Lonely Mountains: Downhill manages to be both incredibly chill and exhilarating, both relaxing and tense—not just in equal measure, but at the same time. I can’t remember ever playing a game that made me feel, at once, so on edge yet so at peace.
A lot of this comes down to the simplicity of its concept: being a mountain biking game, the goal of Lonely Mountains is to get from the top of each track to the bottom, as quickly as you can, and with as few crashes as possible. But before you can even think about such metrics, each new course begins with an obligatory “Explorer” mode—that is, a chance to ride the track at your own pace, with no clock to race against.
Explorer mode is practical, in that it gives you a chance to practice and experiment before you start attempting the challenges that follow. But more than that, it sets the tone for your journey through the whole game; with no UI to distract you and no specific goals to think about, it’s a chance to just bask in the nature that surrounds you. It’s a chance to admire the beauty of the flowers and butterflies as you fly past them, to listen to the birdsong and waterfalls, to feel the wind in your face and the dirt beneath your tires.
You’ll probably crash plenty, and you might have to take it slow—especially on the tougher courses—but that’s just part getting to know the mountain. Nobody’s counting, and each crash is a chance to try something new, take a different shortcut, see another of your chosen peak’s majesty.
After completing a track in Explorer mode, you unlock the more “gamey” challenges for it: completing it within certain times, or with fewer than a set number of crashes, or both at once. This is where Lonely Mountains: Downhill ramps up the tension. When you’re focusing on time trials, the relatively strict targets encourage you to push yourself and take risks; when you’re tending to the crash challenges, the counter is a looming threat that makes even easy sections of a trail feel dangerous. For the expert challenges that demand both, you have to play it both speedy and safe, somehow.
And yet, Lonely Mountains doesn’t really get any less calming during these challenges, despite the increased stakes. The tone is already set by the time spent in Explorer mode, these new goals just embed that one-with-the-mountain sensation. As enchanting as each mountain is the first time you bumble your way through it, that goes tenfold when you’re hurtling downhill at breakneck speed, weaving through the trees and rocks, perfectly in tune with the ebbs and flows of the trail (and your own chosen shortcuts that take you off it). Maybe you’re not stopping to admire the tree formations or the bends of a stream like you did the first time, but you’re still in tune with them—as signposts, as much as sights to see.
This ethos is never more apparent than in the final location Lonely Mountains sees you visit. When the first three mountains take you from a pine woodland to cliffs alongside a great river to desert crags, you could be forgiven for expecting the fourth and most challenging one to be something akin to Mount Doom—and trails with names like “Storm Ledge” and “Titan Peak” certainly build that expectation. But instead, it’s a lush, vibrant forest, the most colourful and peaceful of the lot, despite being home to the trickiest challenges the game offers.
Testament to this is how rarely Lonely Mountains: Downhill becomes frustrating, despite fundamentally being a game of mastery. To succeed at the game’s challenges requires a lot of practice, trial, and error as you piece together the perfect run. That means a lot of “failure”, in the sense that you will hit that “Retry” button over and over and over again, but the serene atmosphere helps to—rightfully—contextualise those little setbacks as steps toward success. Even if you’re not explicitly thinking of failure as a part of the process of mastery, it becomes a natural, subconscious extension of the mood that Lonely Mountains works so hard to build.
It helps, too, that retrying is made as quick and painless as possible. After crashing and hitting the retry button, you respawn at the last checkpoint almost instantaneously, without having to sit through lengthy death animations or loading screens. For crash limit challenges, the game doesn’t actually start tallying crashes until after you pass a trail’s first checkpoint—the developers knew that people would end up restarting the whole level if they crashed before that, in order to make the crash not count, and decided to cut out the middleman. It’s a nice touch.
Lonely Mountains: Downhill does have the occasional moment of genuine frustration, however. The game uses a fixed camera, the perspective of which doesn’t always lend itself to the demands of a trail—in particular, big jumps that sit at an odd angle to the camera’s view can be tricky to line up properly. Sometimes, a piece of scenery will block your view just long enough to make you lose your bearings, and if you accidentally find yourself going the wrong way on a flat section of the track, there’s nothing to tell you that until you get to the end of the flat and see the trail going up instead of down.
Such moments are rare and short-lived, though, and do little to dull the peaceful excitement that drives the game. To play Lonely Mountains: Downhill is to disappear into the wilderness and let nature wash over you, while also hurtling across precarious terrain at high speed. It manages to be, simultaneously, an adrenaline rush and a moment of peace.
Lonely Mountains: Downhill is developed by Megaton Industries and published by Thunderful Group. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.