Thursday, May 23, 2019

Descenders is Great, But Probably Didn't Need To Be A Roguelike

Roguelike extreme downhill mountain bike sim Descenders is finally out as a full 1.0 release and stands as easily one of the best games, if not the best, to come out of Xbox Game Preview thus far. It isn't without flaws, though, the biggest of which is that I feel like the roguelike element hurts it more than helps, but as a complete overall package Descenders' great feeling gameplay and excellent replay value mostly make up for any frustrations that come from being a rogue-bike. See our full impressions for more.

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First off, I mean it when I say Descenders is the best game to come out of Xbox Game Preview. The reasoning behind that is that it was a competent and good playing game right from the start that got better during early access. Compare that to bigger titles like ARK: Survival Evolved or We Happy Few, which had massive problems that desperately needed fixing BUT NEVER GOT FIXED during their time in early access. I was honestly getting pretty skeptical of Xbox Game Preview because so many games launched in a crappy state and just kept getting more "stuff" added on rather than fixing their issues. Descenders launched into early access as a solid game that was then refined and expanded and perfected during early access, and then left early access and released as a full final product you could buy with confidence, which is how this whole process is supposed to work, rather than as a full MSRP disappointing work in progress disguised as a final release like ARK or We Happy Few. Seriously, though, screw ARK while we're on the subject. It is one of the most disappointing games ever.

Descenders Microsoft Store Page (it is also on Xbox Game Pass)

With that out of the way, what IS Descenders? It is a procedurally generated downhill mountain bike sim that is basically the closest we've come to a new Tony Hawk's Pro Skater-style game in about ten years. It kind of straddles the line between easy arcade pick up and play controls with sim physics - so more like Project 8 than oldschool THPS 1-4 - but it still really gives you that same satisfying feeling of precise controls that make you feel like you can accomplish anything and everything you want in the game as long as your skills are up to the task. Descenders gives you the tools and sets you loose to go have fun with it. I love that.

What I don't love so much is Descenders' insistence on being a roguelike. The gist of the game is that your only real objective is just to make it down each course to the goal at the bottom, which opens up the next level, and then you repeat until you get to the end of a world and move on to the next. You only have a limited number of "lives", however, so if you crash too much you "die" and have to restart the whole game (or at least that particular world) over again. Balancing this out is that you can earn extra lives by completing objectives within each level as well as unique perks by doing tricks and gaining rep points which attract new team members.

This creates a unique risk / reward dynamic in that it makes the game much easier if you take risks and earn power-ups (things like being able to land big jumps easier, for example) and go out of your way to earn extra lives, but if you screw up and blow through your limited number of lives trying to earn them you lose it all and start at square one. The result is that you can't really play it safe and just carefully get to the end of a level because you need the powerups in order to survive the boss jump at the end of each world that is required to move on to the next, but at the same time trying to play more risky results in a lot of dying and frustration that impedes your progress. Honestly, I'm fine with dying and restarting a level from the top of the mountain. That's totally normal. Dying too many times and restarting a whole world, or the whole game entirely, just ain't very fun after a while. I know, I know, "Git gud", but I just don't understand why Descenders needs to be so punishing.

I can understand the desire to make the game more interesting and challenging than just letting players tear ass downhill over and over again with no repercussions, but having a limited number of lives detracts quite a bit from the fun. Chasing high scores on each level or having more objectives to complete in each level would have filled that role of giving players something to do without being overly punishing the way it is now.

It's a shame, too, because I love pretty much everything else about Descenders. The gameplay feels really good. The presentation is nice and the visuals get better the deeper into the game you go and you reach new worlds. The procedural generation means you have an infinite number of levels to play. Descenders has everything going for it except it roadblocks your progression by having a silly outdated thing like a limited number of lives. Please don't misunderstand the tone of this article. I still love it, and still recommend it to extreme sports fans, but Descenders probably didn't need to be a roguelike. 

Disclosure: A review code was provided by the publisher.

Please note also that we are not doing traditional reviews any longer. See our Review Policy page for information on our new approach where we focus on discussion around specific likes / dislikes about a title rather than traditional boilerplate.