Pure adrenaline and meditative calm might seem like polar opposites, but—as anyone who’s ever tried their hand at an extreme sport will know well—they can be different sides of the same coin. It’s not a balance that videogames are great at finding, generally speaking. Not Grand Mountain Adventure: Wonderlands, though—this is a game that gets it, and the result is an enchanting game that finds serenity in exhilaration.
Diorama-like maps and a top-down camera that’s pulled far away from the character even at the closest level of zoom immediately cast Grand Mountain Adventure as a different sort of snowboarding / skiing game. It has its share of thrilling descents and tricky freestyle courses, but it’s equally as interested in building a laid-back atmosphere and just taking in the beauty of the world around you. Each mountain is both a playground and a snapshot of nature at its most majestic, with a dose of humanity in the settlements dotted around the slopes and the joyful sight of other (NPC) skiers milling about the slopes. The settings are as chill as it can be.
With that as a backdrop, Grand Mountain Adventure encourages you to explore each of these little dioramas to the fullest. You’re free to go off-piste as much as you like, with an abundance of rewards to find when you do so—in both the tangible form of collectibles and new challenges to complete, and in the intangible wonder of each mountain’s unique sights. Skiing and snowboarding as your primary means of getting around makes the physical act of exploring a satisfying one, too—not simply walking from A to B, but carving through the snow, using the topography as your guide. Without the option of simply walking back uphill, it makes getting where you’re trying to go a game in its own right, with plentiful ski lifts and fast travel keeping potential frustration mostly at bay.
The various trails you discover as you explore are where Grand Mountain Adventure is most like a “traditional” snowboarding game. Pushing for the highest freestyle scores and fastest trail times you can is as enjoyable as ever, with the satisfying cycle of mastering the intricacies of each slope and the excitement of hurtling through the snow at ridiculous speeds. You might think the overhead camera would complicate matters (compared to the more typical over-the-shoulder perspective), but intuitive controls and clever level design mean you rarely get caught by surprise, even when you can’t necessarily see too far ahead. Across a dozen mountains, each with a decent assortment of different slopes to explore, there are plenty of challenges to overcome, with some especially precarious trails on the tougher mountains to really ramp up the adrenaline.
But this is where we come back to what I was saying about finding serenity in exhilaration. On the harder mountains especially, a first attempt at a new trail is usually going to be an odd mix of failure and wonder, as you get to grips with the layout and take in the scenery. Repeat attempts—made relatively painless with near instant restarts at the press of a button—are an exercise in getting to know the mountain and its intricacies, until you find yourself so in tune that you can run the course almost entirely on instinct. It’s still invigorating, but in a state of flow that can feel meditative—playing more by feel than anything else, with your brain free to just switch off and enjoy the rush. And with every other aspect of the game’s design working to create that peaceful atmosphere, the exhilarating serenity effect really shines.
(Grand Mountain Adventures reminds me a lot of Lonely Mountains: Downhill in tone, and in the way it blends adrenaline and peace. They’re very different games in a lot of ways, but they share a lot in the way they evoke that sort of response.)
The balance isn’t always spot-on, admittedly. Grand Mountain Adventures’ exploratory nature and range of different activities mean that it can sometimes lose focus, as nice as the variety is. Not every trail is going to have the same effect, whether that’s because they veer too far into the realm of frustration, or simply because the more arcadey style of some of the objectives puts the focus more squarely on points and high scores. To some extent, I guess that captures the breadth of experiences that real-life snowboarding and skiing entail—adrenaline, precise technique, vibes, flashy tricks, and just enjoying the moment are all part of the picture, but they don’t always overlap. And, I guess, sometimes, you want to just try to slap as many other skiers as you can in 20 seconds—though I’m not sure these occasional bouts of cheeky humour always stick the landing.
It may be a little uneven at times, but even at its worst, Grand Mountain Adventure: Wonderlands is still a whole lot of fun. When all the pieces come together, though? When pure adrenaline and absolute serenity find just the right balance, and don’t just coexist but reinforce one another? In those moments, it’s sublime.