When it comes to Descenders, we’re reminded of some sage advice from Better Off Dead’s Charles De Mar: “Go that way, really fast. If something gets in your way… turn!”
The art of going downhill at a dangerous speed is nothing new – it’s been the bread and butter of all manner of snow activities for years, and of course that’s led to video games built around the irrevocable pull of gravity on a slope (such as Ubisoft’s Steep). Separately, games built around performing precision acrobatic tricks while moving along a course has been a staple of video games for decades, as anyone who’s encountered a Tony Hawk game will know. In more recent times, however, the massive success of the Trials series of side-view bike-stunt games has brought the stunt-game focus firmly to two wheels rather than four.
The people behind Descenders are clearly huge fans of both going that way really fast, and making a spectacular turn any time something gets in the way. Except this time, you’re going to be doing this on a pushbike. Yes, you too will hear the BMX Bandits theme playing quietly somewhere at the back of your head as you hit R2 and launch yourself once more towards almost certain pain and injury, all in the name of gaining that first place on the global leaderboard.
The core gameplay is simple – after a short tutorial, you’re thrown into the competition proper, taking on successive downhill tracks for the chance to earn rep and boost your standing in the rankings. But don’t think that you’re going to get away with learning your way around the various courses and perfecting every bend, every jump, every surprise – because the courses in Descenders are procedurally generated. Yes, that means every time you play, the layout of the track is going to be completely random (though each track is built based on a set of “rules” to try to keep difficulty consistent).
Now, procedural generation can work wonders for a game like No Man’s Sky, where you roll up on a planet that’s just been conjured out of nothing and find a world to explore that nobody’s seen before. In Descenders, that new world is every single track – and that means no tips from your friends or the internet about how to get the best time on one of them, and no learning through trial and error. For some, that’s going to be a welcome thing – every run is fresh and you’ll rely on your reaction time, skill and sheer luck to get through intact. But for those who prefer the learned precision they can gain while perfecting runs in a Trials game, it might be more of a journey a little too far into the unpredictable.
“Yes, you too will hear the BMX Bandits theme playing quietly somewhere at the back of your head as you hit R2 and launch yourself once more towards almost certain pain and injury…”
Descenders arrives on PS4 a full year and a half after its Xbox One and PC versions, but the good news is that the time’s been used to polish and enhance it. The game runs butter-smooth at what looks to be a rock-solid 60fps, and when you wipe out on a course (and you will… a lot) it’s an instant reset to the start at the press of a button and you’re off again with zero down time. Controls are tight and responsive, but the camera can get a little frustrating at times (though that’s more of a problem in the hub area than in the races themselves).
So, is Descenders for you? Well, if you’ve enjoyed Trials and always wished it could be served up with a healthy serve of speed and a side helping of the unexpected, this one’s definitely the game for you. If you prefer your racing games – downhill or not – to be something you can learn and master, this one may test your patience a bit. But as a budget title, it’s great value for those who click with its often challenging gameplay – and the game’s still-strong user base on its other two platforms (with Switch to come) suggests a healthy online future on the PS4 for those who enjoy the simple pleasures of beating the world.
Descenders is available August 25 on PS4, with Switch to follow at a later date.