Kinetic, one of the game's three sponsorship arms, is the best way to describe Descenders. From the visual swoosh effect to the frantic sound of a rattling bike chain as your soar down a canyon, you feel so intrinsically involved with your bike's momentum. One wrong curve and its gone, one jump too far and you've lost it, yet the game is oh so rewarding when things go right. You pull off a double flip, followed by a succession of tight curves and a loop-de-loop that leads you to a fast finish and the game makes you carry on, begging you to see what the next course holds.
Descenders is a downhill bike game that combines the 3D stages of a game like SSX with the bike physics of a game like Trials or MTX. Where those games may focus more on the tricks you perform and the stunts you pull off, Descenders gives equal importance to sheer momentum. Just managing to keep hold of your bike is enough of a challenge at times, and the seeming-randomness that comes with procedurally-generated levels adds to the task at hand.
This procedural nature of the game makes you believe that something big could be coming, a brilliant track or tight-knit group of stunts. While that does happen at times, we never found too much variety with the layout design. A lot of the tracks meld into one once you get some hours in, and it's in the environmental effects that we see more a noticeable change to the way Descenders plays out. A stormy sky or a rocky canyon can provide tricky obstacles to overcome, and at times a track will spawn with no real layout. Just you, and a scary amount of trees to avoid. It's these instances where Descenders becomes really involved, asking the player to take control of the situation and make it to the end of the stage.
The core concept of downhill momentum permeates the whole game. From the hub world, you spawn into through to the main campaign and bonus modes, it's all about keeping your speed up. It's a core concept that feels very satisfying to maintain, but sadly a lot of what surrounds it could do with some extra work.
The Career Session mode plays out as non-linear progression through four areas, with multiple levels in each. Laid out like a skill tree, you can decide which stages to tackle next as you unlock sections in each area. The stages on offer vary in three ways; steepness, curves and stunts, with the odd special level popping up from time to time. The standard stages are quite samey, but any special stages do offer a nice change of pace. First person levels often crop up and are the highlight, providing a different set of challenges when attempting stunts. Yes, we fell off the bike loads in the first-person mode...
The difficulty ramps up as you move from one area to the next, with things getting hairy by the time the canyon levels are introduced. Sheer drops, crevasses and rocky cliffs meant we had to pay extra attention to keeping the bike on the straight and narrow, or as close as we could get. The visual variety is a welcome change by this area too, as the first two Highlands and Forest areas are quite limited in that aspect. The daily challenge mode picks a random stage from these areas and gives a unique bonus objective to go for, which is good to go for one attempt per day. There is a solid amount to go at in Career Session, and the roguelite features mean you have to start fresh after a certain amount of lives, which will keep you replaying sections.
Sadly, this limited lives system also works against the game itself. All too often we found ourselves down on lives, struggling to perform stunts, and just doing the bare minimum to pass a stage. Yes, you gain extra lives more quickly by performing stunts and objectives, but more often than not you gained them too slowly for it to be beneficial, and scraping through stages to avoid losing extra lives was often the better choice. This system led us to limit our experimentation with tricks and stunts and felt somewhat at odds with making the stages as fun as possible.
Outside of the Career Session and Daily Challenge mode, there isn't much else to do in Descenders. You can customise your bike and character but it's all quite limited, and the barebones visuals meant we didn't really care for what our rider looked like. You can mess around in the hub world which is a neat addition but it offers little interactivity besides looking at your rider and other player's customisation options. Some fun mini-games would be a cool addition to the hub world.
As we have alluded to, the visuals and performance are subpar. Even now, upon leaving Game Preview, the visuals are glitchy at times and the overall resolution looks muddy on Xbox One X. The presentation is functional, but for a title leaving early access in 2019, we expected a little more, including potential enhanced console features. Cleaner visuals and a higher framerate would have really added to the game's kinetic energy.
The soundtrack, however, is top notch. A great selection of drum and bass tracks definitely add to the chill vibe the game finds itself in, especially when cruising around in the hub world. These tunes certainly help some of the harder stages feel a little less, hmm, rage inducing?
Overall, Descenders is a fine downhill biking game. The movement mechanics and overall feel of the controls certainly carry the concept, and the fantastic soundtrack only elevates it. The procedural nature of the track design could have been better implemented, and the technical side of the game worked on a little more, but we recommend Descenders if crashing off ramps at 100km/h is your scene. Just expect to fall off a few times too...
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