Downhill biking game Descenders could be the heir to Skate's throne

For an indie developer in 2018, getting people to care about your game can be a daunting proposition, filled with all manner of marketing tactics and PR plans. But sometimes, all you really need to sell a game is a good gif.

That’s exactly how I discovered Descenders, the sophomore release from a tiny Dutch studio called RageSquid. For the last couple months, their Twitter feed has been an endless procession of gifs and short videos of a virtual mountain biker hurtling through a variety of pleasant environments at ludicrous speeds, jumping and flipping through the air.

With Descenders now hitting Early Access on Steam, I’m pleased to report that it mostly lives up to the excitement evoked by the footage that piqued my interest in the first place. While still light on content, the core experience is already enjoyable, and the dev team seems to have a solid plan for fleshing out the game going forward.

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Right out of the gate, Descenders just plain feels good. It activates the same parts of my brain the old Skate games did, with a fairly simple system of analog inputs that can be fine tuned to infinity, or at least until I get that trick or jump just right. The bike handling is pleasantly responsive, if not terribly simulational, and the sound and art give the whole thing a satisfying solidity without going too overboard on state-of-the-art photorealism.

If you’ve been pining for a new game to play on the couch with friends, passing the controller back and forth every time you bail, this may be the game to finally scratch that eight-year itch that’s been left unscratched since the untimely demise of the Skate series. There’s also a laundry list of “gaps” in the Tony Hawk Pro Skater tradition, and a Spelunky-style “daily challenge” mode will be added shortly.

One of Descenders' main hooks is that all of its stages are procedurally generated, causing the terrain to change with every successive playthrough, but whether or not that’s a good thing isn’t quite clear yet. The nigh-infinite variety of courses is certainly nice, and for the most part Descenders does a good job of generating enjoyable routes, but occasional hiccups in the algorithm can be exceedingly frustrating in a game with as unforgiving of a progression system as this one.

You begin with four health, and can lose one to three points when you bail, depending on how hard you faceplant. Lose them all, and it's back to the very beginning of the world map. But thanks to the procedural levels, on several occasions I was presented with jumps that had such steep hills on the other side that hitting the jump caused me to pancake upon landing (and lose at least two of my precious four starting health), despite hitting the apparently 'correct' spot on the landing ramp. 

The bonus objectives, which while theoretically optional are the only way of restocking the health you lose upon crashing, are often rendered impossible by the vagaries of the terrain generation. An attempt to “do a 720” or “exceed 70km/h” can be foiled by a lack of large jumps, or a lack of sufficient steepness in the track, respectively. These issues can presumably be tuned out of the algorithm over time, but for the moment they remain rather frustrating.

It’s a great way to kill a few hours in a super fun sandbox.

Procedural generation issues aside, the primary reason I have a hard time wholeheartedly recommending Descenders in its current state is that there isn't all that much to it right now.

The roguelike-esque progression system is an interesting idea, but success won't reward you with new abilities to mess around with or statistical buffs. Descenders never really changes up the experience no matter how many runs you get through. There are cosmetic unlocks such as new bikes, shirts, and helmets, but those don’t change the play, and I felt like I’d more or less seen all there was to see after a couple hours of playing (though I could always just keep improving my skills, if I wanted).

Of course, that criticism comes with a major caveat: this is an Early Access game. More things to do are on their way, and the dev team has already announced a bunch of forthcoming features. Among these is the aforementioned daily challenge mode, as well as a tournament system, an expanded world map with new environments, and “rider improvements” (which may or may not mean real-deal, non-cosmetic unlocks).

I’m optimistic that Descenders will grow into a meatier game, and in the meantime, it’s a great way to kill a few hours in a super fun sandbox. I’m glad the developers chose to make something in such an under-populated genre, and devised a pretty unique format to boot. I expect Descenders' fate will largely be contingent on whether or not this fantastic core experience is fleshed out into something heftier.