Descenders (Switch) Review
“I hate it”.
These were the three words I said to my partner within 10 minutes of starting Descenders. My first foray into the game had me stumped on its first level. Hell, on it’s first jump. Fall off a few times and that’s it? Entire game over? What?
The second time I fared about the same. I couldn’t even get through the tutorial.
I wanted to quit there and then, honestly. This was not a game for me. I was overcome with a feeling of dread – I’d accepted this review code thinking the game was something else entirely. I couldn’t just say no, like I would a game I had then come to regret purchasing.
And, well… Descenders is pretty bloody excellent, actually.
“Extreme downhill mountain biking” might not be high on your video game priority list, but turns out, maybe it should be? “But how much can you really get from riding a bike down a mountain” you may ask? Well, more than you might expect.
At first glance, Descenders offers up short, procedurally generated tracks, with a few hills and ramps mixed in for good measure. Your goal is to get from where you are to the end of the track without falling off your bike. That’s it. Pretty straightforward, right? But what Descenders does with this basic premise offers up such a superb mechanical transference of the sport into video game form that other games of its ilk just don’t do.
At the heart of Descenders is this push and pull between control and chaos. It’s this thrill of not ever being in complete control, yet having just enough to pull off some fantastic feat. You can be careening down a hill towards the largest ramp you’ve ever seen, barely hanging on to the handlebars, yet manage to angle yourself ever so slightly, pulling off a sweet double backflip before landing safely.
That’s where the adrenaline hits come in, lining up with its extreme sport roots. Descenders maps the feeling of extreme sports onto it’s gaminess in ways other extreme sports games don’t. There’s always this tension between pushing yourself further, faster, while trying not to lose everything in an instant.
It’s so easy to do that. One wrong flick of the stick, and all of a sudden you’re rushing through a thicket of pine trees and deadly rocks. Thankfully, you don’t need to go that fast; you don’t need to do much of anything, in fact. Every track is made up of variations on slope, curvature and increased stunt options, all affecting the makeup of the trail. But you don’t need to do any of it – you can simply ride your bike down the mountain off road if you like, taking your time, before pulling into the end of the track. You can avoid the ramps and hazards altogether, riding the brakes all the way down to avoid going too fast. You aren’t penalised in this – you can in fact finish almost the entire game this way (with the exception of two jumps). Descenders does not punish you for playing however you would like to.
Instead, Descenders has a lot of small tools in it’s arsenal to nudge you towards pushing yourself. Bonus objectives give you something different to try without overburdening you with tasks that can be failed. If you complete them, you get an extra health point – if you don’t, well, no biggie. Same goes for the rep score – it’s just a cumulative number that mostly is for leaderboards, but during a play through can net you small bonuses like a higher jump – none of which are strictly necessary. You can ignore this completely, but you can bump it up by performing harder tricks and riding more dangerously.
Flow is a measure of your rep increase per minute – encouraging faster, and by extension more dangerous, downhill rides. Even the tracks themselves are just guides – sure, you won’t get many rep points and might not be able to complete your bonus objective, but you can just ride off into the scrub in a straight line toward the end with absolutely no penalty. It’s all incentive carrot, without any punishing stick.
Even the music and design work is incredibly chill, wrapping you up in the feeling of the moment. It’s background to the design, but it’s important in communicating a specific atmosphere.
All of this is wrapped in a rogue-like framework, with procedurally generated levels broken up into different biomes. This both gives the game a bit more structure, keeping you moving through different places with different variations on tracks, while also acting as something to work towards. But even this is fluid in allowing you to play how you prefer – complete the forest area a few times, and you can begin a new run in the canyon and skipping earlier biomes, for example. Everything is designed to accommodate your way of play, while simultaneously nudging you forward with clever yet non-intrusive game design.
When I was little, my Dad bought me a Pee-Wee 50 motorbike for my birthday. Though I was kind of terrified of riding it, I did so anyway, because I was a little kid trying to live up to my parents expectations. One Saturday, my Dad worked on a project out the back of our house – a little dirt mound jump. It was, honestly, pretty small – but to a kid on a tiny motorbike, it felt like a mountain. He would build this jump up a little, then get me to ride over it again and again to test it. I had tears in my eyes, such was my fear of leaving the ground, of crashing and falling off, of being a disappointing son.
One level in the last area of Descenders, a level of riding down the side of a snowy mountain, contained a modifier to force first person camera mode. This level was the only one between where I was and the final level, where if I was to succeed, I would “finish” the game for the first time.
The bonus objective was to do a double backflip. In first person.
I didn’t complete the bonus objective. I did, however, ride slowly down that mountain, got to the end, and then completed the final level and saw credits.
I don’t know if Descenders is really a game for me. I may not be an adrenaline junkie, and if I never get on a bike of any kind again in my life, I’m totally fine with that. Despite this, I understand and recognise just how much it accomplishes with such a simple premise. I share this story to give you, reader, some perspective, when I say Descenders is a damn great game.
That delicate balance between fear and excitement, of control and wild abandon, of thrill and terror – this is exceedingly difficult to accomplish, even when creating a work of total fiction. Descenders translates it’s source material with pinpoint accuracy, proving developer RageSquid not only deeply understands the emotions around participating in an extreme sport, but also how to convert that feeling to an experience of play with meticulous accuracy and unmatched adoration for both pastimes.
Descenders is a top tier extreme sports game, translating the feeling of riding a bike down a hill with incredible precision. So many small design details pull the package together to provide a wonderfully kinetic experience.
+ Translates the feeling of downhill bike riding with extreme accuracy
+ Play it your way, only incentives - no punishment
+ Great music and visuals
- Not for people who aren’t adrenaline junkies