Ever since I woke up one 90s morning to a bright blue Mongoose 10-speed mountain bike, I’ve been into biking. My childhood was spent riding through the surprisingly robust trail system of my neighborhood park; or on day trips to Orchard beach which took me, along with my father and brother, across the length of the Bronx. Summers were spent at a small campground upstate, the only place where my brother and I could interact with non-New Yorkers – people from rural locations, used to dirt ramps and gravel pits – who’d show us new and increasingly dangerous things to do with our bikes. My brother eventually wrecked his front wheel doing a wheelie and I took a spill over a large boulder. These were glorious days.
As such, I was excited to learn that there was a game coming out all about the sport of downhill mountain biking. Descenders, developed by RageSquid, is a little bit Trials, and a little bit Dirt. It has you pilot a small, very fragile, biker down a series of procedurally generated mountain trails -- often at blindingly fast speed.
Like all extreme sports, mountain biking has always been about the tension between the thrill of that speed and the danger of losing control and wiping out. Descenders often exhibits this tension and excitement. I enjoy testing the bounds of how fast I can drop down a trail, and whether braking will save me or send me spiraling into a tree.
However, due to the inevitable distance that comes with manipulating a digital character through a controller I am often frustrated by skids and crashes that seemingly come out of nowhere, and that I might have avoided had I actually been riding a bike.
Adding to that, the structure of Descenders often feels punishing, rather than joyful. The game is broken up into sessions. In each session you have four points of health. Even minor crashes remove a full point. Once you lose all your health, you have to start back at the beginning of the five-course map. This makes progress in the game feel halting at best. It often seems like you have to repeat the same map over and over again before unlocking the requisite shortcut to move on to the next. (There are currently four maps in the game.) Worse still, practice mode follows the exact same structure, merely removing the ability to either gain or lose reputation, the in-game currency that allows you to buy new skins.
Ideally, practice mode would allow the player to practice moves and approaches to various obstacles free from the sequential session structure. There’s a video tutorial embedded in the game for some of the more complex maneuvers, but short of memorizing the moves for when they’ll come in handy several courses into a run, there’s no way to practice them free from the constraints of the linear session-style play.
This issue is aggravated by the fact that this game is hard. Despite the EDM track and Tony Hawk-like shouts and hoots from your rider, Descenders approaches simulation more than it does arcadey gameplay. Plenty of liberties are taken with phsyics, to be fair, but there are just as many areas where you aren’t allowed to get away with things that would have been just fine in a more simplified experience. Jumps are the most glaring example. Despite the ubiquity of ramps and quarter-pipes, catching too much air means crashing when you land, which leads to a far more cautious form of play than the game’s extreme-sports veneer suggests.
I do appreciate the developers’ efforts to simulate the exact particulars of bike riding. Preceeding Descenders, most games treated bikes like small cars or oversized skateboards. Descenders goes a long way toward nailing that particular bike feel. There’s the distinction between pedaling and coasting, and the way your bike and your rider are two distinct entities with a separate analogue stick dedicated to each one. Breaking hard will make the rear section of your bike rotate out, because controlling a rigid object with specific points of flexibility can be weird sometimes.
At the same time, I can’t help but return to my issues with limited perception, and my frustrations with the game’s control and its feedback. Considering how far Descenders pushes the envelope when it comes to representing bike riding, its problems in execution make me question whether it’s even possible to accurately simulate the experience of riding a bike down a trail -- while making that experience feel fun and natural.
Games have mostly figured out how to represent cars. Braking and grip make sense when you’re piloting a virtual car down a street. A car weighs a lot, and we understand why we can’t suddenly stop on a dime. A bike doesn’t, and sometimes it can stop quickly -- but other times it really can’t. Distinguishing between those two states has been a major tripping point for me with Descenders. It’s difficult to get a proper read on the speed I’m going -speed lines and dramatic camera zoom alone aren’t enough.
I can tell only after I’ve made a mistake. I know that when I take a turn too widely, and my tires start to skid disastrously, that it’s over for me. But when I’m actually biking, I can usually intuite the level of danger I am in without having to crash first. You can potentially chalk that up to the nature of challenging games. Descenders does take after roguelikes with its procedurally generated tracks, which promise unlimited joy despite necessary repetition. But unlike roguelikes or a series like Dark Souls, I don’t always feel that I’m learning from my mistakes. And that can be tremendously frustrating especially considering how punishing those mistakes wind up being.
Some of that punishment can probably be attributed to Descenders’ short length. With only four areas in the current build of the game, an easier experience might mean getting bored of the game much more quickly. Still, padding a game through difficulty only works if you make the player feel like they’re making progress in some way. Far too often, when playing the game, I felt like I was making none at all.
Despite these frustrations, Descenders has moments of clarity that remain a joy to experience. When I turn off the music and listen to the freelwheel spin; when I feel the vibrations of the controller as I brush close to danger; when I cleanly land a well-executed jump; I get a glimpse of the joy of biking that has been with me all my life. There is a freedom of movement and speed that only riding a bike can give you. I wish Descenders had more of that sense of freedom, while mainting the tension of controlling a bike and masterfully navigating your way down a treacherous mountain trail.