Descenders is a downhill mountain-biking game recently released onto Steam Early Access, developed by RageSquid and published by No More Robots. Comparing it to other games Descenders feels like a blend of SSX or Pure with Skate, though it does do quite a lot to make itself stand out.
The biggest unique feature of Descenders when compared to similar games is the inclusion of roguelike elements. When you start each run of the game you have a certain number of lives, though you can get a few back by completing missions on each level; there’s only one available on each level though so you really can’t afford to be too careless. After each level you will be shown a tree of level options which form a ‘world’, which is a very familiar mechanism used in a lot of other games.
Most of the levels give you a track to follow dotted with jumps and interesting bits of terrain, and as you might expect from a roguelike game these are procedurally generated. Most of the time this creates perfectly good tracks, though very occasionally I did come across jumps early on the track too large to attempt with the speed I’d built up by that point. The procedural generation gives Descenders a very different feel to games like SSX; there is no gradual building of familiarity with the levels so you’re forced to adapt to the track as you see it. Whether that’s a good thing or not is very subjective, but for me it’s a great feature precisely because you can’t learn and prepare a perfect line to take for a level.
While most levels are composed of a wide mix of features you occasionally get special levels which focus on one element of the game. Two types of these special levels are one full of jumps to maximise the opportunity to pull tricks or a long run with few jumps making for a very fast race to the finish. The most interesting though is a free roam type of level, where you simply have a finish point to get to through a forest without any track to follow. Completing each world requires you to complete a level with a ‘boss jump’, the first of which is a huge jump over a viaduct with a moving train on it. Moving onto the next world brings a new look to the levels with more and different jumps and obstacles to be found on the levels, but the structure remains the same as you progress.
Similar games often include a huge number of tricks to be performed with complex button press combos, but Descenders eschews this for a more limited range of tricks which require you to use a bit of finesse to land properly. The bulk of the trick control is performed with the analogue sticks, starting with the down-up flick of the right stick to jump. All of this is very intuitive but does take a little practice to get used to, therefore making even the simple tricks satisfying. The only exception is the skidding mechanic, which seems to be intended to let you take corners in a more stylish and efficient manner, but the loss of control after skidding makes it feel like too big a sacrifice for little gain.
A common theme in roguelikes is the acquisition of gameplay-altering upgrades or alternative options as you complete more runs (whether they are successful or not), but Descenders does not mirror this element of that genre. Instead runs will get you cosmetic options for your bike and rider which do not impact gameplay. While new cosmetic options are hardly a bad thing it is a little surprising that there are no unlocks which affect gameplay at all given how many roguelike features have been included.
The game itself runs well and supports proper UI scaling making it suitable for users with high definition displays at least up to 4k. Overall the graphics are rather nice, with a slightly exaggerated and colourful aesthetic, though some of the textures and modelling isn’t quite as detailed as one might initially think upon close inspection. One excellent feature which has been included is support for NVidia Ansel, which allows you to pause the game and set up a camera in any position you like to take some particularly nice screenshots. The game’s soundtrack is also notably good, which is unsurprising as the developers licensed a lot of drum & bass music which fits the game perfectly. In addition, if there are any tracks you don’t like there’s a key binding to skip through the playlist which is a nice touch.
So far I’ve had a lot of fun with Descenders; the core of the gameplay feels good which is critical to this type of game, and there’s enough to do to last at least a few hours. To have true staying power it feels like there needs to be a little more to some aspects of the game though, like the variety of tricks available to master. Daily challenges where everyone can play the same level and compare times/scores have been mentioned as a planned addition; adding this will allow some degree of competition which will give some much needed context to the scores you achieve. There may not be as much to keep me coming back to Descenders right now, but the core is good enough that I’ll be more than happy to dive back in whenever content is added throughout the early access period.
[Editor’s Note: Descenders was provided to us by the developer for the preview.]