Speed, Tricks, and Airtime!
Everyone who grew up in the early 2000s remembers the skateboarding craze—embodied by legendary skater Tony Hawk. The BMX offshoots of those titles came from the likes of Mat Hoffman and Dave Mirra, where similar trick-laden gameplay warmed our hearts and our PlayStations. Today, skateboarding and cycling are a bit less prevalent, but a recent resurgence has granted us the pleasure of returning to some of these experiences on current-gen hardware. Descenders is one such title that takes downhill mountain biking specifically and creates a procedurally-generated roguelite. Between the adrenaline-inducing speed, jumps, and tricks, Descenders is entertaining and unique to a genre that is usually predefined, but some rough graphics and gameplay elements that can be skipped entirely make for an experience that loses some excitement when the difficulty ramps up.
As a newcomer to the scene, you’re given control of a rider on a mission to gain as much rep as possible, while courting sponsorship from a few professional teams. The story created is all on your shoulders, since Descenders leans more into simulation than triumphant tale of adventure, but that’s what most sports games are all about anyways. Fast times, high scores, and farthest progression possible are the name of the game.
The basic premise starts with the player at the top of a large hill or mountain, followed by holding on for dear life while moving towards the checkered flags at the bottom of said mountain. In between, you will find yourself hitting jumps, utilizing a small selection of tricks, and taking advantage of the big air gained to do flips. Each level’s score is calculated based on how fast you can go and how long you can maintain it, how high you can jump, and whether you make a proper landing, as well as the tricks netting you extra points. However, the biggest prize is lasting as long as possible on each overall run, where you make your way across maps from differing environments—running up your score from level to level. Runs are ended when you beef it too many times, where a health bar notifies you of how close you are to being jettisoned back to the main menu.
This mechanic, though unique, brings about a set of problems where choosing to strategically skip jumps and tough maps by simply going around the track and straight to the finish line—without repercussions—means that the difficulty and major reason behind playing Descenders is overruled by the roguelite and health mechanics. Obviously, you would be more than welcome to repeatedly bash your face into the stone walls and wooden logs if you so choose, leading to new runs, but in order to make significant progress, it sometimes feels like losing some possible reputation is worth maintaining your longevity in the run. Whether you’re playing for fun or to win means you could be looking at seriously different experiences in the career mode, which isn’t great.
Some levels take this open concept approach a step further by being more skatepark-style, rather than the majority of levels that have you heading to the country for a downhill experience. This leads to some really tough and tricky sections that need a lot more masterful work by the player, but change things up in an otherwise fairly monotonous experience. Adding in some death-defying stunts on “boss levels” where you could find yourself racing past a moving train or leaping through a ring of fire, and you start to see some resemblance to the Trials series, rather than a straight cycling sim.
Multiplayer also adds in a different dynamic, where playing with friends or randoms online can create some thrilling experiences. Whether you choose to simply race to the bottom, or try to pull off as many trick combos as possible, being able to experience it all with some buddies means that even more of your time with Descenders feels new all the time, especially when you start sporting the unlockable clothing and gear to show off your own style on the track.
Graphically, Descender on the Nintendo Switch leaves a lot to be desired. More than anything, it’s fine, but when you consider the vast majority of your time if spent in outdoor environments, the level of detail necessary to make areas look clean and impressive is tough to attain on the Switch’s handheld hardware. It’s one of those things that comes pretty commonly with ports for the Switch but is worth mentioning for those multi-consoled folks out there who would prefer a top-notch graphical experience elsewhere.
Descenders joins the reawakening of the skateboarding and cycling genres by offering a unique take on a specific form of cycling we haven’t seen in a long time. While the gameplay is thrilling and does its best to stay interesting, mechanics that are at odds with each other mean you will be forced to choose between having that exciting arcade experience or maintaining the roguelite run through the sometimes intense difficulty. Whether taken seriously or just for fun, Descenders isn’t consistent, and considering this specific port has some rough edges graphically, you may just want to focus on using it for its multiplayer.