momentum, hitting jumps at the right angle and correctly positioning your bike are all critical to staying upright. The combination of using the right and left analog sticks to steer is intuitive and quickly becomes second nature, too, which puts the focus squarely on your skill at the game and not a complex control scheme.
While Descenders allows you to pull off some crazy tricks under the right circumstances, its physics engine is based firmly in reality, unlike a Tony Hawk game that lets you fall from dozens of feet and suddenly catch a rail in the opposite direction.
At the same time, Descenders throws in a few moments of madness. You can’t catch the side of a ramp and stay upright. You can, however, hit that ramp squarely and leap through a flaming hoop being held by a helicopter whilst soaring over a passing train. (And promptly misalign your bike in the air, thereby flying to the right of the landing ramp and crashing horribly. But I don’t want to talk about that.)
There’s so much to like about Descenders, but the best part about the game is how approachable it is. Loading screens constantly remind you it’s not a race, and you should play with your own style at your own pace. Levels aren’t even restricted to a set path. In fact, you can go wildly off course without any punishment, and the game is set up to allow you to avoid jumps and stunts altogether.
But no matter if you’re hitting every ramp or riding at a leisurely pace, Descenders looks fantastic. There’s a wonderful level of detail, with the unlockable clothing, gear and bikes offering countless customization options for your character. All of the different environments are a joy to race through, and for a game that’s procedurally generated, there’s a remarkable cohesion to the way every course comes together.
One other neat feature is how the game handles its level seeding. I won’t claim to have a detailed understanding of it, but the level seeds are structured in a way that other online players can also end up with the same one you’re on, and when that happens, you’ll actually see them racing on the track with you. You can’t bump into them, but it’s nice touch to see someone hit a ramp entirely too fast and suffer the effects of gravity moments before you fail to heed their lesson and do exactly the same thing.
As a final flourish, Descenders has a soundtrack that pairs perfectly with each environment. Each area has a set of electronic tracks tied to it that mesh perfectly. Yet even in the interlude between songs, the game’s audio still shines. The clicks of the bike’s chain winding around, the clack of parts compressing as you land from a jump, and the rumble of wooden planks as tires roll over obstacles all enhance the level immersion and bring the game to life.
There’s so much to love in Descenders. It’s easily approachable but offers a rewarding challenge, and it’s one of the few games where complete and utter failure is just as entertaining as a successful run. But the most difficult part of Descenders may be finding the willpower to put it down.
Descenders earns 4.5 GiN Gems out of 5. Never has going downhill been so much fun.