I’m sure most of us know how to ride a bike, but how often do you get the chance to go riding down steep off-road mountain trails? That’s what Descenders is all about: extreme off-road freeride cycling. While your gameplay experience will likely consist of a lot of speedy moments with cool stunts, you can also expect there to be a lot of wipeouts too.
Descenders is one of the few cycling games out there, and is the first one I’ve ever played that’s in 3D. But, like most of its contemporaries, it’s heavily reliant on physics, and boy is this game’s physics system tight. It genuinely feels like riding an actual bike. All the turning, jumping, bobbing and weaving feels very authentic. This applies to the trick system too, since it also flows very naturally. As you play the game and get more adjusted to the mechanics, the overall experience gets better as you’re able to carve each trail more precisely and pull off beautiful tricks with no effort. I’ll admit I’m not anywhere near that level yet, but there were moments where everything just ‘clicked’ and the result was an incredibly fun gameplay experience. Pulling off stunts and completing trails will give you points that add to your overall amount of ‘Reputation’. The more Rep you gain, the higher your skill level will increase and you’ll rise on the leaderboards.
What makes Descenders even more interesting is that each gameplay session is unique. That’s due to the trails (levels) being procedurally generated. There are four environments in all, so the scenery stays the game, but since the track layout keeps changing you really can’t rely on ‘muscle-memory’. This is where the real challenge comes in. Not only do you have to master controlling your biker, but you must do so in a way that’s good enough that it will allow you to adapt to the ever-changing trails.
The icing on the cake is that progressing through the aforementioned four different environments is done in an ‘OutRun-style’. What I mean by that is that each of the trails in the environments is separated in a path-format, with there being three paths in all. Each path offers a different type of trail: some are built for speed, while others have more curves and stunt opportunities. Regardless of which path you choose to take, progressing through the trails will then lead to the final ‘boss trail’. You’re not fighting anyone, except for the big challenge at the end (hence why it’s called the ‘boss’). Beating the boss trail then allows you to progress to the next environment. The thing is, you’ll have to start from the very first environment (which is the Highlands) every single time until you beat its boss trail three times. After that, only then can you begin from the next environment.
Your goal is to try and fly like a butterfly, without landing as gracefully as a hippo.
Simply put, just have fun and look cool.
I’ll admit that I have yet to make it past the second environment as of the time of writing this review. This is simply due to the fact that I just have yet to ‘get gud’ at Descenders, so it’s been a little frustrating constantly starting over again and again. I didn’t want to spend so much time being terrible that it would then cause this review to be delayed. Each time you ride, you have a limited number of health meters, which are basically the same as lives. Crashing (called ‘bails’) results in the loss of one, and sometimes multiple units can be lost if the crash is especially major.Crashing also causes you to lose some of your aforementioned Reputation points, which will keep your rank in constant flux unless you happen to just be one of those gifted players who never mess up. You can earn more health meters by completing special objectives that are given each time you start a trail. They can be something like pulling off a certain number of tricks, or reaching the finish without ever letting go of the acceleration, among other things. Each time you complete an environment, your remaining amount of health meters is carried with you to the next. So, if you finish the last ‘boss trail’ with only one health meter remaining, then you’ll have to start the next environment with just that one and try your best to complete some special objectives to earn more. As you can see, Descenders throws a lot of curveballs at you, but that doesn’t stop it from being an overall fun game.
The game’s visuals are also pretty nice. While it’s nothing mind-blowing, it’s still visually-pleasing. There’s a great use of lighting and shadow effects, and colors are bursting everywhere. The animation of the biker is very fluid, and the different camera angles allow you to take it all in. My biggest issue was that the framerate was not very smooth. Although my system does meet the hardware requirements, I regularly ran into framedrops. Lowering the resolution from 1080p and tweaking the graphics settings did help things, but the problem was still present. Sound-wise, things are also decent. Since this is a cycling game, there are no cool noises from any motors. So, you’ll spend most of your time listening to the soundtrack which consists entirely of licensed techno/electronic music. Every song is really upbeat and matches the exhilarating gameplay, but it can get pretty repetitive since it’s only one genre of music and there isn’t a huge selection. I eventually ended up muting the in-game and playing my own through the Steam Overlay browser.
— The Bottom Line —
Descenders’ ever-changing terrain creates an interesting challenge and keeps the gameplay fresh.
Overall, Descenders is a pretty solid package. The ever-changing layout of the trails will keep things fresh and interesting for quite some time. While you will see certain assets repeated every-so-often, the procedural generation still manages to do a decent job at building new layouts. If the optimization were a bit better I would have enjoyed the experience more, but this issue will differ from system-to-system. The thing is, it’s hard to really come to a 100% conclusion about Descenders since this is an Early Access title. So, if you’re reading this six months or even a year from now, there’s a good chance the game would have expanded quite a bit. But even in its current state, the game manages to offer a fun gameplay experience, which is the most important part of any title. Seeing that this belongs to such a small genre of games, I think the folks over at the RageSquid development have a good opportunity to build something that really stands out. Still, $22.50, Descenders is worth picking up even in its current form. So if you like cycling and stunts, give it a try.