One of my favourite games of 2016 was a little indie game called Action Henk! This 2.5D platform-racer had brilliantly tight controls, great level design, and that certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ that sets some games above the sum of their parts. I have spent numerous hours/days trying to improve my times on the leaderboards as well as playing the addictive local multiplayer. It marked the developer, RageSquid, as someone that I wanted to keep an eye on.
When they announced their new game would be a procedurally generated mountain bike game, I was a little confused. Part of what made Action Henk! so good was that the levels were brilliantly designed and put together. Why abandon all that for a system that randomly creates the tracks and potentially removes some of the developer’s fingerprints from the game? Well, I should have had more faith in RageSquid because once again they have created an amazing racing game.
Descenders is an “extreme downhill mountain biking” game. It provides you with a playground to ride in; however you like. If you’re all about freestyle tricks and jumps, you can do that. If you’re just interested in speed and how quickly you can get to the finish line, you can do that. Alternatively, if you want to go off-track and find your own way, you can even do that. Each of these play styles has their own team, which you join at the beginning of the game, but you will be rewarded for whatever skills you show, regardless of which team you are part of.
Despite pledging my loyalty to team Kinetic, I tend to change my riding style to fit the course that is put in front of me. If there are jumps, I will try and trick off them. If there are no jumps, I’ll try and see how fast I can ride. If the track just meanders around, I’ll head off the track and see what speed I can get up while weaving between obstacles. All of this is not only acceptable but encouraged by the game’s robust scoring system.
The tracks do a great job of offering something different each time despite using similar constituent parts. Yes, there are jumps that you will see over and over again but because their position changes each time there is still a freshness about them. The same can be said about some of the obstacles you will come across. This would normally lead to the game feeling stale pretty quickly, yet I can say that after many hours of playing the game I’m not even close to being bored with the tracks that are generated.
There are currently four areas to race in, Highlands, Forest, Canyon, and Peaks. The difficulty progression between them is significant with Highlands being quite easy, Forest being challenging, and from then on it really gets hard. You are given a selection of tracks to race on each time with a guide telling you how steep, curvy, and laden with stunts they all are. As you work your way across the map, you finally gain access to the boss track which has a jaw-dropping jump at the end. Complete this jump, and you’ll move on to the next area.
Your progression can be halted by running out of health. You start off with four units of health and every time you crash or bail you lose one point. Health can be gained by completing a level’s objective. This could be finishing a level within a certain number of seconds, reaching a certain speed, or performing certain specified tricks. It’s worth trying to complete these objectives, though, as when the difficulty ramps up, you’ll want all the extra lives you can get.
These objectives work well to encourage you into riding in a different style and push yourself. Unfortunately, they also throw up a few issues as there are occasions where they are virtually impossible to achieve. It could be that you have to complete the course in under 35 seconds, but the course is too long (whether you stay on the track or take a more direct route off-road). Other times you are required to reach a specific speed, yet the course was so flat that it just isn’t possible to do it. These are definitely the exceptions, but they do occur more often than I would like.
The physics of the game walk an almost perfect line between realism and a more arcade-style. Try to push your bike too much, and you’ll fall over, but it does give you a bit of leeway. This is never like the Tony Hawk games, though, where you can jump as high as a building while landing tricks that you’d be hard pushed to complete in zero gravity. It’s not just trying to land tricks that will challenge you. You have to be very careful about how you land a jump. Not only do you have to try and land on two wheels but you need to be aware of how far you are falling. Land too hard, from too high up, and you’ll crash. This is particularly brutal on the boss jumps at the end of each area.
Visually, the game is OK. Most objects appear fine at first glance, but a closer inspection leads to slight disappointment. A lot of the grass is either just a flat green surface or repetitive patches of blades. Rocks are grouped the same way over and over again, and trees look very similar. While the texture and detail levels are less than desirable, the art design is nice, if limited. The game moves along at a fair speed but 60 frames per second this is not. There’s never any screen-tearing or noticeable frame drops, but if it was possible to run this at a high framerate, it would feel a lot better.
A lot of these issues, and they are minor ones, are forgivable for a game that is still in development and a budget title at that. I’ve absolutely loved my time with Descenders and can’t wait to play more when it hits Game Preview in a couple of days. There’s enough content to keep even the most ardent gamers busy for a long time. Most importantly though, it keeps giving you that ‘just one more go’ feeling as you lose track of time and sink hours into it. RageSquid has crafted another game to be proud of and one that will probably live on my hard drive for years to come.
Founding Xbox Enthusiast member and serious guitar player. Basically, Steve rocks. Need we say more?