I remember back in 2009 when I played Trials HD and as far as I was concerned it was the best a bicycle free styling game could ever get. RedLynx took an idea that was extremely popular on sites such as Miniclip and Kongregate and transformed that into a fleshed out, refined experience. Then Trials Evolution arrived in 2012 and, once again, I fell in love with how it was so simple yet also so well made and satisfying to play. Finally, two years later, we got Trials Fusion and despite its pretty pitiful launch that didn't even feature a proper multiplayer mode, it was still the same game I'd fell in love with all those years ago.
All the time I enjoyed those titles however there was always the lingering thought that they could never go further than they already had. They've tried stunt racing, wacky DLC themes and a wide range of new modes but at its core none of the Trials games really differentiate from one another. Simply put, they stalemated badly overtime. What we need then is a fresh spin on the bicycle free styling genre that can pump some life back into it. What we need is Descenders.
Descenders is the self proclaimed 'extreme downhill mountain biking' game developed by RageSquid and published by No More Robots. You probably aren't familiar with No More Robots and that'd be because this is actually their first ever game they've published. The brain behind the company however is Mike Rose, formerly of Tiny Build, the company behind Punch Club and Clustertruck. With a CV of that quality I'd say it's fair to go into Descenders with some pretty high expectations. The question is, does it deliver on those expectations?
There isn't one. Not really anyway. There's always the angle that you're an aspiring biker who wants to rise up and become world number one but in terms of canon there's just nothing there. What might be of more interest is the game's progression system and how that impacts your own personal story you develop throughout the game.
The opening sequence of Descenders is almost eerily simple for modern gaming's standards. You load in and you click 'RIDE' to play. After some very basic control tutorials you are thrown in at the deep end to find your own way around. Refreshing is the best way to describe all this. It's nice to just get on with things and be able to enjoy the core game rather than be weighed down by half an hour of cinematics.
Once you get to the level selection screen you'll be greeted by an FTL inspired layout with each level only being described with a few simple words such as 'Steep Straight Race' and ratings for its steepness, curves and stunts. You keep going through stages with optional objectives that give you extra lives and once you are out of lives the game cashes in your progress, shows your unlocks and lets you go again. Unlocks are primarily cosmetics but you can also get rewards such as shortcuts to later stages which allow you to avoid repeating the early, easier levels over and over.
There's not much here but it works and considering there's a clear theme of simplicity throughout the game it would feel weird to have an overly complicated system in place here. What matters is that there's enough for you to create your own experience without you getting bored. I found it pretty easy to keep going at stages over and over and not feel weighed down by repetition or tiresomeness.
Where Descenders excels is in its gameplay. In the same way Trials felt so great back in 2009, Descenders does it all over again in 2018. The switch to 3D however allows it to do so much more and adds an entirely new level of depth to the playing experience. There's a thrill about navigating a complicated, leaning platform section at high speed whilst in a first person camera that not even Trials can replicate. If that doesn't sound good enough to you then what about jumping over a moving train whilst being prompted to pop a 360 spin in there for good fun?
Considering Descenders uses procedural generation there was always the possibility of some levels feeling bland or unfulfilling. For the most part though this is not the case and the game does an excellent job at consistently producing fun levels. RageSquid got a nice balance between letting the game do its thing and also implementing pre-made sections in order to assure levels are as fun as possible. After all, just leaving a game to purely generate procedural levels can lead to a No Man's Sky outcome and no one wants that mess again.
The one exception to this rule is the poor implementation of bonus objectives. I've had it on several occasions where I'll click a track called 'Mellow Straight Race' and then my objective is telling me to get 5 seconds of airtime. I'll then find myself on a stage where there won't have been a single jump and I might have managed 2/3 seconds if I've really forced it. Another example is when it gives you 'Get 2 Near Misses' but then presents you with a stage with nothing to ride close to. The latter is especially a problem as Descenders seems to only register specific objects as being eligible for a near miss and if these objects aren't loaded you literally can't complete the objective. Considering bonus objectives are the only way to get extra lives this is a real problem. Maintaining a long run is made far harder when the condition to get extra lives is often just unfair and impossible.
