Does the thought of biking down some kick ass terrain at very high speeds appeal to you? Have you ever played the NES game Excitebike? And have you ever wondered what it would be like if there was a modern spiritual successor to Excitebike? Then friends do I have the game for you!
Enter Descenders, a game by the Dutch studio Ragesquid behind the positively received “Action Henk” and if I’m not mistaken the first published game from No More Robots. The description on the game’s official website reads as follows:
“Descenders is extreme downhill mountain biking for the modern era, with procedurally generated worlds, and where mistakes have real consequences.”
That should be enough to at least pique your curiosity. If not, then I’m sorry: Descenders is not for you. For those of you brave enough to risk life and limb, your reward will be well worth it.
The first thing I noticed about Descenders was how amazing it looks. Peep these screenshots for yourself:
While this may be an indie game from smaller studio/publishing label you would never think it from the look of the game. It’s obvious to me just how much time and attention to detail was put into making each of the environments in the world special. Each set of tracks (Highlands, Forest, Canyons, and Peaks) is distinctive and plays a certain way. The procedurally generated worlds also add a ton of re-playability to these tracks, as spending time trying to memorize layouts is useless and pointless because each time you load a track up it’s different. You might see a “side-winder” type of bridge on one track halfway down and then restart the same track another time and there’s a loop-the-loop much earlier and logs you need to jump over soon after instead. Kind of messes with your mind a bit but ensures that you won’t get bored and won’t underestimate any track on any given run as every single run has the opportunity to own you in various ways.
Making it past the initial 4 tracks you are then confronted with a “boss jump” track, wherein at the end of the run there is a single huge and spectacular jump. I don’t want to ruin what each particular jump is so just let me say that they are absolutely worth getting to and enjoying. My favorite thing to do was to try and complete each jump with a trick. Just landing each boss jump was hard enough on it’s own but I’m a bit of a glutton for punishment sometimes so I challenged myself to get extreme and shoot for the moon.
After a bit of introduction to the mechanics and such you are asked to choose between 3 teams. Enemy are the “tricks crazy” bunch, Aboreal are the “off-road” guys, and Kinetic (who I chose) are the “speed demons” of the group. Mission statement notwithstanding, Kinetic’s colors are more my style. But as you come to find out from playing the game you can dress your biker in any manner you chose once you start unlocking different colors and styles of shirts, helmets, shorts, goggles, bikes, etc. The unlocks appear to be random, akin to a lootbox minus the actual box itself which I actually welcome. I did notice that I unlocked more things the better I performed in-game which makes sense. So if you’re the type of person who likes to customize the hell out of your character you are either going to have to get really good at the game or play it a lot.
Make no mistake about it though, Descenders fits the “easy to pick up, but difficult to master” mold to a T. You can get “rekt” when you mess up a jump or run into an object or fall off things…basically anything that makes it so you aren’t riding your bike with both wheels on the ground. The system that I both like and simultaneously dislike is the health aspect of the game. You start with 4 health points (plus a “last stand” point for a total of five) and every time you make an error you lose one. And this is cumulative. So if you start in the beginner zone (highlands) you have to try and manager your health through those five tracks, into the next zone’s 5 tracks, and so on. One thing I noticed was the little “caution” sign that pops up in the bottom right hand corner, usually when you are about to lose some health. I haven’t been able to figure out how to “fix” whatever it is that the icon is supposed to be warning me about in time. So just know that if you see that pop up, you are more than likely going to lose a health point. The game does let you earn back health points by completing bonus objectives but sometimes this isn’t even do-able. For example: I was playing a track where the bonus objective was to “do 2 backflips” which sounds easy enough after you learn the controls right? Well, the track I was playing just happened to not have any jumps in it. Making that particular challenge impossible.
Moving on to the controls I will say that the game plays wonderfully. I must reiterate that the time and attention to detail that the developers put into the game also shows in the controls. The game recommends using a controller and I would second that. I did not even think about trying keyboard and mouse after playing it with a controller. Every controller input feels perfect and not annoying or burdensome as is the case with some games. Pulling off cool tricks like 360 backflips takes a bit of practice to do consistently but damn does it feel satisfying when you get it down. Or maybe a double frontflip is more your style; I see you, and I can dig it. Learning what kind of tricks you can pull off on what ramps/jumps is satisfying in it’s own right.
An important aspect of the game happens to be the camera. From the inital “fly-by” introduction of the track, to the various perspectives of your bike rider, each camera feels important. My next statement is one I am willing to back up 100% and support fully: first-person camera mode is the most fun, by far. The sense of immersion is incredible. Landing a trick in first person feels much, MUCH more satisfying in first person than in third person. That being said, third person is the “easier” view. It might be that I haven’t gotten adjusted to it yet, but pulling off tricks successfully in 3rd person happens a lot more. If you like to have fun, first person is the way to go. If you like to rack up the highest possible score, third person is probably more your speed. (See what I did there?)
The “hub” of the game offers a few ramps and such so you can mess around freely without losing health. There’s also a practice mode in the game that doesn’t save your progress but also won’t have any effect on your rep either. Did I mention that you lose rep whenever you lose a health point? Not only that, but if you managed to complete that bonus “get 1 clean landing(s)” objective you have to do THAT over again as well. The game could benefit from a truly Excitebike-esque mode where you can simply play a procedurally generated track (or set of tracks) with no regard for your health points. I understand that might be going against the “actions have consequences aspect” of the game but sometimes you just want to mess around.
The soundtrack in the game probably won’t win any awards but I feel like it fits the aesthetic/mood of the game. In order to give Descenders more visibility and potentially a higher profile the musical tracks are officially licensed Liquicity artists and as such you won’t get any copyright issues for streaming or doing “Let’s Plays” of the game. I did come to enjoy one track in particular: “Levitate” by Maduk and was disappointed to learn that there are only a set number of songs per set of tracks. That Maduk song is only able to be played during the starter tracks and that bothers me a bit. I’m sure that was done partially so that people like me don’t become obsessed with one song and give each of the Liquicity artists a chance but still; I want to hear “Levitate” when I’m on the Peaks! Maybe they will add the ability to cycle through all of the songs on whatever track you’re on sometime in the future.
Speaking of the future, I was told that as the game is releasing into Early Access the development of the game will continue and that most of the features they intend to add will be what the community wants most. That sounds like a winning combination to me. They also have already attested to the fact that they will be adding new bikes, kits, worlds, tweaks, tricks, etc. Descenders sounds like it will be widely expanded upon within just a few months, which only compliments the already heft set of things in the game.
Overall, Descenders is probably more fun than you might initially think if you aren’t a fan of “racing” games. Part of that stems from the fact that this ISN’T a racing game; you have no one to compete against (unless you count leaderboards) and the focus is on completing the courses in whatever manner you see fit. My initial attempt at the game was to try and race down each course as fast as possible while trying to land some sick stunts along the way. I quickly realized that my style wouldn’t be applicable to the entire game and adapted. Now I try and pay attention to where jumps are and hit those as fast as possible while also slowing down when coming up to certain obstacles or avoiding “pits” altogether if possible. There’s a lot hell of a lot of fun to be had here and I think it will only get more fun once the game is expanded on.
9 out of 10