Review: Descenders brings the rush of mountain biking to PS4

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Descenders scratches a very particular itch. Flying downhill at breakneck speed, weaving through trees, and launching yourself off giant ramps is always going to be an adrenaline rush, but procedurally-generated levels bring a welcome element of creativity to that. Each new level configuration has its own quirks, obstacles, and opportunities for big, impressive stunts.

The basic goal of each level is, simply, to get to the bottom. How you do that is largely up to you; there’s usually (but not always) a track to follow, but you’re free to go off-road as much as you like. There’ll typically be a few jumps along the way for those stunt opportunities, but you can just as well go around any obstacle that you don’t want to deal with. The exhilaration of speeding downhill or doing a 720 double backflip off a big jump is obviously a big part of Descenders‘ appeal, but it’s up to you how much you want to do that at any given moment.

A screenshot from Descenders, showing  someone on a mountain bike riding a jungle path.

Indeed, pacing yourself is often a good idea. The goal of each run is to bike your way through four different game worlds, each made up of a number of different levels and culminating in a massive “boss jump”, but you’ve got a limited amount of HP to keep you going. Crash too much and you’ll end your run, so it’s often worth playing it a bit safe. Similarly, each level has a bonus objective that’ll earn you extra HP if you complete it, so it’s often worth focusing on whatever that is, even to the exclusion of everything else. If I’ve only got a couple of HP left and a level throws up “do 2 backflips” as its bonus challenge, you better believe I’m going to find the easiest jump on the course, get my two backflips out of the way, and then take a leisurely, safety-first cruise to the finish line.

Related: Lonely Mountains: Downhill takes a very different, but equally exhilarating approach to mountain biking. Read our review.

The different worlds themselves offer their own challenges. The forest’s dense trees and rickety boardwalks are a stark contrast to the sprawling but rocky fields of the highlands or the canyon’s narrow ravines and big cliff drops. With eight worlds in total spread across two different campaigns, Descenders gives you plenty of new things to see and explore.

But it’s the procedural generation that’s the real star. It won’t take long to get familiar with each world’s different procedural pieces, but it’s the way that they come together that gives each run its unique opportunities and challenges. A jump you’ve hit a hundred times before can suddenly take on a very different feel if, this time, it’s situated just after a winding obstacle course of trees that means you can’t get up to the speed you’d like. 

A screenshot from Descenders, showing  someone on a mountain bike in mid-air doing a backflip in a rocky canyon.

In fact, the more you peek behind the curtain and start to see and grow accustomed to the individual pieces that make up each level, the more interesting Descenders becomes. The initial wonder of seeing something new gives way to creative, strategic possibilities when you start to really understand how the pieces work and what the results of each new configuration of them could be. This is true of any procedurally-generated game, but it’s particularly apparent in Descenders

This is the thing that, for me, really makes Descenders work. There’s plenty of excitement to be found in the actual mountain biking action, and it’s always fun to try see just how ridiculous a stunt you can land. But the procedural element puts those things into a fascinating context, where the start of each new run has its own excitement in seeing how the pieces will fall. Each outing takes the familiar and remixes it, creating an endlessly fascinating framework to explore the game’s systems.

But there are also a couple of meta progression systems, if you want something a bit more guided. “Rep” is the main source of character progression—every stunt or risky endeavour earns you rep, which unlocks new cosmetic gear for your rider for each new milestone. Sponsorships, meanwhile, give you themed daily challenges depending on your chosen sponsor—either an off-road, speed, or stunt focus—that in turn unlock sponsor-specific gear when you complete a set number of such challenges. Neither of these systems is game-changing; they’re nice extra layers that create an ongoing sense of progression, but it’s the core game loop that keeps me coming back. 

A screenshot from Descenders, showing  someone mountain biking on a snowy mountain path

Descenders does an impressive job of capturing the rush of hurtling downhill and pulling off daredevil stunts. That alone would be enough to make an enjoyable game, but it’s the element of procedural generation that makes this game fascinating. With each new run comes new possibilities to explore and push the game’s systems, and the novelty of that never wears out.

Score: 4 stars

Descenders is developed by RageSquid and published by No More Robots. It’s available now for PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC.

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.

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About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.