After all these years of games likes Trials you might jump into Descenders trying to go as fast as possible. The aim here though is never to complete the levels in some arbitrary time. There's no timer at all in fact and even the loading screen messages reassure you to go at your own pace. Descenders really is a game about survivability and looking good whilst not flying off your bike. Not going fast though. Outside of the bonus experience for going quick down hills, the game never really rewards you for completing stages fast or finding the optimal route. At first I found this a little unsettling as I just didn't get the point of runs if I wasn't being timed but as I've played more I found myself warming to it.
After all, most people who take their mountain bikes to do some off-roading probably aren't timing themselves. Without a timer or the pressure of a clock you are free to just pull up and take in the beautiful world around you. This becomes really nice in the later stages where the game doesn't even provide a fixed route but rather you have to make your own way from A to B. The freedom to play how you want is something none of its competitors really have and as far as I'm concerned player freedom is always a good thing.
Whenever I review a game at first I leave the setting more or less how they are by default (other than resolution and FOV if relevant). This is because that way I feel I'm playing the game how the developers intended. Most of the time this is fine but with Descenders doing this almost ruined the game for me. The motion blur is awful. Not only is it nauseating to look at whilst going fast but is also obscures the fantastic looking environments. Seriously, a good 40% of your screen is just ugly when you have blur turned on and go very fast down a hill. Another thing is that I played my first twenty minutes or so in the default chase cam and I'll go and say that there's little value in not playing in first person for me. You lose all immersion in other camera options and you can just tell the game was designed for cockpit point of view and nothing else. I appreciate them offering different perspectives but none of the others really work all that well. I just threw this in here because I don't want any of you guys giving up on the game early for similar reasons to why I started off leaning towards a bad score. With some settings tweaks this game becomes a far nicer experience.
Graphics and Audio
Visually speaking, Descenders is an incredibly good looking game. The environments from the forest to the snowy mountain tops all feel very natural and easy on the eyes. If you really go out of your way and get up close you'll notice some pretty poor textures for the grass and certain trees but this isn't going to bother anyone playing normally. Whilst just riding through the actual levels though you'll be free to take in countless breathless sights. The signature stunt segments that are pre-designed into levels can especially be nice to look at as they merge into the landscapes so well.
The visuals and sound are there to do more than just look nice as little features such as controller rumble integration, audio feedback and the sights of trees flashing by all combine to convey a real sense of speed. This is seriously impressive considering you are at most hovering around the 50 mph mark yet there's racing games I've played where 200 mph can feel pretty slow. Even at slower speeds though there's something strangely satisfying about the freewheel clicking away and listening to the tires glide across even the roughest terrains. These little SFX touches are what makes Descenders as good a game as it is. You know when a game has those little things like this done so well that a lot of love and effort was put into it which, for me at least, brings a smile to my face to know the work the developers put it was well worth it.
Featuring stellar gameplay, high quality visuals and impeccable sound design, Descenders goes above and beyond anything I had anticipated when I first received my review code. Whilst not perfect, it feels refined and simple enough that you can both not get bored but also not feel overwhelmed by clumsy menus or over-designed gameplay that is evident in some other titles.
Its biggest downfall is that I often felt like I was being punished for its questionable procedural generation when I found myself failing a run by a life or two when I know I could have gotten those extra lives if the bonus objectives were fairer. Regardless of some design flaws though Descenders is still a very good off-road biking simulator that I can wholeheartedly recommend for the very fair fee of £19.49 ($24.99) that it is currently available on Steam.
For another opinion on the game, you might want to check out the review by Mpora.
|+ Looks fantastic, plays even better.||– Procedural generation can cause questionable bonus objectives which can unfairly punish the player.|
|+ Signature stunts are very satisfying when you learn to get them just right.||– Simplicity is great but I do fear that if you played this game enough you'd run out of things to do a little sooner than you'd like.|
|+ Some of the best sound design I've seen in recent years.|