Session gets skateboarding. A noseslide takes just a casual flick of the stick in Skate 3 or a simple button press in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, but it requires a perfect angle of approach, sufficient speed, and multiple nuanced flicks of both the left and right sticks in Session.
Anyone looking for a breezy, chill skateboarding game will probably hate it, but I'm in love, even in its unfinished Early Access state. Session, with some caveats, is an admirable simulation of what it's like to learn how to skateboard, making simple flip tricks and short grinds feel like grand accomplishments.
A big caveat to open with: Session requires a gamepad for its unique control method—I'm not sure it's even possible to replicate with a mouse and keyboard.
Each stick on the gamepad corresponds to a foot, so to ollie in a regular stance, I hold the right stick down and then pop up with the left. I still screw it up. To perform shove-its, I pull back with the right stick but scoop the board in the direction I want it to rotate, while sliding the left stick up for height. Sometimes I forget to let go of the sticks and the board keeps spinning and my feet stay up and I kiss the ground. I'm still learning.
The sticks mimic a skater's feet and the natural motions required to pull off tricks, which basically guarantees eating shit 90-percent of the time. The triggers act as your body weight, using each to lean in that direction and effectively steer. It's not the kind of control scheme we're accustomed to and will never be as precise as a joystick, but it becomes natural in time. Breaking your brain is part of the process.
Learning to play Session hurts, but so did figuring out how to kickflip in real life, how to pop the tail with my back foot and flick the nose of the board at an angle with my front foot while bringing up my legs to catch the griptape after a full rotation. When I landed my first, I ran around the block screaming. Session accelerates the learning curve, but captures the same joy of seeing your muscle memory work in real time. When I landed my first clean noseslide in Session, I whooped like I beat a Dark Souls boss.
Watch me figure out that noseslide (this took about 15 minutes):
Free-skating is possible, but it's not really the goal here. Session is a game where you pick a line and a trick or two and then work on it until the muscle memory miraculously takes hold and you finally pull it off, just barely. It might look sloppy as hell, but Session doesn't keep score. It lets you determine what your goals are and when you've achieved them, no matter how big or small or absurd.
As much as I love Session, it still needs a ton of work. I'd like to see more environments and proper tutorials, and I'm desperate for cleaner animations and refined controls. The UI is hard to parse in some instances and player collision bugs out on the rare occasion. Multiplayer is a necessity in the long term and, a personal request: I'm gonna need to hear some bones crunch when my skater hits the floor, maybe a whispered "oh fuck" from somewhere just off-screen.
Session's Early Access launch state is still a hearty proof of concept. The controls work, painful as they are at first, and every marquee feature is implemented and functional, an easy recommendation for skateboarding enthusiasts who like a challenge.
Miracles and montages
Session reminds me of skating as a teen in a town without a skatepark. You have to get creative, start looking at municipal buildings and massive parking lots as opportunities. Session's first environment isn't built like a Tony Hawk level. There's a lot of empty space, or at least 'uninteresting' space, broken up by stairs, picnic tables, hedges, and a few small structures. At first, I only skated what was easy and obvious, tooling around in the parking lot and attempting simple grinds on low curbs as I did in my early days of skateboarding. Learning the ropes.
An hour in, with the ollie, a few basic flips, and rotations somewhat figured out, and I start seeing lines. Can I ollie over a traffic cone? Kickflip to 5-0 on this handrail? More aspirationally, if I sprint, leap onto my board, ollie onto this flat concrete structure bridging the pond, can I build enough speed to hit the gap?
Well, I can hit it, but I can't make it. I got close after about 20 minutes and I never get tired of rubbery ragdoll bails, but I'll return another day. I find a few more lines and actually make something of them. A helpful spawn tool lets me mark a spot and teleport back to it from anywhere to save time setting up for a line over and over.
My first somewhat cool line just involves two kickflips and a rotation over some small garden features. I didn't leap up and run around the block, but I sure scared the piss out of my cat with a boisterous "hell yeah."
Sometimes a line needs a little help to actually become a line. Session's object placement tool is a stand-in for a skater's usual resourcefulness, allowing the placement of rudimentary ramps and rails with a single button press. I set up ramps near picnic tables, practicing simple flips into manuals for a while. A traffic cone in the parking lot helps me practice higher ollies and takes me back to my early days of skating yet again, when an ollie over a crack in the sidewalk felt like clearing the Grand Canyon.
But once you nail something worth sharing, Session also has a built-in replay and clip-editing feature available at the press of another button. It allows you to scrub through the recent action and capture tricks from any angle with a suite of camera tools. I'm desperate for a fisheye lens and other visual filters, but what's there is a proof of concept. Making rad skate videos is as integral to the learning process in Session and skating culture at large, a seamless tool for showcasing your skills.
Half of my time playing Session has been capturing those hard-earned lines in style, assembling them into rough montages set to loud music. Session is eerie in this way, the ghost of a specific athletic and creative process I haven't lived since I was a teenager. Granted, my body only hurts all over because I took up skating again just a week ago (a total coincidence) but Session does leave the brain feeling a touch sore.
Check out my first attempt at making a rad skate video above, captured entirely with Session's built-in replay tools. My edit isn't actually that rad, something I threw together in 15 minutes, but behind every trick is 5-20 minutes of failure, my poor avatar tossed against the concrete and railing and stairs time and time again. I'm looking forward to seeing what Session players with more talent put together.
Session is still far from finished, but what's there is already more aligned with what I truly loved about skateboarding growing up than any other game. I'll be making bad montages to dated punk music for as long as Session sticks around.