Descenders, from developer Rage Squid and publisher No More Robots, is an extreme downhill mountain biking game that utilizes procedurally generated worlds. The game is part of Xbox’s Preview Program, and as such represents a game that is still in development. The game is also available on Steam.
When the game loads, users find themselves mounted on a bike, circling around a loading area atop a mountain. This area serves players as an introductory tutorial and small free-roam type area where you can get the feel of the game. A series of tutorials help the user gain familiarity with Descenders. Right trigger activates the pedal, and how much you press it will ultimately determine how fast you will travel, and considering the declines of many of the maps, this may not be the best way to play the game (there are challenges to complete levels at the highest possible speed, mind you).
The game feels at time like a blend between Skate and SSX, especially considering the right thumbstick mechanics that activate the jump and slide mechanisms of the bike. The controls are very fluid and easy to learn and I found myself speeding down the hillside with only a few minutes of training. The right thumbstick also gives players the option to sway or slide from side to side, though it wasn’t exactly apparent how this improved my ride. I would have also enjoyed more diversity in the tricks – they were mostly limited to flip tricks.
Once you’ve mastered the controls, you’re invited to begin a downhill career mode where mistakes matter. Maps, as mentioned, are procedurally generated, and you’re scored based on how you traverse down the mountain (Rep). Wiping out will deplete both health and rep. Players are encouraged to stay on the beaten track as you’ll invariably earn rep by making jumps or avoiding rocks in your path, however, there is a wide area on either side that is open for traversal. Players also start with five “lives,” and this is depleted based on the severity of your crash. I found some inconsistency with collisions while working downhill at lower speeds. At times I would clip a small rock or edge at low speeds and would crash out, sending me over the handlebars, which seemed a little extreme.
As you progress through the career mode, you earn Rep and you also unlock new bikes and outfits, though it appears as most of the brands found in Descenders are fictitious and not based on real-world gear. While there is certainly an understandable licensing issue, it may also present an opportunity for the developers in the future. One of my concerns with Descenders was that each bike I unlocked did not appear to have much impact on my ride – they seemed mostly cosmetic in nature. I would have enjoyed the option to either have some gameplay sliders to change the way my ride handles (at times it felt as though I was gliding on air), or see more of a difference in playability from bike to bike.
As mentioned, the maps are procedurally generated, meaning no maps will be the same. This can present challenges to those who prefer getting to know the level through repetition, however may present more of a real-world experience for players. The maps increase in difficulty, meaning they increase the decline of the mountain, and increase the number of turns and obstacles within the run. Following the route will lead players to checkpoints along the run, though there seems to be many calls to expand where players can restart from (at this point it appears you can only respawn from the last checkpoint and not the start of the run).
Graphics and Sound
Upon my first playthrough, I was surprised with how much polish Descenders had. The procedurally generated landscapes were lush and beautiful, and the game runs at a good clip, with a solid and stable framerate. The only challenge I experienced during my time with the game was with some of the textures for boulders on the pathways, which at high speeds would sometimes come out of nowhere.
The game’s sound emulates the downhill experience. The soundtrack features a number of electronic music tracks, another feature that would benefit from more diversity.
I’m always pleased to know that games like Descenders exist, especially when they’re fun to play. They allow people who may not live in regions conducive to the sport, or have the financial means to take part in it, to gain an experience with sports that may be considered more fringe. It’s a difficult prospect writing about a game that’s still in development, but I was very surprised with Descenders depth and polish as a preview release.
The developers host a discord chat where users are free to make suggestions, and there are certainly a lot of interesting ideas being bandied about there. That being said, Descenders shows a lot of promise – the base game is very simple: easy to learn yet difficult to master. It emulates the frenetic pace of downhill biking and provides a unique experience in an under-represented sports genre.