Procedural generation. Roguelike. Mountain biking. One of these three is not like the others. Still, RageSquid makes it all come alive in Descenders. Taking you from lush forests to rolling foothills, you're given a bike, a limited pool of health, and an itch to get some serious ground underneath your tires. Descenders is RageSquid's third game as a team and a marked departure from the earlier Action Henk. With fine-tuned physics and a great gameplay loop, Descenders is a great game for any extreme sports fans.
Descenders starts you with a basic bike, some crummy clothes, and a brief tutorial. After getting a mouthful of dirt, you're let loose on the trails. You're free to practice as much as you want, but the meat of Descenders takes place on scored tracks. Every run starts the same: you've got a limited pool of health, and an itch to grab major air and speed. You lose health by hitting obstacles or taking a bad landing, alternatively referred to as "bailing." Bail too hard, and you can lose two or more health. Fear not, for you gain health by completing bonus objectives. These objectives can be everything from completing a track within a certain time limit or performing a trick, to never braking or letting off the accelerator.
Each trail in Descenders is randomly generated according to three parameters: steepness, curves, and stunts. A high level of steepness is self-explanatory, but more curves mean your path will wind back and forth in a switchback motion, and a high stunt level provides a lot of ramps, pits, and other obstacles to navigate. There are also level modifiers you might encounter, outside of the parameters. These might be restricting your camera to a first-person perspective, or giving you no trail at all. The wide variety of modifiers means you're never at a loss for a new trail to break in, and also turns the map into a sort of strategy game, as you attempt to plan out a route you think you can easily achieve.
Where Descenders sets itself apart though is the physics system. From bunny hops to attack position and all the pumping in between, there's a surprisingly complex movement system. Feel free to bike around a large berm, but you'll be missing an opportunity to set up a slick slide leading into a massive jump. There's a fine-tuned air control system too, and when jumping across canyons or over trains, you'll need to use every bit of fine motor control to stay on two wheels.
Every trick, wheelie, backflip and 360 in Descenders earns you rep. Rep is a sort of score meter, but it has two larger uses. Inside of runs, earning rep unlocks "Crew Members." Crew Members are positive modifiers that apply to only that run, such as widening the path or increasing your bunny hop force. They are essential in longer runs when you're trying to scrape together as much health as you can. After a run is complete, success or failure, your rep is added to a running total, which nets you some cosmetic items. I preferred using a garish green jersey and shorts, but there are different bikes, helmets, and goggles to unlock.
The four locales feel distinct in Descenders, and each requires different skills to traverse. The Highlands is a series of gentle hills, with rocks and haybales strewn about. Here is a good place to practice tricks, and get a feel for momentum, because the next three levels are not going to be quite so forgiving. Next, you move to the Forest, where the trails curve past dense stands of trees and through campsites. The Forest isn't nearly as good as the Highlands, if only because you'll be spending a lot of time sticking to the trail, to avoid bailing. It's exhilarating to dodge trees and weave around cabins, less so to take a bad fall and chew up two or three health.
After the Forest, we come to the Canyon. Here, it's all about setting up giant jumps and stringing together long tricks in the air. Almost every level that I played in the Canyon had a considerable elevation change, meaning I sprinted through the valleys and over the steppes in almost every run. Conversely, the Peaks is the culmination of difficulty and technical ability. Micro-corrections of your bike midair are essential to surviving even the most basic jumps, and I barely lasted the first track before eating through my health reserves, and I was forced to start over. Each region features a gigantic "boss jump," where you soar over a train, over a canyon or over a fire watch tower. Complete each boss jump three times, and you unlock a permanent shortcut to the next region, so you aren't at a total loss of progress.
RageSquid partnered with drum-and-bass label Liquicity to bring you a chilled-out soundtrack. There are no particular standout tracks, but the downtempo music keeps Descenders from veering into frustrating territory. This, when coupled with the soft visuals lends Descenders to creating a zen-like experience in its environments. RageSquid has taken a lot of care to make sure you aren't pressured to chase after better and better times, and you're free to take tracks at your own pace. Everything internally makes you speed through the tracks, but there's a lot of care hidden in the visuals if you're willing to seek it out.
Descenders is an ultimately surprising sports game. It's not often you see a sports game that's simultaneously relaxing and adrenaline-filled. With a lot of replay value to be found it its seemingly endless combinations of difficulty and modifiers, Descenders is a natural step forward for sports games. With a fine-tuned movement system, Descenders is a satisfying game, even for those unfamiliar with mountain biking.
Descenders was previewed on PC via Steam Early Access with a code provided by the publisher and is also available on Xbox One via Game Preview.