Descenders

A cycling game any racer could take some notes on.

When a friend told me they found just the game for me and linked a roguelite game about bicycling, I quickly dismissed the thought. Sure, I dabble in racing games but that’s due to what they offer me: playing with a racing wheel. It’s not because I enjoy racing. That’s not to say I hate racing, but it just feels average. While there have obviously been major improvements in the genre over the years, the basic gameplay has largely been the same since its inception. What could a game about racing bicycles offer me that a traditional racer couldn’t? And including roguelite elements? Sounds to me like developers shoving mechanics into places they don’t belong for another feature to include on a bulleted list. Unexpectedly, the developers RageSquid knew exactly what they were doing.

If you’re not interested in doing tricks, the game will still accommodate your play style… There is only one rule to win: cross the finish line.

Most games that boast about roguelite elements lean into them heavily where successful runs can depend on luck, often feeling like you’re grinding until the perfect situation falls into place. Descenders however manages to capitalize on the rush from a perfect run without bad RNG ruining the others. Players accumulate points (referred to as Rep) throughout the game performing tricks and the like. Similar to Skate, tricks are performed almost solely by using the control sticks, with the left analog stick controlling rotation (front flips, back flips, and 360s) and the right performing tricks depending if the stick is tilting up, down, left/right, diagonal up, or diagonal down. Despite there only being a handful of tricks, they’re ample for the scope of the game.

In order to perform these tricks, the tracks are randomly generated with ramps, half pipes, and other stunt obstacles to provide ample airtime. After enough rep is earned, new crew members are unlocked who functions as perks. These range from lowering the curvature of tracks, to lowering the speed penalty of riding off road, to increasing the height of bunny hops. If you’re not interested in doing tricks, the game will still accommodate your play style.

Other ways to gain rep are simply reaching high speeds or nearly missing an obstacle. While most racing games encourage you to never leave the track when possible—and while there is a small speed penalty—Descenders never forces you to stay on the track. You can ride around the ramps and the game never tells you that you need to go over them. In fact, no matter how far off the track you go, you’re never prompted to find your way back. There is only one rule to win: cross the finish line. Rather than it being technically possible but not encouraged, the game goes as far as to reward it: certain crew members remove the speed penalty or lower the number of off-track obstacles.

“The synergy of all the mechanics… makes this game fun, whatever that may be for you.”

As you travel from track to track, you’ll have a choice of which randomly generated maps to pick with a brief overview of stats broken down in steepness, curviness, and stunts. These give you a surprisingly informative preview of what to expect as the difficulty rating feels very consistent, allowing you to focus on playing how you want to play. Some tracks will indicate a possible sponsorship opportunity, which fall into the three aforementioned playstyles: tricks, speed, or off-roading. Lastly, each time you begin a track, a random bonus objective is assigned, aligning randomly with—again—different playstyles: never brake, get a near miss, do a front flip, etc. Completing the bonus objective grants you an extra life. While I said the only rule to win is crossing the finish line, I neglected to mention there is a 0th rule: don’t crash. It’s straight forward enough: the harder you crash, the more lives you lose, and when you lose all your lives, it’s game over. The synergy of all the mechanics combined with the ability to gain life back after creating mistakes highlights whatever makes this game fun, whatever that may be for you.

On top of this, there’s a large amount of cosmetic items to complete, new levels to unlock, daily challenges, Wipeout style obstacle courses, and multiplayer to keep you coming back. In fact, the multiplayer is virtually always on. When you begin a run, other players are automatically in the same lobby as you. While you see them on the track and can race or show off, there is no direct interaction. You can’t hit other players and there’s no incentive to race them other than your own personal goals. As you progress, you’ll be able to choose the same or other tracks as the players in your lobby, allowing you to meet up with others through each play through. Alternatively, if you start a multiplayer match and have friends join your game, each player votes which tracks to go down and which perks to obtain, while the party leader gets to choose. This allows each player to race under the same circumstances, allowing you to compete more directly. Although I’ve gone on and on about the various features and functions of the game, they play a fairly minor role in the game.

At its core, Descenders makes cycling fun. It doesn’t try to replicate reality: landing tricks is fairly forgiving and there is a lot of room for error without it ruining a run. Even without the aforementioned features, the basic movement creates an enjoyable experience only enhanced by the rest. Whether or not you think you’d enjoy a cycling game, Descenders has the freedom to play how you want and a level of polish rare to see in any game, surely making it worth your time.

Descenders is available digitally on Steam and the Microsoft Store, physically for PlayStation 4, and is coming soon to the Nintendo Switch.

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