Descenders is a “Downhill Mountain Biking Game” available on Steam and Xbox Game Pass. I don’t have an awful lot to add to that statement. That’s what it is.
In the game you ride through procedurally generated courses negotiating hills, bumps and ramps with some tight turns here and there, with the idea of gaining “reputation” which is used to unlock things in the game. You gain more reputation for pulling off more complicated and dangerous tricks whilst getting from A to B on each course. Most courses are marked out but occasionally you will get a stage where you just have to ride to the end via any means necessary. You can also perform on sponsored courses to get sponsorships with in game companies that provide you with objectives that unlock their branded gear.
So with that out of the way, how is it? In short, it is fun and frustrating in equal measure. Let me explain.
The game has fantastic physics for riding, jumping and tricking. Turning feels exactly how it should and jumping feels pretty spot on. There is definitely a big layer of realism that they have gone for with this game that it mostly nails. Mostly. Occasionally I find myself landing stunts that I really feel should have sent me flying, or I find myself bailing because I slightly grazed my toe on a rock. There is a certain amount of inconsistency that I feel sometimes ruins what otherwise feels like a good run, especially on more complicated routes. Braking sometimes feels a bit too tight or a bit too loose and I found myself struggling to regain any semblance of control if I was suddenly going too fast.
The course layouts are pretty solid, again, mostly. The game procedurally generates courses as you play through the career mode which can lead to some odd moments. There is nothing worse than having a big speed up down a slope, hitting a big ramp and be met by a huge chasm on the other side, leading to an automatic fail. I found myself bypassing some stunts after respawning because they just felt impossible at times. I also found it difficult to judge the speed I needed to be going for certain stunts, such as the Boss jump for Highlands Area, which I kept failing a lot because I was going too fast or too slow and I struggled to get the correct speed just right.
Which brings me to my biggest complaint with the game. Lives. You have a limited number of lives per career run and you stock them up by performing optional “Bonus Objectives” which can range from “x seconds of airtime” to “Don’t let go of accelerate”. These are fine and lead to some interesting focused runs of various courses but to see them supplementing a life counter is a bit archaic. Because of the nature of the game, I find the life counter to simply be a frustrating implementation of artificial difficulty. That combined with having to beat an area, and beat the optional objective of the “Boss Jump” for each area three times to be able to start immediately in the next area next game means progress sometimes feels like it crawls.
If I had my way, I would take out the life system entirely, and make the optional objectives mandatory. Focusing on the objectives is fun and actually helps you get better at the game. The life system just slows you down. Also, if I beat the boss jump properly, I feel like that should immediately unlock the following area for quick start next run. I was only able to reach the forest area because of this. As I said, progress feels way too slow and there is a lot to see.
All in all, the game feels good to play, it’s just spoiled by some inconsistent crash physics and an infuriating life counter. I want to see more of the environments in the game but I don’t want to have to spend hours at a time trying, and mostly failing, to finish an area because of an arbitrary life count. With the way the physics are, I don’t want to keep restarting entire areas because I didn’t get enough pratice on one jump. I want to get good, so give me the chance. Make the optional objectives something you have to do to move on instead, so we’re still forced to get good in order to progress, but so we don’t have to reset entire runs to get there. In its current state, the game is, as I’ve said, fun and frustrating in equal measure.