Flying Down the Mountain on Two Wheels and a Prayer in Descenders

The secret of a mountain is that it’s really a giant playground.  It may look all huge and majestic, like a staid old giant of the earth, but poke at it a bit and the mountain will reveal its playful nature.  Admitted, it’s not exactly safe, and if you don’t take the risk seriously odds are good you’ll end up a jumble of limbs surrounded by twisted wreckage.  It’s great fun to barrel full speed down a dirt trail lined by rocks and trees, with banked curves to slide around and jumps to turn all that excess speed into major air, the only padding for the landing being the hopefully-soft seat secured firmly in place on a bundle of pipes affixed to two knobbly tires, but the price of failure is high.  Not in broken bones and a life-long requirement for all food to be ingested through a straw, of course, but in the far more important form of reputation.

Descenders is a mountain biking game where you start at the top of the hill and hold on for dear life all the way to the bottom, pulling out stunts and tricks along the way when opportunities for score-chasing come along.  Every trick and jump brings risk with it, which pays off nicely in score unless you face-plant into a tree.  Score translates into reputation, and reputation is…  pretty ignorable, actually.  Even so, it’s hard to resist going for the double-backflip during the big jumps, putting the bike through it’s paces as you tear down the hill at top speed despite the event not being a race.  The goal is to get from top to bottom in one piece, and looking good doing it is more a bonus activity than requirement.  But it’s an incredibly fun activity, so playing conservatively is highly unlikely even when trying to be careful.

The simplicity of the trick system is what makes it so hard to resist trying to get big air and flip around like a lunatic, despite the risk it carries.  The left stick is for steering and leaning forward, while the right stick shifts your weight.  Pull back and push forward to bunny hop, push left or right on the ground to slide around a corner or mid-air to tweak a trick, backflip, frontflip, and with the modifier of a shoulder button do 360s.  There are a few advance techniques as well, such as pushing up on the right stick mid-air to soften a landing so it doesn’t cause an instant bail, but it’s still pretty straightforward.

Once you’ve spent a few seconds learning the trick system it’s off to the mountains to put it to good use.  The main quest in Descenders is divided up into four environments, with each one requiring clearing at least five tracks to proceed.  You start off with a basic layout, procedurally generated from the terrain and obstacles available in that environment, and choose your path forward from there.  While each level is random it tells you what to expect, plus the bonus objective that earns a free point of health if you make it, and seeing as bails are very easy it’s best to line the course up to the challenge.  “Mellow curves” isn’t a great place to chase after a 720, but if you ignore the track and bomb straight to the bottom it will work quite nicely for reaching the goal in under 35 seconds.  Bails take off a single point of health, though, so the only way nailing the bonus pays off is by getting to the bottom on a perfect run.

That’s harder than it seems, even on the easy courses.  The levels are randomized, and there are no rules saying you have to stick to the path, but one wrong rock, tree, or badly-landed jump is another step towards ending a run.  Tearing through a forest, skidding around a curve, and running into a thin part in the trail bound on either side by two large rocks is always an interesting surprise, and while it’s easy enough to steer around the first instinct is always to chase the line straight through.  You’re never bound to the trail but that’s where the stunts are, usually (but not always) making it the most fun course down the mountain.  Despite points and rep not seeming to have a lot of use other than that momentary sensation of victory on pulling out a decent score it’s still hard to resist chasing after them, even as the course generator creates the occasional jump that just feels off.

Descenders is mostly an arcade game, and that means speed and flashiness.  Tearing down the course as the trees whip by, lining up the perfect jump, priming the springs for extra height, pulling off a double front-flip, and then overshooting the landing zone and landing in a twisted heap feels like being punished for playing too well.  While the tracks are randomized the props are pre-built, and that means the landing zone may not take into account the speed you’d be carrying from the preceding section of track.  To top it off, each environment ends in what’s called a Boss Jump, which is a giant ramp set up for huge air over a final set-piece, and if you coast down the hill and over the ramp you’ll fly right on past the landing zone.  It feels like being set up for failure, and that’s never fun.

At the moment Descenders is far more good than frustrating and there’s still a lot of work ahead to see it leave early access.  The trick system is being added to, more accessories for bike and rider are coming, more environments, etc.  With any luck the rep system is on the table too, because at the moment it’s too easy to lose everything you’ve earned in a run, but even if your ranking plummets the course is still calling.  The mountain has a starting point and a goal, and how you get from one to the other is completely your choice.  Ride the trail, go exploring, stunt like mad or just go for a nice joyride.  So long as you get from top to bottom in one piece Descenders is fine with it, and ready with a new mountain and insane trail to do it all over again.

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