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Descenders is a fun mountain biking game wrapped in a bland roguelike

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I don’t think I like the game Descenders ostensibly is, but I enjoy playing. It’s a downhill mountain biking game with dangerous speeds and even more dangerous stunts, including leaping through a ring of fire over of a moving train. This is fun. The roguelikelike campaign structure this is all built into, eh, I don’t think it has added any enjoyment. But it is very fun to stack a double-backflip, slam into a rock, and watch your ragdoll corpse rocket downhill. It’s a good reminder to ride whichever way you enjoy, expectations and pressures be damned.

A tiny downhill run with the gentlest stunts in the first-person camera

Descenders is a game of high-speed, high-stunting downhill mountain biking. Its main mode is a roguelikelike career campaign where, in the style of Slay The Spire, you plot a course between mysterious nodes on maps to reach the end of a sector and battle a boss. The map nodes are courses of different styles (and sometimes with bonus opportunities for progression), and the boss battle is a ridiculous giant stunt over a moving train or chasm or volcano or such. But you only have a limited, persistent amount of health, losing points by crashing and regaining them by completing bonus objectives on tracks.


Picking crew perks in a Descenders screenshot.
Perky

Along a run, you level up by doing fancy riding (fast speeds, nailing tricks, and such) then can pick perks in the form of hiring ‘crew members’. Some influence the shape of generated tracks, maybe making them straighter or steeper, adding more checkpoints, or reducing obstacles. Some improve your bike handling, giving it more off-road traction or bunny-hopping higher. And some affect the campaign map, like scouting more map nodes farther ahead.

It’s fun to race downhill. The bike fights a little at speed, so nailing a corner is rewarding. Stunting takes a delicate touch to properly roll and align your bike, riding a fine line between hot tricks and catastrophic ragdolling. This is felt even stronger if you opt for the first-camera person, where you have to intuit and trust that you’ve righted yourself as you spin arse-over-tit with only the sky in sight. I hate this camera, and I don’t want to play any other way (it really makes me wish the excellent cycling of Riders Republic didn’t cut to third-person for tricks). And if I stack it, hey, I like ragdolling too.

Descenders is on Game Pass, so if you’re a subscriber I would recommend having a go to check out cool stuntz.

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My issue with Descenders is: after playing for a few hours, I’ve found little enjoyable or interesting in the structure of a track or a campaign. You don’t need to follow the laid-out course at all, you can always gun it off-road to the finish line. So if a track isn’t interesting, cut to the end. And if a jump looks too risky, ride round it. The health system discourages taking risks, which discourages doing bonus objectives because the reward for risking your neck is one meagre health point, which all discourages doing daft cool stuff—and doing daft cool stuff is what makes this game fun.

The campaign map stuff, likewise, doesn’t interest me when I’ll cycle whichever way I please on tracks anyway. I’ll unlock cosmetics slower, and expanding my crew slower could cause problems later in a run (especially on big boss jumps), but it doesn’t bother me. I’d rather throw everything away and lark about on a dead-end run than get mired in in boring long-term planning. A game offering uninteresting decisions is worse than offering none.


Sunset falls on the campaign map in a Descenders screenshot.
Take too long on a run, hitting too many nodes, and the sun will start to set, making tracks dimmer

Descenders does have a Freeride mode where you can feed in track generation parameters, but it’s less fun because you don’t see other players’ ghosts stunting about. It also has a range of bike parks for tricks, and I do like that the starting hub is a multiplayer hub with other players larking about. I’d still rather the core mode not be so bland. It’s easy to play backseat game designer but dang, I’d be thrilled with cycling and stunting like this in maybe more of a Trackmania shape.

From watching how other people’s ghosts ride, I suspect many players are also here for a good time, not a long time. Everyone I see doing a long downhill wheelies into boulders or wildly over-rotating jumps won’t get far into the campaign, but they look to be enjoying themselves. I notice that when Brendy played, he likewise enjoyed stunting about but didn’t care for the roguelikelike dressing or unlocking cosmetics. I think that’s fine. If a game has enough strong elements for you to enjoy it your own way, that’s grand.

This is the final post of my Tour De Jeux, though I did notice a game called Bicycle Rider Simulator hit Steam today and- no. No. Across the weeks, I’ve tried to highlight many types of cycling and many types of riders. In some games, I treated the challenge seriously and tried to win. In others, I took a serious game and tried to bend into into a form by cycling in a weird way I wanted. I was just happy to be on a bicycle, as I am in the real world.

I know some people worry about needing expensive bikes and flash kit, or worry about not being fast enough, or not being brave enough, or not taking it seriously enough, or not doing a ‘proper’ type of cycling. To hell with that. There are so many ways to ride a bike and I’ve tried to share it all. I hope you’ve felt that too across this series.

Do you like bikes? Are you enjoying what you’re doing with your bike? That’s great. Could we ride together sometime? Real bikes or game bikes, your pick.

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